The company’s next property is at present empty land in Surrey — but Wasfi Kani has a strategy
Wasfi Kani, founder of Grange Park Operai. Photo: Howard Sooley
Standing on the edge of an 18th-century walled garden, Wasfi Kani takes a breath, opens her lungs and starts to sing “Deh vieni, non tardar”, Susanna’s exquisite aria from The Marriage of Figaro. Her voice abruptly fills the air, swelling and reverberating in the all-natural acoustic of the enclosed bare plot.
“Isn’t it superb?” she says, relishing the final notes as they dissipate in the spring air.
It is a ideal demonstration of Kani’s ability to conjure a scene of romantic high culture in what is, in reality, an empty space — a talent she will want in abundance as she executes an ambitious strategy to construct a new £10m country house opera venue in the south of England, with no public funding or organizing permission (as yet) and with tiny far more than a year ahead of the curtain is due to come up on the opening performance.
In spite of the scale of the process, Kani seems undaunted — simply because she has carried out it just before. Founder and chief executive of Grange Park Opera, she raised a lot more than £3m in 2002 to transform a decrepit neoclassical orangery on the estate of the Baring loved ones in Northington Grange, Hampshire, into an opera venue, developing a summer season festival to bear comparison with Glyndebourne and Garsington.
But soon after a falling-out with the Barings over the terms of a new lease, this summer’s efficiency of Tristan und Isolde will be the last the business offers at the Orangery — a moment she predicts will be “very poignant”.
It also presented her with a problem. Top performers for opera festivals are typically booked three or four years ahead, so Kani discovered herself in urgent want of a venue for her 2017 season, which is to open on June eight with Tosca, starring the Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja.
So she has come to West Horsley Location, a 15th-century manor home set in 300 acres of rolling farmland and woods close to Guildford, Surrey. The Grade 1 listed building was the house of Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe, but when she died in 2014 at the age of 99, it passed — to his surprise — to her wonderful-nephew, the broadcaster Bamber Gascoigne.
In search of productive uses for the 50-room home and estate, Gascoigne made the house over to the Mary Roxburghe Trust, as a functionality centre and a place for the study of arts and crafts, and — and with a adore of opera — has given his blessing to Kani’s vision. Confusingly, Kani is retaining Grange Park Opera as the name of the opera company, even even though it will no longer carry out at Grange Park. GPO is a registered charity funded by ticket sales and donations.
At its new home, visitors to GPO will enter through the mature gardens, walking amongst a series of box-bordered green spaces till they attain a gate in the mighty “crinkle crankle” garden walls of 1710. “I’ve got far more picnic spots than I know what to do with,” Kani says.
Beyond, in an location presently thick with brambles, willow, ash and oak, will be her horseshoe-shaped, 650-seat Theatre in the Woods, which she describes as a “drum with decorated brickwork”, echoing the elaborate exterior of the major home, created by GPO’s architectural consultant David Lloyd Jones, TRA and Ramboll. The first performances will take spot in an incomplete shell, shrouded in scaffolding, but Kani argues this will operate in her favour. “It’s easier to raise cash for an unfinished constructing. People really like going on a journey.”
Kani’s formidable reputation as a fundraiser is evident: because she began picking up the telephone in November, she has confirmed pledges for about half the £10m, like a promise of £1m which arrived days soon after our meeting. “I’ve but to send out a piece of printed material,” she says. The philanthropist Dame Vivien Duffield is co-chair of the appeal board, and she has also had guidance from Niall FitzGerald, former Unilever head and now chair of the Leverhulme Trust, as effectively as John Botts, chairman of Glyndebourne.
Besides tapping individual connections for bigger cheques and exploiting her database of 25,000 names, she is offering naming rights for each conceivable architectural aspect of the theatre.
“If you give £20,000 you can have a step named soon after you. For £50,000 you can have your name on 1 of 13 columns. If you give £100,000 you can have a row [of seats]. Boxes are £200,000. The atrium is £1m.” She is also looking for 2,000 gifts of £1,000, for which donors will have their name inscribed on a scroll in the theatre, at the best of which is the bass-baritone Bryn Terfel.
Architect’s model of Grange Park Opera’s new theatre in Surrey
The quest for regional supporters has prompted her to develop what she calls “Surrey hubs” — well-connected opera fans who invite groups of probably possible donors into their properties to hear opera excerpts from professional singers, plus Kani’s fundraising pitch, over the course of an evening. “I have to get Surrey interested,” she says. To assist her “show and tell” she has had a model of the theatre created, which she keeps in a shoebox lined with red felt.
Possessing speedily raised the initial wave of funds — the “low-hanging fruit”, as she puts it — does she worry that wider economic uncertainty and worries over concerns such as Brexit will slow her race to the target? Not at all, she says: donors are motivated mainly by the attractions of the fundraising project, whatever the economic situations. “The world’s complete of uncertainty but . . . people are genuinely interested in generating anything for the public good.”
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