An Evening at Longborough Festival Opera: Glasto for the Middle-Aged

Opera-goers mill outside the theater, a former barn, during the interval

Last Saturday night I finally did something on my Cotswold bucket list: attend a performance at Longborough Festival Opera. (OK, it’s not actually on that list, but it should have been.) If you haven’t heard about Longborough, it’s in the vein of Glyndebourne’s country house opera and one of those Cotswold gems you wouldn’t believe until you pull into the grounds and see it for yourself.

One of the “guests” roaming the grounds

Upon arrival we were greeted by a rooster strolling amongst the other festival-goers, many of whom—unlike us—were wearing black-tie as they sipped pre-show glasses of wine. Nobody gave our casual dress a second glance, though; they were all too busy taking in the stunning views of the countryside in show-off British summer weather.

Even if the climate hadn’t cooperated, the show would have gone on. Longborough has its own permanent theater in the form of a converted barn complete with seats salvaged from a remodel of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, a pink stucco facade, and statues of Wagner, Verdi, and Mozart. The barn sits right across from the home of the couple, Martin and Lizzie Graham, who are responsible for the whole endeavor and seem to fit the mold of the stereotypical British eccentric rather well (read more about them here).

Despite my enthusiasm for the setting at Longborough, I confess that I’m not particularly interested in opera. Yet for reasons I can only attribute to the lingering effects of my bourgeois upbringing, I keep dragging husband to performances. Most recently we saw A Rake’s Progress in Berlin, which proved to be an excellent opportunity for him to catch up on his sleep. Occasionally he would wake up long enough to wonder aloud if the admittedly bizarre performance had licensed the use of the Disney characters whose likenesses made random appearances on stage. Thankfully the Longborough production of Rigoletto had no such ethical quandaries, not counting the cheating-on-and-murdering-of-an-innocent-young-woman aspects of the plot.

Our new hamper after we’d demolished
everything in it but the Eton Mess

The point is that the draw of an opera at a country house in England is not just the opera itself—which turned out to be stunning even if husband did have a little lie down in the box in the second half—but also the atmosphere: the grounds, the breed of very serious spectators making opera buff small talk that goes way over your head as you murmur affirmative throwaways, and, weather willing, the interval picnic.

Nobody does summer picnicking better than the British, a fact I attribute to the abysmal weather for much of the rest of the year. What else could motivate people to pack up most of the contents of an indoor dining room and transport them to a field in the middle of nowhere? (Things I’ve seen produced out of a British picnic basked include an eight-armed silver candelabra and a garland of paper lanterns “for atmosphere.”)

Rather than be mocked for my lack of proper kit, as I once was when I arrived at a Cotswold picnic carrying ice in a plastic Tesco bag, I opted to order our dinner from The Old Butchers in Stow-on-the-Wold. As if the nuts, olives, charcuterie, smoked salmon, potato salad, Chinese chicken salad, and Eton Mess weren’t enough, I am now the proud owner of the hamper in which it was delivered: a polka-dot-lined affair complete with tea cups, silverware, and china plates. It’ll be just the thing to disguise a Tesco bag filled with ice—and maybe even a candlestick or two—on our next visit to Longborough.

Picnic with a view

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