An incredible new opera festival is coming to Essex

Layer Marney Tower and Essex countryside

Layer Marney Tower will provide a stunning backdrop - Credit: Layer Marney Tower

Musician and conductor Orlando Jopling is making opera more accessible at the inaugural Essex Opera Festival - by Julie Lucas

Orlando Jopling Wild Arts

Orlando Jopling - Credit: Karolina Kuras

Sussex has Glyndebourne, Bucks has Garsington and Surrey has Grange Park. Now Essex has its own opera festival too.  

‘Opera has all the ingredients for a wonderful night out,’ explains an enthusiastic Orlando Jopling, founder of Wild Arts, the brains behind the inaugural Essex Summer Opera Festival. Orlando is passionate about introducing opera to all. A multi-talented musician, he grew up in Fingringhoe near Colchester and went on to play the cello professionally before moving into conducting with credits including the Royal Opera House. ‘To me, opera is the best of theatre; you get the drama and the fun, and also beautiful melodies and great music.’ 

Orlando Jopling is a musician and composer, and founder of Wild Arts

Orlando Jopling is a musician and composer, and founder of Wild Arts - Credit: Wild Arts

The three-day festival will be held at Layer Marney Tower, the 500-year-old Tudor palace near Colchester. Orlando describes the setting as ‘absolutely magical’. ‘I do think this is going to appeal to a really wide audience because of the amazing venue. It’s such an enjoyable thing to do, have a picnic and then listen to opera.’ 

The opera in question is Mozart’s Così fan tutte, a comedy of young lovers tying themselves in romantic knots. Farcical yet profound, the story explores the desires, flaws and temptations that make us human. ‘It’s a story about love, fidelity and testing relationships,’ says Orlando. Wild Arts have transported the original tale from 18th century Naples to 1970s Cambridge, where a group of buttoned-up students get a tutorial in fidelity. 

‘If people think of opera as singing loud and a little bit overwhelming, this isn’t that,' Orlando says. ‘The story trips along and there are some really funny moments as well some beautiful slow moments; I think Mozart has everything.’ 

Sung in English, performances will take place in Layer Marney’s newly refurbished Quintin’s Barn, which boasts first-class acoustics. ‘It was Nick and Sheila’s (Layer Marney's owners) lockdown project,’  Orlando explains. ‘My lockdown project was building a garden shed, theirs was completely rebuilding this enormous barn!’ 

Tenor Richard Dowling

Tenor Richard Dowling will play Ferrando - Credit: Lucy J Toms Photography / Wild Arts

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Audiences are welcome to picnic and enjoy Layer Marney’s beautiful gardens as part of the festival experience, and the iconic tower will also be open for those who wish to climb to the top for glorious views of the River Blackwater and the Essex landscape. Hopefully the weather will be kind, I say. ‘We are very stoical,’ Orlando replies of the British attitude to weather. But there will be somewhere under cover where people can eat. 

There are three performances: the opening night will include a VIP reception for donors, while on Saturday night the audience is encouraged to don posh frocks and evening wear. The Sunday matinee will be a more relaxed affair, suitable for families with discounted tickets available for under-25s. 

‘Saturday evening you can come early, set yourself up and have a glass of bubbly and canapés, see act one then come back into the garden and have your main picnic for an hour and half and then go back in for act two. If you don’t want to dress up, come on the Sunday, have a picnic lunch, then it’s a three o'clock show with a half an hour interval. Bring the family - it’s really good fun, it’s ridiculous slapstick comedy. Prices start at £35, which is really quite reasonable.’ 

‘It is for everyone,’ he says. ‘It’s not going to be elitist and you won't think "I don’t know when to clap." There are no rules.’ 

The festival is the culmination of a 35-date UK tour entitled ‘Opera Evenings’ – other local venues include Abbey Hall, Suffolk. Orlando hopes that it will become an annual event. ‘There’s no summer opera festival in the whole of East Anglia. We have plans for the next five years. I’m so excited by it.’ 

Ensemble musician performing with Wild Arts

Ensemble musician performing with Wild Arts - Credit: Lucy J Toms Photography / Wild Arts

‘There is no concert hall dedicated to music in the whole of north Essex, and my long-term dream is to build one and make it environmentally sustainable. The wood of the barn is perfect for acoustics; it just makes it sound beautiful.’ 

Plans for 2023 and beyond include a young talent programme, including backstage and performance apprenticeships, and a scheme for primary schools. 

‘As much as I love music for its own sake, I’m also passionate about making a positive social impact,’ says Orlando. ‘During the pandemic, it became abundantly clear to me what matters most in life: community and our planet. Opera can sometimes appear to operate in its own world, but it doesn’t have to be like that.’ 

‘If you have been fascinated about what opera is, this is the place to come along and give it a go.’ 

Performances of Così fan tutte are on 7, 9 and 10 July – for more information and to buy tickets online, visit wildarts.org.uk