MY STORY Reaching the young with the power of opera
The conductor Nicholas Chalmers, 39, is also the artistic director of Nevill Holt Opera, founded in the Leicestershire countryside by the Carphone Warehouse tycoon David Ross. For its sixth season this summer the award-winning Nevill Holt Opera Festival will have its own, brand-new, theatre
How did Nevill Holt Opera come about and how did you become involved?
Nevill Holt Opera was established in 2013 when I met David Ross, the owner of the estate at Nevill Holt. David and I shared a clear mission to establish a festival which would enrich lives through the power of music and put the promotion of young artists alongside a strong education programme at the centre of all our activity. I am lucky enough to have been involved in the establishing of two UK opera companies with similar missions; Second Movement and Northern Ireland Opera, and I think that experience helped convince David Ross to appoint me as artistic director.
Where is Nevill Holt Opera and what is its history?
Nevill Holt is situated in Leicestershire and is also near the boundaries of Rutland and Northamptonshire. Our stunning theatre is on the prow of a hill, overlooking the Welland valley. We are well located for our audience, an hour from London by train.
The house at Nevill Holt has a fascinating history. The Kirkby family owned the land from the 13th century through until the mid-17th century. It was sold, in 1631, to the Nevill Family who gave the estate its name. The Nevills were a major Catholic family in Leicestershire and there was a flourishing Catholic community at Holt. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the house was occupied by Nancy Cunard and the estate had many famous visitors over the years – even Sir Thomas Beecham at one stage. Since 2000 the estate has been owned by businessman and philanthropist David Ross, who has breathed a whole new lease of life into this historic estate – not least through the opera festival.
Does the company have an existence outside its summer festival?
Nevill Holt Opera has year-round activity – whether it’s concerts, members’ events, free community events, or education work in schools - our education programme is central to our activity. Every year we travel to schools in the East Midlands and beyond to deliver opera workshops to hundreds of students. We are partnered with the David Ross Educational Trust (DRET) and we help enrich the musical lives of some of the 12,000 children who are educated at the DRET academy schools. Our young artist programme runs throughout the year. We provide opera coachings and training to our young performers all year round, we have also toured our productions to Northern Ireland and we regularly perform concerts in Leicester Cathedral. Our members are essential supporters of our work, and we invite them to the estate and showcase our young artists at concerts in our theatre and chapel for events in the spring and at Christmas time. We have also staged concerts in Leicester city centre, and this summer will visit the Sage Gateshead with our production of Figaro.
Does Nevill Holt Opera have a mission, and can you measure its success?
Our mission is clear. To enrich lives, and empower young people, through the power of music and the Arts. That is our mission statement. We achieve this by creating world-class opera in the East Midlands. We develop new operatic talent emerging from leading UK educational establishments. We deliver our Education & Community Programme in areas of limited Arts provision, in partnership with the David Ross Education Trust. Since 2013, over 10,000 have attended performances at NHO. We work hard to develop new audiences in the East Midlands - in 2017, 85% of our audience came from the East Midlands region, and 51% of them were new to NHO.
You try to cast younger performers, but is the age demography of your audience changing too?
We are delighted that people of all ages and demographics attend Nevill Holt Opera productions. We are well located and with reach of major UK towns and cities, and our artistic programme is deliberately tailored to cater for both the opera connoisseur and opera novice. The 2018 season offers a classic top ten show in Le Nozze di Figaro and Powder Her Face by the leading contemporary composer Thomas Ades will possibly appeal to a wider and potentially a younger audience. Ticket sales are tremendous, and we only have a few tickets left for Powder Her Face – but we plan to make sure we have enough to launch our under 30s scheme this year.
You won the Best Event at the Leicestershire Tourism Awards 2017 for your production of Britten’s Noye’s Fludde last year. Has this opera been staged outside the festival or will it be revived?
This production was originally created for Northern Ireland Opera as part of the Cultural Olympiad in 2012. We performed the piece in Belfast Zoo with 150 local children. It is directed by Oliver Mears (director of opera, The Royal Opera House), designed by Simon Holdsworth, and toured Beijing and Shanghai before arriving at Nevill Holt for our 2017 season. Each time the show is revived we establish a new cast of children and orchestra. We were delighted to have children from the DRET, orchestral players from Northampton and the Rutland Music Services joining us at Nevill Holt. It was wonderful project and we also partnered with The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. This colourful and heart-warming production is certainly in our plans to revive again.
The 2018 festival is combined with a sculpture exhibition. How did that come about?
Audiences at NHO can enjoy outstanding pieces of modern British sculpture, which feature throughout the garden. Works by Antony Gormley, Allen Jones, Marc Quinn, Nic Fiddian Green, Conrad Shawcross and Sean Henry feature, among others. It’s an exceptional collection, and our regular audience members love to spot new pieces each summer
Describe the new theatre that opens for this year’s festival, who has designed it and how was it paid for?
Our new 400-seat theatre is now rapidly taking shape, to designs by Stirling Prize winners Witherford Watson Mann. The stunning new theatre will better match the top quality of the NHO productions, which have outgrown their temporary home. Focussing on NHO’s mission to nurture and encourage emerging artists, our new space has been designed to support young performers. It will be an intimate and supportive space, to elevate and assist their talented voices. Acoustic excellence is our key goal. Working closely with Sound Space Vision (acousticians and theatre consultants), layout and materials are designed to achieve a warm sound, good sightlines and a more versatile stage and orchestra pit, supporting a wider repertoire.
With the festival having its own purpose-built theatre, will it expand with, perhaps, more than one production and will the venue be used for public performance at other times of the year?
We have ambitious plans for the festival in the coming years. We believe in increasing the investment in all activity, especially our education programme, which takes place off site in schools in the surrounding regions. We also have community projects and other activities for our members which take place on and off site. Beyond the festival we have a spring festival, where we will be opening up the theatre and inviting our members to join us for musical events. We aim to stage more productions and increase the nights on sale, but we also realise how special the environment is at Nevill Holt and there is limit to the footfall the beautiful grounds can withstand.
Opera is difficult and expensive to produce. How can you afford it, is country house opera reviving and do you see a growing audience?
We have seen a continuous growth in our membership since 2013. We are so grateful to all our members and supporters for underpinning the work that we do both on and off stage. We have an experienced team of theatre producers who work with us to deliver our productions. It is a difficult business, but it is rewarding and with the right approach to finding financial support and engaging with your core audience it is perfectly possible to find a sustainable model for this growing industry.