The views from both seat and stage get equal consideration with Witherford Watson Mann’s characteristically skilful and sympathetic fusing of old and new at Nevill Holt Opera
If you are wondering what the business case is for a permanent venue for a festival opera that only runs for three weeks a year, perhaps there isn’t one. Which seems odd, as the venue in question is owned by former Carphone Warehouse CEO, David Ross – at the 13th century Nevill Holt Hall. According to 2015’s Sunday Times Rich List, the year Witherford Watson Mann’s discreet insertion moved from a twinkle in Ross’ eye to a potential Stirling Prize winner, he had a net worth of £1 billion. A paid-up Conservative ‘Leaders’ Group’ member and friend of Tory grandees and celebrities, the accountant, who made a fortune by getting the sums right, has done so well for himself he doesn’t need to care about the numbers anymore. Unless, of course, they’re by Mozart, Bizet or Puccini – when he opens his gardens to the hoi polloi for part of the summer for a not-unreasonably-priced operatic day out in rural Leicestershire.
Inspired by the original, brick-faced, upper-middle class idyll of Glyndebourne in Sussex – which paved the way for the high-tech ephemerality of Garsington Opera’s pavilion at Getty’s Wormsley Park seat outside Oxford – Nevill Holt is an established part of the UK Festival Opera circuit. Founded in 2013, it is modelled on and was initially ‘fed’ by the repertoire of Surrey’s Grange Park Opera – which itself, from humbler beginnings, now has its own dedicated 700-seat theatre. Similarly, since its establishment, Nevill Holt Opera, with only 340 seats, had soldiered on using a temporary tent filling the courtyard of the estate’s old stable block, its ground dug out to create a – literal – orchestra pit. But perhaps founder patron Ross wanted to take Nevill Holt’s operatic agenda, which promotes new young talent, and align it with those of his charitable Foundation and Education Trust. Together with active local and national outreach work it could make a solid, permanent core for his atomised philanthropy.
And what a core it is. South east of the hall, the crenelated and pedimented early 18th century stable block, replete with bell tower, was a thing of beauty even before Witherford Watson Mann got its hands on it. And although the firm had a budget of over £5 million to create the 800m2 space within it, sums like that in less capable hands have been known to produce real turkeys. That said, AHMM refurbished Liverpool’s grade II listed Royal Court – a performance venue five times the size – for just shy of £6 million; and FCB Studios’ historic Alexandra Palace and Evans Vettori’s charming Square Chapel in Halifax (RIBAJ November 2017) were both realised for less than half of Nevill Holt’s £6000/m2. So while on entering the 400-seat auditorium’s alluring semi-darkness, masked by the heady olfactory blend of Douglas fir and sweet chestnut, you might not be able to actually smell the money, you sure do sense its presence.
Nicholas Chalmers, Nevill Holt’s artistic director had, I’m told, dragged the coy architects up on stage in its temporary iteration, pointing out at its makeshift rake of seats and declaring this to be the most important view in the house. Stage fright or not, it’s a comment that stayed with them; the urge to create a truly intimate, reciprocal performance space governing their design process. Admittedly, some conditions were givens; there was no possibility of any form of fly tower that would compromise the roof line of the stable block and there was simply no room to create a foyer space from which to disperse assembled opera-goers. But both limitations were to generate a spatial harmonic where the architects felt compelled to treat stage, hall and entrance as a single space; an intention subtly manifested in the proscenium’s side walls, huge pivots ‘disappearing’ the traditional separation between performer and audience.
Nor could Witherford Watson Mann return to a previous architect’s proposition to squeeze two tiers of balcony into the 7.5m high space; one that had offered more bums on seats but which had run roughshod across the window and door lines of the stable’s courtyard elevation. Instead, a raft of balcony options were investigated and a deep horseshoe plan settled on, that has Chalmers’ requisite intimacy from the stage but also manages to include the audience in its embrace. Ten bronze-painted cruciform columns help it hover magically off the walls, its edges just shy of the former courtyard’s facade of Great Tew ironstone, the plan shifting deferentially where it meets a window or Ketton stone architrave. Far from seeming fussy, these modulations sculpt the volume delicately, carving out space in subtle and surprising ways – not least at the rear of the balcony, where two generous scallops adjacent to the stair halls create a de facto double height lobby. Appearing out of the dark, the expansion upwards insinuates itself upon you in a realisation that is almost joyous. Likewise, at the front, stalls seats sink glissando past the stave of the perimeter ground floor to connect not only with the stage but also the sunken orchestra pit below it. All is visible in this inclusive arrangement; and as with the sight lines, with the help of consultant Sound Space and Vision, so too the sound.
The simplicity of the Douglas fir ceiling belies the time and energy taken invested by WWM, Julian Harrap Architects and engineer Price & Myers to create the detail that would allow fine spanning steels to rest their load on the courtyard’s inner walls. This ‘full contact’ (but ultimately removeable) solution involved a steel ring beam on pre-cast concrete pads set between the old rafters atop a new Collyweston stone creasing course on the newly tied wall. An unseen poetry to the roof’s direct echo of the courtyard’s dimensions is suggested in the staccato lining of grit-blasted Douglas fir timbers, whose batons silently follow the rafters’ 15inch rhythm.
And the large central rooflight – its blind purposefully drawn closed to usher opera-goers to their seats – recalls its former exterior condition, letting sunlight linger across the courtyard stones’ rich, rusty red before the house lights take over to illuminate it theatrically in a low wash of light.
A minimal, muted material palette lets the original surfaces sing. Bruised Douglas fir is complemented with beautiful board-marked grey concrete marking out the cloister-like perimeter around the stalls and counterpointed by the earthy tones of the Great Tew at its edge, darker fir stains and floor of sweet chestnut. Brass paint on the flats of the balustrade has a patination that works with the textured fabric of the seats; the firm consciously eschewing ‘smooth’ materials that would have felt too contemporary. All is considered and curated; yet there are contingent strategies at play too. The under-seat plenum feeding low-velocity air to the space is served by temporary plant sited remotely on the estate and drawn away at high level by attenuators hidden behind simple pivoting panels within the Douglas fir lining. The overriding sense is of nothing more than necessary, a notion illuminated by the bare LEDs in the ceiling soffits.
For the singers then, the experience is far from that of looking out into the darkness of a void. As the lights go down the audience begins to dissolve into the darker hues of the timber seating while the lighter walls and rich stone hues are highlighted in another low wash of light – a visual drama that plays out for the actors, reciprocating that on stage for the viewers. Whether that intimacy made it easier for the players of this year’s modern chamber opera, Thomas Adès’ ‘Powder Her Face’, is anyone’s guess; but since the story concerns socialite Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll – the subject of a scandalous tabloid 1963 divorce case, after nude Polaroids emerged of her carrying out sex acts on various government ministers and lesser royalty – a couple of its more salacious scenes might have benefited from the typology’s more usual cosseting darkness. But as Witherford Watson Mann may have intended in its meticulous, tactile insertion – and as Campbell herself might ruefully concede – at Nevill Holt, it was always going to be as much about the audience as the performers.
Client Nevill Holt Opera
Architect WWM Architects
Structural engineer Price Myers
M&E consultant Max Fordham
Quantity surveyor Gleeds
CDM co-ordinator David Eagle
Approved building inspector Oculus
Main contractor Messenger Bcr
Acoustic and theatre consultant Sound Space Vision
Historic architecture consultant Julian Harrap Architects