Guy Withers is an unusual opera impresario. His mother, a police officer, was born in a mining town in Northumberland, while his father was a postal worker. Both found work in Bristol, where Withers grew up. With no training or private schooling, no parental handouts, Withers began singing treble as a boy in youth theater and discovered opera as a teenager. In 2017, aged just 25 and on a shoestring budget, he founded the Waterperry Opera Festival at Waterperry House and Gardens, a horticultural college within a nine-acre estate in Oxfordshire, with inclusiveness at its heart.
“We offer discounted and free tickets to every production regardless of age. We often find first time opera goers. There is no formal dress code. We want to be more like Glastonbury than Glyndebourne,” says Withers, 31, tall, intense and bespectacled, with the rounded tones of a tenor.
Their first festival lasted just three days with a principal production of Don Giovanni with Jerome Knox in the title role. He went on to win the Handel International Competition in 2022. “We pitched everything in that first year,” says Withers. “It was a bucket full of blood, sweat and tears. Most shows sold out. It was a complete surprise, but he told us we were onto something good.
Withers says her shows spread by word of mouth. “Our audience was made up of ordinary people who only came to hear the music. More than 10 percent had never seen a work before. We are now selling over 1,000 tickets for a 10 day festival [a quarter of their sales]to the under 30s and under 16s.”
Last summer, Saturday and Sunday mornings were set aside for Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. A large audience of children crowded. “We sold out all six shows at 100-[person] capabilities,” says Withers. This year they will be producing Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes and will also stage a show at the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Center at the Dahl home in Great Missenden.
The fairy tale Waterperry House will also provide the perfect backdrop for Jonathan Dove’s comeback production of Mansfield Park, which, during its four sold-out productions last year, saw surplus cast members climbing stairs in vintage clothes. era for flirting with guests.
So how did this young entrepreneur fall in love with opera? “Classical music wasn’t part of our family vocabulary,” says Withers, whose father played guitar and drums. Young Withers’ stage debut was in community theater pantomime, then he joined the Bristol Youth Choir. At 16, while on holiday in Australia, his parents took him to the Sydney Opera House to see Rigoletto. Withers has been transformed.
It was while at Cardiff University on a music scholarship that Withers founded the Opera Society, becoming its president and developing a taste for ‘making things happen’. He also became very good at begging: he begged the university for funds, and then begged a Bristol theater to lend him its stage to produce his own version of the comic opera, The Mikado.
He hurried to get his degree, then sang his way up to the Royal Academy of Music for a two-year Master’s degree. “I wanted their quality, I wanted to be taught by the best. I wanted to be part of something bigger and I want to share the joy. I want to reach the promised land, but I want everyone else to be there with me…”
But fighting your way through the undergrowth to get there has its problems, one of which is money. Sharing apartments, surfing the sofa, and living hand-to-mouth came naturally to Withers, until an opportunity arose in 2017.
The annual Waterperry House arts festival, owned by the School of Philosophy and Economic Science, had closed and the hunt was about to fill a 10-day slot in its summer calendar.
The college contacted opera director Rebecca Meltzer, who thought of her friend, Guy Withers, and made the connection. In 2018, another “brilliant” talent arrived as music director: the acclaimed Cambridge organ scholar, conductor and composer Bertie Baigent, whose work conducting Mozart was described by Opera Magazine as “like spreading the sun on a rainy day”. .
That particular skill comes in handy with the opera outside: the cast of Figaro have become adept at holding on to umbrellas during torrential downpours in Waterperry. It was more difficult to try to protect the cellos from the torrid summer heat which can melt the glue that holds the stringed instruments together, with huge repair costs.
“Money is the big issue going on,” says Withers. “We always fight for money. It’s so hard to find great sponsors. We are young, we have no marketing budget, nobody knows who the hell I am. He runs his hands through his hair in frustration.
But as with all good romantic dramas, there is a heroine. She has found a soul mate to bear her anguish: Lissy, a lawyer, whom she will marry in September. “This is a tough business. She is my support. She helps me follow my dreams,” she says.
The festival grossed £500,000 in 2022, reaching audience capacity with 4,100 people through the door, and sold 50% more tickets than in 2021. But that’s never enough. As Puccini once said: “There is still so much to do. But let us go forward, without fear or hesitation.
For more information: waterperryoperafestival.co.uk