When the British TV host Bamber Gascoigne unexpectedly inherited a 350-acre estate in 2014 from his 99-year-old great-aunt, he was stunned by the inheritance tax bill he was facing, not to mention the upkeep of a crumbling 50-room house once briefly owned by Henry VIII.
His solution: Set up a registered charity, or trust, to turn it all into an arts center, including a summer opera festival looking for a new home. Like an intervention by the gods in a Wagner opera, the tax bill was slashed, a 700-seat theater was built in about 11 months and the well-heeled came to frolic at West Horsley Place, which had been largely frolic-free for decades.
The success of Grange Park Opera (its current season runs through July 17), about 23 miles west of London, is an example of a symbiotic relationship between old English country estates that benefit from becoming a British charity and a thirst for highbrow arts and socializing away from the bustle of the capital in the summertime.
It is one of several so-called country house operas around Britain. Others include Garsington (in a temporary structure on the Getty estate) and The Grange Festival (in a dilapidated Greek Revival mansion, which was Grange Park Opera’s first home, starting in 1998). There is also Glyndebourne, which in 1934 began daylong outings to an opera in the country, complete with champagne while strolling the grounds, picnics on lawns or tucked away in garden corners, and lavish meals in dining rooms sheltered from the elements.
“If you go to the opera in London, you have to scramble for a drink at the interval or gulp down something to eat in 20 minutes,” said Wasfi Kani, the founder and chief executive of Grange Park Opera. “But instead of just a few hours in an evening, you can make it a half day, have a walk in the country and enjoy your dinner at a leisurely pace.”
That pace — and an unofficial dress code of tuxedos and evening gowns — also harks back to the opera of old. To some, the country house operas are not only steeped in the romantic history of upper-crust England, but, ironically, may also provide a glimpse of how opera may survive.
“Houses like Grange Park are somewhat the future of opera because they are smaller and have less overhead, which is appropriate for dwindling audiences,” said the Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja, who returns to the festival this summer in “La Gioconda” after opening the opera house in 2017 with “Tosca.” “They built all of it in less than a year, and right up to the last minute. We were doing ‘Tosca,’ and the soprano was singing ‘Mario, Mario, Mario’ to the sound of drilling.”
The company, which usually stages four operas or musicals each summer, has an annual operating budget of around 4 million pounds, about $4.9 million, and a full-time staff of about 12 (with 300 to 400 part-time workers during the summer). Like most other country house operas, it is funded entirely by ticket sales and donations, receiving no government money.
Mr. Gascoigne, the original host of the popular TV show “University Challenge,” died in February at 87. But his vision to make West Horsley Place a trust — similar to a U.S. nonprofit organization — is intact, and the opera company, a separate charity, has a 99-year lease on the estate.
The core of the 50-room mansion dates from the 15th century, and Mr. Gascoigne’s great-aunt, Mary Innes-Ker, the Duchess of Roxburghe, was its last resident (her ashes are buried beneath the orchestra pit). She lived alone for years in an almost Miss Havisham-like existence where few visitors went beyond the front rooms. When she died in 2014, the home and grounds were in disrepair.
“Every time there was a new drip, she thought: Get a new bucket,” Mr. Gascoigne was quoted as saying in 2018.
Ms. Kani had been looking for a new home for Grange Park Opera, since its previous home was quite far for its core London audience. She read about Mr. Gascoigne and the house and debt he was being saddled with. It seemed like a moment to seize.
Turning the property into an arts center with an opera house seemed like a fine idea to Mr. Gascoigne and his wife, Christina. Many of the home’s furnishings and artworks — along with silver, crystal, servants’ outfits and even a long-lost pencil and chalk drawing that thrilled Sotheby’s experts — were auctioned to offset the remaining tax bill and pay for repairs on the house. Mr. Gascoigne gave up about £20 million in assets to create the trust.
“Grange Park Opera approached Bamber and me at the perfect time,” said Ms. Gascoigne, who was married to Mr. Gascoigne for 57 years. “What was a potential financial burden became almost a community service for Bamber in his final years.”
And his legacy plays out in a five-year-old opera house and the meandering gardens, honoring opera’s leisurely origins when the European elite had little more to do on a given day than listen to opera and fuss with their formal wear.
“I’ve always said that a third of them come because it’s an amazing place, a third of them come to see the opera and a third of them to say they’ve been there,” Ms. Kani said.