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John and Bernadette Grimmett have opened up their home in France as a platform for a new generation of talented opera singers

A vintage year

At the heart of one of France’s most attractive regions, Opéra de Baugé is providing an opportunity for young singers to explore their operatic potential in a nurturing environment. Olivia Rowland reports from the Loire Valley

T

he gentle, fertile countryside of the Loire Valley is known for its harmonious juxtaposition of art and nature, with handsome châteaux punctuating a landscape of well-tended vineyards that produce some of France’s most celebrated wines. It’s the perfect setting for a budding operatic venture that is slowly ripening to maturity and producing some impressive fruit of its own from among its young singing talent. Off the beaten track, in a tranquil Loire garden, Opéra de Baugé is the brainchild of British couple John and Bernadette Grimmett. Since 2003, they have staged professional productions in a summer opera festival at their home, a former monastery near Angers in the Loire valley. For a cast of young singers, the festival provides the chance to explore roles that youth and lack of professional experience have prevented them from performing before. These opportunities, coupled with an all-important nurturing, supportive environment, are helping new talent and confidence grow. The Grimmetts are modest about their achievements: ‘At first we just did it because we wanted to perform opera,’ says John Grimmett, who works in international finance when he’s

62 Opera Now MAY/JUNE 2007

not helping to keep the festival running smoothly. ‘We were thinking of a poor man’s Glyndebourne.’ Calling on professional musical contacts, the couple staged Albert Herring in a marquee in 2003 and found they’d fallen into a success story. The concept of country house opera was new to the area, and attracted 400 people in the festival’s first year. The Grimmetts then realised they’d created a niche for young students looking for the chance to sing roles for the first time. ‘Opéra de Baugé has become an important currency for singers’ CVs,’ says John Grimmett, stepping into his international financier mode. ‘They can say they’ve had professional experience of singing a role,’ he adds. The couple have now expanded the festival to include one 19th-century piece and one earlier work each summer. They use a sumptuous portable theatre for the productions, and last year’s productions of Riccardo Primo, Carmen and Don Giovanni attracted capacity audiences. This year’s season will feature performances of Idomeneo, Don Pasquale and Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice during July and August. Director Bernadette is keen to present the operas in a way that’s accessible, and with this in mind she has opted to set the works with traditional stag-

ing, setting Idomeneo and Orpheus and Eurydice in Greece, and Don Pasquale in 19th-century Germany: ‘I just want to do opera in a human way,’ says Bernadette. ‘I want it to be simple and true and honest and, as Gluck said, “to hold a mirror up to nature”.’ Bernadette Grimmett’s traditional productions are uncomplicated, focusing on interpretation and characterisation rather than on concept. This presents the singers, both the younger members of the cast and more experienced performers, with the ideal opportunity to develop stagecraft and to explore major roles under genuine professional performing conditions. For participants in the 2006 festival, there was little doubt about the benefits that Baugé’s approach offered them. Countertenor Richard Scott is clearly hooked on the Opéra de Baugé experience. He is returning this year to fill the roles of Orfeo and Idamante after performing – and clearly relishing – the title role in Riccardo Primo in 2006. ‘Most people wouldn’t have the opportunity to sing these roles until they’re much older,’ he says. ‘It’s great to have them under my belt.’ As well as developing stamina and pacing, Scott also valued the intellectual challenges of the production: ‘I had to do lots of historical research – much more than normal,’ he says. Korean tenor Ji-Min Park, who will be appearing as Ernesto in this year’s Don Pasquale, is also aware of the extra-musical rewards of taking part in the festival. Recently awarded a place on Covent Garden’s Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, he plans to return to Baugé this year for the third year running. ‘I feel very lucky being offered this role at such a young age. It’s the first time I’ve sung the full role,’ says the 28-year-old, referring to his 2006 appearance as Don José in Carmen. ‘Being a Korean singing


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Fertile ground: Audiences gather in the garden around the theatre (inset) French opera to English-speaking audiences in France is quite strange. But no matter who’s involved, music is still music. Communication between the singer and conductor, and the singer and the audience, is what is important. My emotions reflect on the audience, and I pick up a response back from them. Every time I’m on stage is a life-lesson,’ he told me. Another Opéra de Baugé star, Grant Doyle, agrees. After performing the title role in Don Giovanni in 2006, Doyle is returning this year as Dr Malatesta in Don Pasquale. ‘It’s like a big masterclass,’ he says. A graduate of Covent Garden’s Jette ParkerYoung Artists Programme and a seasoned performer of minor principal parts, Doyle was attracted by the chance that Baugé offered him to undertake major roles. Communicating with the audience – often difficult on the huge stages of international opera houses – is a skill Doyle particularly enjoys focusing on during the festival with its tight-knit, family-like atmosphere. ‘My next job will be the best I do,’ he says. ‘I’ve learnt so much from this experience.’

T

he festival’s friendly atmosphere means that it’s building up a large network of friends and followers who return again and again. As it does for the singers, so the fes-

tival is giving instrumentalists the chance to work on repertoire, and many musicians now choose to return to play for the festival so they can explore new repertoire with old friends. It’s now even spawned its own fringe, with members of the orchestra holding their own concerts in and around the town. Visitors to Baugé this summer are likely to find string quartets rehearsing in barns and staging impromptu concerts, and there are plans for the festival to put on a gala concert featuring ten of the company’s leading singers. Likewise, the role of the festival’s chorus is growing. Keen to build links locally, Bernadette Grimmett has called on the services of former Angers Opera House chorus as well as numerous friends and supporters of the festival. She plans to give the chorus a bigger role in 2007, choosing the season’s repertoire accordingly. The Grimmetts are understandably excited about the 2007 programme. Bernadette describes the singers in Don Pasquale as a ‘dream cast’ drawn from an astonishingly high standard in auditions. Nonetheless, the Opéra de Baugé experience has been a challenge for John and Bernadette Grimmett too. Despite the positive vibes, they are keenly aware of the realities of putting on a music festival with all its tough finan-

Jeff Gynane

Visiting Baugé

Visit www.operadebauge.org for more details about the festival and this year’s programme To donate to the Trust or to find out more, contact Bernadette Grimmett on +44 (0)208 949 6490 or email bernadette_g@hotmail.com

Ji-Min Park as Don José at the 2006 festival: 'Every time I'm on stage is a life-lesson'

kitchen garden and the ‘garden of love’– are open to tourists throughout the summer. Other châteaux in the Baugé area

B

augé lies in the heart of the Loire valley, 40 miles from

that are well worth a visit are Le Lude, Brissac, Montreuil

Tours and just 25 miles from Angers. With both Tours

Bellay, Usses (which inspired the story of the Sleeping

and Angers airports now served by budget

Beauty) and Montgeoffroy.

airlines from the UK and continental Europe, the Loire

The region’s clear roads open up the cities, châteaux

Valley – famous for its wines, châteaux and laid-back way

and gardens of the Loire valley to visitors. Sites in the towns

of life – and the Opera de Baugé festival are now easily

of Tours, Angers and Saumur – including castles, churches,

accessible.

galleries and museums – are accessible on foot thanks

Baugé itself is a compact but historic town with a proud

to the wide boulevards and tastefully restored old streets.

heritage that’s on open display. The 15th-century Château

It goes without saying that Baugé offers an excellent

de Baugé in the centre of the town is open to visitors, as

range of wines. The Grimmetts themselves recommend

is the Hospice de la Girouardière, which houses a frag-

sweet white dessert wines from the Layon and Aubance

ment of the true cross. Baugé golf course, which is just

regions, dry fruity whites of Muscadet and Touraine and

outside the town, features a driving range and practice

full-bodied reds of Chinon and Champigny. Savigny en

course.

Deros is the town for Chinons, and in the town of St Hilaire-

The Renaissance château and gardens at Villandry

The Chateau Villandry and its magnificent formal gardens

cial implications. Eschewing state support, they have set up a charity to support the festival in France and called upon local contacts to contribute time, accommodation and resources. As the festival’s reputation grows, so does the work behind the scenes. John and Bernadette now plan to set up a trust in the UK to support young singers. In particular, with the help of donors, they hope to fund young singers needing experience of roles their training has not yet given them the chance to sing – much like the Opéra de Baugé experience. Funding will be aimed at late undergraduates and postgraduate singers, and the couple are now seeking donors to the trust. With so many of the festival’s friends and supporters planning to return this summer, and with John and Bernadette’s ambitious plans, the future looks rosy. The ground may be shifting, but it’s certainly fertile and full of potential.

are 40 miles from Baugé and Bernadette Grimmett’s per-

St Florent, visitors can explore the caves and sample the wines from one end of the town to the other. Santé!

sonal recommendation for a visit. Both the château and the gardens – including the world’s largest ornamental

www.ville-bauge.fr • www.loirevalleytourism.com

MAY/JUNE 2007 Opera Now 63


Opera de Bauge for Opera Now