Strife in the air over al fresco opera evenings: Simon Midgley reports on a music festival which has split an Oxfordshire village

Click to follow
TOMORROW night the airs of Joseph Haydn's opera L'Incontro Improvviso will waft across the Italianate gardens of Garsington Manor, the celebrated Jacobean house near Oxford, to the delight of a select audience of nearly 400 people.

All is not well in Eden, however. While some villagers find the sound of arias uplifting on a summer's evening, many others are angry that they can no longer enjoy the peace of their countryside gardens, and at the congestion caused by hundreds of cars negotiating the village's narrow streets.

For six years Leonard Ingrams, a merchant banker and younger brother of Richard of Private Eye fame, and his wife Rosalind have staged al fresco operas in the grounds of the house where Lady Ottoline Morrell once entertained T S Eliot, Virginia Woolf, D H Lawrence and the rest of the Bloomsbury set. Tomorrow night's performance is the last in this summer's three-week opera festival. But it could be the final one, if some residents have their way.

Since its beginnings in 1989 when the Ingramses staged two nights of opera to raise funds for local causes, the number of evenings on which performances have been staged has risen to 23. In 1991 the couple set up a charitable company, Garsington Opera Ltd, which organised the 1993 season with 15 performances.

The issue came to a head last summer when some villagers asked South Oxfordshire District Council whether the Ingramses should have sought planning permission for a change of use of the manor to stage the opera, and queried structural changes to buildings within the curtilage of the Grade II listed house.

In March this year, the Ingramses submitted two planning applications: one for change of use of land and buildings for seasonal opera use and the occasional concert, play and other public village event, and the other for a new access to a field where operagoers and others park when visiting the manor.

The proposals prompted several villagers to circulate a flier urging residents to complain to the council. The Ingramses then issued a statement inviting villagers to support the applications. Subsequently the council received scores of letters for and against the opera from both villagers and concert goers as far afield as France.

It granted the opera, which had already been given a public entertainments licence for the year, a temporary six-month planning approval on condition that cars must leave the manor by 11pm. The council and the Ingramses will monitor traffic problems and noise levels. This will be taken into account when the opera seeks to renew planning permission for next year. The existing consent expires on 25 November.

Bob Kelly, a Garsington resident, said: 'It's one of these things. You tolerate it to a certain degree but then it gets bigger and bigger and nothing seems to be done, and then it becomes a permanent fixture and it just ruins the countryside as countryside should be. It should be peaceful and quiet.'

Mr Ingrams said yesterday the opera company had done its best to address villagers' concerns about traffic and late night noise by introducing a new parking access so cars do not pass through the village and imposing an 11pm curfew on visitors. 'I think we have done everything possible to meet any objections.'

(Photograph omitted)