My first encounter with the Garden Opera Company was in a bosky little space in a hidden corner of Regent's Park known as the Nannies' Lawn. It really was shoestring stuff, with the sets flapping in the wind and the singers struggling into their costumes behind trees, but their Figaro had tremendous spirit, and was excellently sung. Yesterday, they were back on the Nannies' Lawn with a production of La Bohème, and today it will be possible to catch them in an even more out-of-the-way venue, just below the observatory at the top of Greenwich Park, in an amphitheatre set among trees. If it rains, they will decamp to the nearby church.
How did all this come about? The company's manager and music director, Peter Bridges, tells the story: "It really did begin with two students from Trinity, who felt they weren't getting enough performance opportunities, rehearsing The Marriage of Figaro in their back garden. And the lady next door said, 'Why don't you do the show right there?' I saw it, and thought it was fun – it had life. They did another show, but then gave up, so I took up the idea, and with a home-grown cooperative did Hansel and Gretel, which we toured to six places. After that the idea simply mushroomed."
Originally, he says, the performers were all students, but gradually he brought in more mature singers, and they took a critically well-received Magic Flute to some of the places where they still tour now.
They have no subsidy, but their hosts pay them a fee, which they recoup through box-office receipts, and most tours make money, often for charity – they raised £150,000 for different causes last year. The group has toured Kenya several times, and make a point of drawing in communities whenever possible; when they do Bohème in Ravenscourt Park on 14 September, it will be with the aid of several local choirs.
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