Barnstorming Wagner finds a perch in the Cotswolds

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IT IS not perhaps the archetypal venue for some of the great opera classics. Not long ago the stage where the arias will be sung reverberated to the cackling of hens and mooing of cows.

But the former barn will this summer host the Longborough Opera Festival, with the staging of Das Rheingold, and The Barber of Seville and The Magic Flute to follow.

The musical director for the Wagner epic is Alistair Dawes, for years head of music at the Royal Opera House and who has worked with some of the most renowned conductors, including Zubin Mehta, Sir Colin Davis and Bernard Haitink. He has also conducted Peter Grimes at the Royal Opera House.

Mr Dawes could be forgiven for feeling a surreal sense of deja vu at the former hen house in Martin Graham's Gloucestershire farm. It has 400 plush red auditorium seats from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, as well as boxes. Chandeliers hang from the ceiling, and the outside is a mock-Palladian facade, with intricately ornate doors and windows. The facade was designed by the Cirencester-based architect John Whitton and is constructed from concrete blocks and paving slabs. Wooden cut-outs of Rossini, Verdi, Mozart, Puccini and Wagner, made by local artists, are bolted on when the operas are staged.

Mr Graham's friends and supporters describe him as a 1990s Renaissance man. A property developer, he has commercial interests across Europe, headquarters in London, and a deep cultural interest in music as well as the desire to bring it to the Cotswolds. Not everyone shares this view.

Some accuse him of despoiling an area of wonderful natural beauty. The Council for the Protection of Rural England has objected. Vera Burke, a member who lives in the village, complained: "Both the design and colour are an eyesore and Mr Graham is trying to ride roughshod over planning law." Mr Graham claims no council consent was needed to build the facade because the General Development Order allows a farmer to build a wall around his barn, and his is an agricultural building for most of the year.

Cotswold District Council at first wanted the facade to be replaced by a wall which would be more in keeping with other structures in the area. But officialdom relented and the novel opera house was allowed to continue its existence. As the preparations went on for Rheingold, Mr Graham said: "It involves giants trying to destroy Valhalla, some may say not unlike the council. All we want to do is to share what we have with others. My family has always been interested in the opera and this seems a worthwhile thing to do. Some people spend their money on Ferraris; I choose to do it on opera."