21 May 2017

Dougie Boyd, Artistic Director of Garsington Opera: in conversation

One year ago, tens of millions of Britons voted for isolation rather than for cooperation, but Douglas (Dougie) Boyd, Artistic Director of Garsington Opera, is an energetic one-man counterforce with a dynamic conviction that art and culture are strengthened by participation and collaboration; values which, alongside excellence and a spirit of adventure, have seen Garsington Opera acquire increasing renown and esteem on the international stage during his tenure, since 2012.

On the day we meet, Boyd is dashing between rehearsals for two of this year’s productions: Semele, directed by Annilese Miskimmon, Artistic Director of Norwegian National Opera, and conducted by Jonathan Cohen who is making his Garsington Opera debut; and, John Cox’s production of Le nozze di Figaro which Boyd himself conducts.

Conversation quickly turns to Figaro, which Boyd describes as a ‘re-creation’ rather than a revival of Cox’s elegant, eighteenth-century production, first seen in 2005. It was time for Garsington to stage Figaro again, he says, but the more a ‘new’ version was contemplated, the more it seemed foolish to get rid of an ‘old’ staging, one which was and is much-loved. Boyd jokes that Garsington is being ‘cutting-edge’ in setting the work ‘in period’, when the trend is for updating and relocating - re-orientations which, if not carefully considered and delivered, can destroy the opera’s astonishing integrity of the union of music and drama. Cox’s production was last seen during the Festival’s final season at Garsington Manor in 2010 - Boyd conducted - and the wider stage and more professional technical facilities at Wormsley have necessitated alterations to the sets (their modular, reversible design has presumably proven fortuitously flexible), props and direction.

Figaro sees the return to Garsington of Joshua Bloom (Leporello, Don Giovanni, 2012) as Figaro and Jennifer France (Marzelline, Fidelio, 2014) as Susanna, with the baritone Duncan Rock and Canadian soprano Kirsten MacKinnon making their Garsington debuts as the Count and Countess. Glancing at this season’s cast lists and photographs on the rehearsal room wall, I remark that the quality and depth of Garsington’s casts and artistic teams seems to grow year on year; Boyd agrees that this artistic strength has developed in tandem with the increasing international recognition and repute of the Festival.

2017 also represents an adventurous increase in the number of operas and performances given. Previously the season would comprise three main operas; this year, four works will be staged and over thirty performances given. Boyd admits that such expansion comes with some risk, but is heartened by the advanced tickets tales, with many performances sold out and only limited availability remaining.

Alongside Semele and Figaro, Michael Boyd and Tom Piper (director and designer of last year’s acclaimed production of Eugene Onegin) re-unite for a new production of Pelléas et Mélisande, with Jac van Steen (Intermezzo, 2015) conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra in its Garsington debut. Audiences also have the opportunity to enjoy Martin Duncan’s exuberant 2011 production of Il turco in Italia, conducted by Rossini expert David Parry.

Then, in late July, there will be three performances of Silver Birch, a new commission from Roxanna Panufnik with a libretto by Jessica Duchen which draws upon Siegfried Sassoon’s poems and the testimony of a British soldier who served recently in Iraq to illustrate the human tragedies of conflicts past and present. Silver Birch, directed by Karen Gillingham, Creative Director of Garsington’s Learning and Participation programme and conducted by Boyd himself will bring together professional singers - those with sufficient talent to perform on the main Garsington stage, Boyd insists - and around 180 members of the local community, selected from local schools and organisations following auditions. Silver Birch follows 2013’s Road Rage by Richard Stilgoe and Orlando Gough, and clearly this sort of community celebration of music, poetry and dance will be an on-going part of Garsington’s commitment to increased participation and shared cultural experience. Indeed, Boyd is fervent in his belief in the Garsington ‘ethos’: that everyone should be welcome, and made to feel welcome, at Garsington, from the moment they enter the gates of the car park to the moment that they depart.

Boyd hopes that Silver Birch will help to build new audiences for the future and take opera to those for whom it is usually out of reach. Similarly, Garsington’s Opera for All series of screenings (a three-year partnership with the charitable trust Magna Vitae and the Coastal Communities Alliance, supported by Arts Council England’s Strategic Touring Fund) will take opera - via free public screenings of live performances of Semele - to coastal communities in Thanet, Grimsby, Skegness and Somerset, building on existing participation schemes. As one who survived adolescence in one such cultural desert, my operatic thirst slaked only - but gloriously so - by the energy and invention of Kent Opera - I can testify to the veracity of Boyd’s belief that such initiatives can ‘change lives’. The benefits are at least threefold, he argues: participation is increased; new audiences are stimulated; and Garsington gains further reach through such streaming. I ask if there are plans afoot for further cinema streaming, such as we have become accustomed to by the Met, the NT, Glyndebourne and others, and Boyd replies that its certainly something under consideration.

Last year’s Opera For All audiences enjoyed Michael Boyd’s Eugene Onegin and the venture forged further pathways when Garsington understudies gave a performance to an audience of local school students conducted by Boyd’s assistant conductor Jack Ridley; the production was then regularly screened on BBC Arts.

New collaborations are obviously an important part of Boyd’s vision for Garsington and recent years have seen exciting bonds formed with other artistic companies. In 2015, Boyd conducted Mendelssohn’s complete incidental music to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to accompany a performance of the play by the Royal Shakespeare Company, while last year saw a cast of over 50 dancers from Ballet Rambert and the Rambert School join 70 musicians on the Garsington stage for a grand scale performance of Haydn’s The Creation. The outcomes of such endeavours cannot be foreseen, but they offer new artistic approaches and fresh ideas, though Boyd notes that they cannot be ‘forced’ and must grow organically.

Boyd also hopes that Garsington’s productions will travel more widely in future. In 2014 Fidelio travelled to the concert hall of the Philharmonie de Paris for a semi-staged concert performance in November 2016, and on 27 June this season’s Figaro will be presented in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées with the Orchestre de chambre de Paris. Co-productions may become a more regular feature at Garsington too. Next year, Boyd will conduct his first Strauss opera, Capriccio, directed by Tim Albery - a co-production with Santa Fe Opera.

The 2018 season will open with Die Zauberflöte, conducted by Christian Curnyn and directed by Netia Jones, both of whom will be making their Garsington debuts. And, the partnership with the Philharmonia Orchestra will continue when the orchestra returns for Bruno Ravella’s production of Falstaff under the baton of Richard Farnes. Garsington will present the world premiere of The Skating Rink by British composer David Sawer with a libretto - based on the short novel by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño - by award-winning playwright Rory Mullarkey. Commissioning and performing new work is obviously important to Boyd - to show that opera is not a ‘dead art form’ - and, given the recent successes of several new operas by British composers, such as Benjamin’s Written on Skin and Adès’ The Exterminating Angel, such work surely offers the opportunity to further raise Garsington’s international profile and impact.

When I ask Boyd about future programming plans, he is tight-lipped, beyond explaining the need to continue striking the right balance each season between new and old, familiar and unknown (though he doesn’t wish Garsington to focus unduly on ‘niche rarities’), operas with much work for the chorus and those without. But, he will divulge that he hopes that Capriccio is followed by more Strauss - perhaps Rosenkavalier ­­- and that he’d like to see Garsington staging more Janáček, following the acclaimed 2014 production of The Cunning Little Vixen.

Boyd himself has had, and continues to have, a truly international career. He was a founding member of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and principal oboe for 21 years, before taking up his first major conducting post as Music Director of the Manchester Camerata - alongside which he was a frequent visitor to the United States, as Artistic Partner of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in Minnesota for 6 years and Principal Guest Conductor of the Colorado Symphony. He’s retained his ties with Europe, too, spending 7 years as Music Director with Musikkollegium Winterthur, and since September 2015 has been Music Director of the Orchestre de chambre de Paris.

Those early years at the COE have planted deep-rooted musical values, and he often speaks of the ‘COE spirit’. When I ask him what he means by this, Boyd explains: members shared the belief that playing with the orchestra was not a job it was a privilege; that one played every performance as it if was one’s last; and that this commitment and passion was equalled by the search for musical excellence.

As Boyd races back to the rehearsal studio, I cannot imagine him approaching any musical endeavour or challenge in any other way.

Garsington Opera runs from 1 June - 30 July.

Claire Seymour