Mary Ann Steane admires Witherford Watson Mann’s quietly dramatic festival theatre for Nevill Holt Opera
Witherford Watson Mann’s transformation of a seventeenth- to nineteenth-century stable yard into an opera house raised questions concerning not only which parts of the existing fabric should be conserved and which erased, but how future reversion might be foreseen and accommodated. A transaction between the past, the present and the future has been framed as a conversation about architecture and its evolution oriented by the demands of operatic performance.
Aerial photograph pre-development
Given the project’s location beside the rambling complex of buildings and gardens that comprise the grade-I-listed Nevill Holt Estate in Leicestershire, the architects have seen their task as a play of theatres: the histories/times/dramas of the building and its arcadian aspirations across the classes, from the nobles down to the stable-hands and their animals, the whole site treated as once-upon-a-time. The project’s goal was the transformation of an exterior structured by the movement of horses and carriages into an interior divorced enough from the world for the suspension of disbelief on which opera depends.
this ambiguous space is between interior and exterior”
This festival theatre, like most comparable settings for opera in the UK, will primarily be in use in the summer. To meet the client’s desire for a close interplay between voices and instruments, singers and audience, the architects have had to coordinate a series of adjustments and insertions to the existing grade-II*-listed building.
The stable yard, site of the opera house
The ironstone walls of the yard remain visible. Carefully extended upwards in timber, they now define a room uniting stage and auditorium into which a proscenium and balcony have been inserted. Below, a cut in the ground makes space for stalls, plenum, traps and an orchestra pit. Above, a new roof sits on the existing walls.
So far, so clear. And yet to meet planners’ expectations the transformation remains largely invisible from the exterior. What miraculous reinvention of the tardis has occured? What architectural sleight-of-hand has achieved the nigh-impossible trick of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear (or horse’s hoof)? And just as importantly, how does this theatre ‘take place’?
Firstly this is a matter of the careful orchestration of movement. From the outside the theatre is unimaginable, just as the planners decreed. When approached from the gardens nothing about the building – not even the doors – gives the game away.
A stable block is all you get, along with a breathtaking view south over a pastoral landscape. Having passed through the existing centrally located carriage-scaled doors, however, a theatre unfolds before you.
On each side at ground level graceful steps lead up and down to the seats in the stalls. Alternatively, the stairs to the balcony are easily located to either side of the entry passage. Almost without preamble, visitors discover a simple timber courtyard theatre whose symmetry is offset by the many different openings on every side.
And then it’s a matter of the designers tuning the building in two directions at once. On the one hand the auditorium is as large as it can be within its stone room. Unencumbered by additional structure, the yard is still there, holding everything together. And yet the creation of intimacy was the client’s main concern. Given Nevill Holt Opera’s ambition to encourage young performers, the aim was to ensure that they would feel as comfortable in the new 400-seat venue as in the previous temporary marquee. It was therefore crucial that the view from the stage should reveal the proximity of audience and performers.
Following close conversation between design team and client, the outcome is a generous yet taut interior. The dimensions of the opera house have been adjusted to the existing yard and its openings; the decision to strengthen, not undermine the existing walls is at the heart of this decorum. Both the stage and the aisles surrounding the stalls are at ground level. Above, counterpointing the yard’s square geometry, a traditional horseshoe-shaped balcony gathers the audience about the stage.
WWM contemplated a range of auditorium designs. One included a central route to the back of the stalls that would have made more sense of the entry sequence; another adopted a square, not curved geometry. Their final answer, however, has the merit of sustaining spatial and acoustic intimacy while cleverly differentiating what has been newly inserted – the lightweight balcony – from the older containing walls. Nicely, the curving balcony is echoed by two variations: the necklace of pendant lights hanging from the ceiling above and the softer curve of the stall seats below.
Perhaps the most unexpected trick is the introduction of a large rectangular rooflight at the centre of the space. In a subtle gesture that at once completes the room and reveals the walls as found, the intention here is to give the stable yard a greater presence. That this ambiguous space is between interior and exterior – always both/and – is therefore underlined. Realising that the daylight would also bring out the richness and texture of the ironstone, the architects have deliberately chosen a restrained colour palette for their own insertions. Together, the bleached Douglas fir of the upper walls and ceilings, the warm bronze-painted metalwork, the darker stained chestnut of the balcony front, and the board-marked concrete of the aisles aim to complement the existing building. With the architecture treated as foil or backdrop in this way, the audience is left to supply the vivid drama of colour.
But this is not the rooflight’s only role. During late-afternoon performances at Nevill Holt’s first summer festival, the audience entered with the rooflight open. Though the stage has provision for a curtain, the start of each show was marked by the closure of the rooflight’s blind as the stage lights came up and the walls slowly receded, bringing to life the architect’s play concerning yard or room.
A deft handling of the machinery of theatre is apparent, allowing the opera house to meet sensible acoustic expectations regarding the isolation of the interior. No ducts are visible in the auditorium; no lights hang off the walls. The auditorium is ventilated from beneath via a pressurised system whose extract ducts are disguised by the tapering surface of the layered-timber walls, and whose air-handling plant is sensibly sited in an outside building. While a series of existing and re-formed openings now connect the theatre to the ancillary backstage and front-of-house spaces in the surrounding buildings, the decision to run services elsewhere enables the walls themselves to retain the character of a facade.
The earliest historical precedents for the spatial conundrum represented by a courtyard theatre range from purpose-built interiors like that at the sixteenth-century Teatro all’Antica at Sabbioneta, northern Italy, where stage and auditorium are combined in a single room, to the cobbled courtyards of London inns whose rear balconies once overlooked action on a temporary stage below. At Nevill Holt Opera an enigmatic uncertainty about whether one is inside or outside arises from decisions concerning how natural and artificial light should orchestrate space and surface, how routes unfold, how the drama of a stable yard is re-enacted.
Rightly, what has taken priority is the experience of those participating. Still this careful negotiation has also led to an architectural play-within-a-play of the most telling kind. That the walls stage both room and yard makes them at once old and new, inside and outside, real and imaginary – a marvellous chimeric stage-set in the best operatic tradition. The stable yard serves as a piazza, with the decorum set explicitly at a background, pragmatic level. But, like the horses which are both draught animals and suitable support for emperors, this anticipates the once-upon-a-time of the opera and its sets. This persuasive invocation of the memories associated with place is a compelling recovery of Fludd’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s Globe: a “theatre of the world”.
Witherford Watson Mann Architects
Historic building consultant
Julian Harrap Architects
Theatre and acoustic consultant
Sound Space Vision
Price & Myers
Santa & Cole