(Taken from "Claxton - A Thousand Years of Village Life")
Part Two - Claxton Opera
In 1978 Major Derek Allhusen kindly agreed to a summer performance of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas in front of the castle walls at Claxton Manor. A mention on the BBC's Look East helped sell every seat and Claxton Opera was on its way. The opening performance took place amid a warm summer gale.
The following year saw a production of Handel's Acis and Galatea in front of Claxton Manor itself. Staged as an Edwardian House party, the performance went with a tremendous swing after Major Allhusen poured away the Ribena stage 'wine' and replaced it with a very acceptable Beaujolais.
The first production at the restored Old Meeting House was Don Giovanni by Mozart, which featured a powered lift to convey the Don down to hell - this slow moving device entrapped Leporello at every performance, forcing him to sing from within the cage. In 1995 there was a version of The Mikado set on the beach of a seaside town. Cosi fan Tutte, staged the following year, initiated a new strand in the Claxton story: the unending alterations of the building structure. New apertures in the north wall revealed the young warriors sailing away to war. In June 1997 came a performance of Beethoven's Fidelio, which required yet more trap doors to be cut in ceilings and floors.
Gluck's Orpheus and Euridice received a unique outdoor treatment in 1998, with an alfresco peripatetic performance, each act moving from grove to lawn to yet another shaded arbor in Bill and June Boardman's beautiful garden at Bergh Apton. The next year brought performances of Britten's Albert Herring and then Mozart's Magic Flute in 2000. This was very different from the earlier production with the genii descending through the ceiling in a lift - a scene that required yet another new trap door!
Meanwhile a real-life drama was being played out behind the scenes. The planning rules governing the performances were very strict and the operatic activities had transgressed these, incurring the wrath of both neighbours and the local council. Briefly it looked as if the opera might close but fortunately, with renewed obedience to the guidelines, a solution was found.
In 2002 there was a return to the Old Meeting House with a performance of Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio, but a hip operation for Richard White meant that there was no production the following year. Instead, a very successful opera concert kept things going and in 2004 full service was resumed with the octogenarian Verdi's Falstaff.
Richard White describes the annual transformation of his home into an opera house and the sense of 'ecstasy' that comes with each successful performance.
"I don't suppose many people hold operas in their living rooms, but we do. For me it's a transcendental experience. Suddenly in June each year the comfortable furniture is swept away into garden sheds. For a while the space lies empty, dust settling through the geometry of light created by our Georgian windows. Then gradually the place is filled with bits of half-made scenery, rehearsal piano, singers poring over their scores, people up ladders hanging theatre lights. More dust as the orchestra pit is swept, only now the dust dances to tentative fragments of Mozart or Verdi.
Eventually the plush pink orchestra curtains add a touch of theatrical glamour, the back-and-white chairs stand in orderly rows, the gallery glass front is polished, the fire extinguishers are hung - it's a theatre!
The day arrives. The audience drives up from the village in mini-buses, often on a beautiful midsummer evening. They grab a glass of wine and crowd into the garden, then the bell rings and all hustle through our kitchen into the opera house. The lights dim, polite applause for the conductor and at that moment I take my own glass of wine and stand on the sunlit country lane - Slade Lane - now silent and empty. The opening bars trickle through the open doors and windows like fresh, cool water, turning swiftly into a flood, a joyous benediction over the countryside, unnoticed by the odd passing car or the cows across the valley. For me it's ecstacy, fulfilment absolute."