Theatres Seed Fund: Report by Prof Suzanne Aspden

Professor Suzanne Aspden successfully applied for the Theatres Seed Fund 2018/2019. Here, she reports back on her collaborative project with Waterperry Opera Festival. 

 

Opera outdoors, especially in Britain, with its changeable weather, seems an inherently risky and even unattractive idea. Yet the phenomenon of country-house opera, which often features outdoor performance, has burgeoned over the past twenty to thirty years, even while opera in more traditional urban venues in the UK has struggled. Part of the reason for country-house opera’s success seems to be down to the idyllic locations used – something that the companies’ publicists always make much of. But part of its attraction also seems to relate to the way those locations are used: the encouragement most companies offer for visitors to enjoy the environment – bringing picnics for the lengthy dining intervals, dressing up – marks this form of opera-going as part of the so-called ‘experience economy’ (Pine and Gilmore, 1999), where the experience matters more than the product consumed.

The rise of immersive theatre over the same period is obviously aligned to the experience economy. Indeed, it’s currently fashionable to talk about ‘immersion’ across the arts. But its conceptualisation and application vary markedly from music to plastic arts to the theatre – and for opera it raises a number of technical and practical problems.  So when the newly formed Waterperry Opera Festival (founded 2018), which performs in the grounds and house of Waterperry in Oxfordshire, described what they did as ‘immersive’, I decided it was time to investigate what this meant for them in a little more depth.

For the four-day duration of their season 25-28 July 2019, I immersed myself in the company’s activities, attending all the productions – indoors, outdoors, and in the marquee, participating in and/or recording all the pre-performance talks, and interviewing the company staff, supporters and performers. Most importantly, a brief questionnaire circulated to the opera-goers solicited their responses on the idea of operatic immersion and their experience of country-house opera more broadly.

The results that have emerged (and are still emerging) show a wide variation in engagement with the concept of immersion, ranging from those who understand the term through its application in theatre or performance arts, to those who apply it in a more commonsense fashion. For the company’s directors and key supporters, their conceptualisation of immersion seems to be characterised by an aspiration to developing a community spirit for Waterperry village, visitors to the Waterperry gardens, and for the opera-goers. This aspiration chimes interestingly with a long history of village festivals (back to Glastonbury in the early 20th century, and Aldeburgh in the mid-century), but also with a rather clique-ish spirit amongst regular attendees of present-day country-house opera (and particularly the more exclusive enterprises). It sets up a potentially revealing tension between localism and tourism that deserves further exploration.

The findings from this study will help Waterperry themselves, as a young company interested in innovation, to refine their approach and think more critically about what it means to be immersive. Other companies are also interested in the outcome of this research – including not just country-house opera enterprises, but also innovative urban companies such as Silent Opera. Garsington Opera are currently discussing conducting a survey on the communitarian nature of country-house opera-going.

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