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  • "A great private party":The Participatory Theatrics of Country-House Operagoing
  • Suzanne Aspden (bio)

Since the 1990s, academic interest in the "performative turn" has gone hand in hand with an increasingly fluid conceptualization of "performance." Richard Schechner and Victor Turner's creation of Performance Studies on a theatrical-anthropological axis has been a touchstone for this approach, with Schechner explaining in his 2006 overview that while "there are limits to what 'is' performance," nonetheless "just about anything can be studied 'as' performance."1 Such fluidity has long been essential to the performative turn: Patrick Campbell in Analysing Performance: A Critical Reader (1996) noted that the volume's essays often "signal the erasure or at least the elision of traditional lines of demarcation between different areas and categories of the performative," while in his contribution to the volume Baz Kershaw proposed that this process of elision operates increasingly on social as well as artistic grounds, as society-wide mediatization "disperses the theatrical" throughout all aspects of life.2

If the "performative turn" is everywhere, with regard to opera it is its social expression that I think particularly merits exploration, for while the genre inhibits direct audience participation, it is freighted with social signification, embedded in long-lived cultural and political structures, and for this reason the social practices of the opera—the act of operagoing—are as performative as any other ritual.3 The performativity of the act of operagoing has been variously recognized in opera stagings of recent years (and even stagings of opera houses, with their carefully considered urban placement), which seek to make the spectator aware of their role as part of the spectacle.4 But it has achieved a new expression in the operatic economy of late twentiethand twenty-first-century England, where, while the fortunes of traditional houses falter, country-house opera has boomed. While opera festivals at Glastonbury (1914–26) and Glyndebourne (founded in 1934) were initially established as responses to the passion, ideals, and musical quality of Bayreuth and Salzburg (and were reviewed explicitly as such), Glyndebourne Opera Festival in particular has generated successors in recent decades that have appealed not to Continental comparators but to a peculiarly English nostalgia for an opulent past in [End Page 96] which the country house epitomizes an idealized elitism otherwise familiar to audiences from (English) costume drama: thus Garsington (home of Garsington Opera, founded in 1989 and now based at another country house, Wormsley Park), The Grange (home of Grange Park Opera, founded in 1998 and now at another country estate, West Horsley Place), and other summer opera festivals in similarly idyllic (and mostly southeastern) English locations, all follow in this mold, though varying in size and scope (dependent, it seems, largely on the wealth of their founders and backers).5 The success of country-house opera in England seems to have inspired similar ventures abroad: Opéra de Baugé in the Loire in France, founded in 2003, overtly modeled on Glyndebourne, and attracting a mixed English and French audience; and Sta˚ lboga Summer Opera, built around the salvaged eighteenth-century interiors of a Stockholm palace, which began in 2013. But country-house opera remains a primarily English affair: that is, while British music festivals, which have a pedigree stretching back to the eighteenth century (with the Three Choirs Festival founded in 1715), assume all the varied aspects of festivals internationally, countryhouse opera has a particular, idealized "English" cast.6 The essential Englishness of the country house has been bolstered, legitimized, and historicized by the preservative (and restorative) activities of both the National Trust (founded in 1895) and English Heritage (an organization born of late-nineteenth-century government activities), which, particularly since the postwar period (when landowners claimed they could no longer maintain their estates), have allowed and increasingly enhanced public access to stately homes, while also helping preserve them for their aristocratic owners.7 Retaining the mid-century anxiety about preservation of the patrimony found in such novels as Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (1945), the country house as viewed through the lens of the National Trust and English Heritage continues to be a site of nostalgia and idealized pastoralism.8 In this light, it is...


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