Iford Arts has built up a reputation over 25 years for its world-class opera performances. The festival continues its journey this year in two new venues, one being the 18th-century grounds of Belcombe Court. Emma Clegg talks to Paul Weiland, Belcombe Court’s owner, about the idea of epic opera being performed in his garden
Belcombe Court in Bradford on Avon was built in the early 18th century for Francis Yerbury of the Yerbury clothier family. The family made their money from cassimere, a light wool fabric woven in flexible, hard-wearing twill. In the 1740s the Yerburys employed John Wood the Elder to extend the house in the Palladian style, one that was characterised by Corinthian columns, pediments, scallop shells and symmetry.
There are nearly 60 acres of land, including woodland walks and parkland. The inspiration for the landscaped gardens was the gardens at Stourhead, resulting in a personal landscape with features such as a ha-ha, a grotto, a ruined ‘temple’ and a rustic cottage. Belcombe Court owner Paul Weiland OBE, the motion picture and TV director – known for work such as Alas Smith and Jones, Blackadder and the long-running ad series for Walkers Crisps – comments, “Probably at this time this style of garden was seriously frowned upon and seen as bad taste, but now it’s quirky, a rococo statement with a grotto and a rotunda and a pond.”
Paul has had a long-held fascination with gardens and gardening. “I wasn’t that clever at school and they weren’t sure what to do with pupils like me. So we did a lot of gardening, because they thought we’d become gardeners. That started my fascination with gardens and the countryside.”
When Paul and his wife Caroline bought Belcombe Court in the mid-1990s, the house and gardens needed considerable upgrading and repair, which took more than 10 years. “No-one had spent any money on the property for about 100 years, I’d say. So it was falling down, and being a Grade I listed property, every move we made had to be approved with the Secretary of State.”
Paul and Caroline are now using Belcombe Court more and more as a venue for special events and weddings, including charitable events for the Red Cross. “Last time we did it we had almost 2,000 people turn up. So it was pretty mad, but the garden can take it, as it seems to swallow people.”
The big news at Belcombe is that it will be hosting six days of opera from 30 August, welcoming Iford Arts and their opera programme into the gardens. This is a change of venue for Iford Arts, who previously performed at Iford Manor. Their dramatic plans for the festival will easily match up to the size of this historic venue. “The sound in the Iford Manor location with its enclosed cloisters was rather special,” explains Paul, “So the plan this year to recreate the sound is to have a geodesic dome – which is currently being specially constructed in the Emirates – that will have great acoustics and will seat about 220 people, way more than the 80 that was possible at Iford Manor. The dome is going on agricultural land on the other side of the ha-ha. It’s a flat space with a beautiful view of the house, gardens and ponds.
The Hebridean and Kerry Hill sheep will love the opera. They are all pregnant so there will be lambs around as well, adding to the aesthetic
“The music will be beautiful because it will be played in a valley. I’m pretty excited to be fortunate enough to have the space to invite these people in and make a success of it.”
The 2019 Iford Arts programme opens on 18 and 19 May at Bath Guildhall’s Banqueting Room with a performance of Johan Strauss’s classic operetta Die Fledermaus, a comic story of revenge, seduction and mistaken identity starring legendary comic baritone Simon Butteriss and Nadine Benjamin with maestro Oliver Gooch as musical director and on piano. The first event at Belcombe Court is the Picnic Prom with Clare Teal and her Trio on 30 August, bringing a rich jazz infused repertoire and an eclectic song list to the gardens. Then on 1 September you can enjoy Iford Arts New Generation Artists in Concert, curated and accompanied by Oliver Gooch. Concluding the 2019 festival will be four performances of Donizetti’s comic masterpiece L’elisir d’amore on 31 August, 3 September and 6 and 7 September. In order to encourage future generations of opera goers, under 18s will be welcomed for free for the first time.
Is it possible that the Hebridean and Kerry Hill sheep in residence in the parkland might take exception to the strains of evening opera? “The sheep will love the opera,” says Paul. “They are all pregnant so there will be lambs all around as well, adding to the aesthetic.”
Just imagine the expectation, as an Independent journalist did last year: “As the lights dimmed and the stars came out, and nobody in the audience was more than 20 feet away from the musicians, it was wonderful.” The question is, will the sheep agree?
The Iford Arts season runs from 18–19 May and 30 August to 7 September. Booking: 01225 463362; ifordarts.org.uk
Belcombe Court also has an open garden weekend on 18 and 19 May in aid of the Red Cross. Find out more: belcombe.com