Dougie Boyd, Artistic Director of Garsington Opera: in conversation

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.

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

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 PellÈas et MÈlisande, 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

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
ThÈ‚tre des Champs-…lysÈes 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 Zauberflˆte, 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 BolaÒo – 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 AdËs’ 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 Jan·?ek, 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

product_title=Garsington Opera
product_id= Above: Dougie Boyd (Artistic Director, Garsington Opera)