Art and Opera at Nevill Holt: An Interview with David Ross

By Ben Luke

LONDON - Opera and art have long been happy bedfellows. Nevill Holt – the Grade I listed country house in Leicestershire that belongs to collector and philanthropist David Ross – hosts an annual summer festival where both are absolutely part of a total experience. For Ross, who had been putting on opera there for more than a decade before founding the Nevill Holt Opera Company three years ago, opera might be the headline act, but the public sculpture dotted around the gardens, by artists including Antony Gormley, Marc Quinn and Peter Randall-Page among others, is also key: “It’s integral, it’s central, it’s part of that broader experience about a trip to Nevill Holt,” he says. “And the way I think about it now is that people look at the package and go: ‘It happens to be an opera festival but if I’m interested in gardens or great English food, this is something I want to be involved with.’ And certainly over the last two or three years in terms of box office – and things shouldn’t only be measured by box office – people are really buying into the concept of that broader experience.”


For the first ten years of the festival, the Hampshire company Grange Park Opera staged the productions at Nevill Holt, but then, Ross explains, he felt “we can do a little bit better than that, we can have our own festival and our own opera company.” And he has done just that, setting up a charitable foundation, Nevill Holt Community Arts, that funds the opera company, with Rosenna East as general manager and Nicholas Chalmers as artistic director.

The productions staged – in previous years Carmen, La Bohème and Magic Flute, Rigoletto, and, in 2016, Donizetti’s Elixir of Love – are, Ross admits, largely “mainstream operas,” though he’s very proud, too, of a production of Britten’s Turn of the Screw in 2014. The performers are often at the cutting edge: “It’s the best of young British talent, coming out of the Conservatoire in London or anywhere else in the UK”, Ross says. “And we’re there to give them their first chance, their first big public production.”


Often, after their performances at Nevill Holt, says Ross, these emerging talents appear at long-established venues like the Royal Opera House. “I would love to think that it’s entirely our responsibility but we’d be kidding ourselves,” he says with a laugh. “But we are very good at talent-spotting, we are good at identifying these young artists that are on the way up. There’s a bit of a network, so you begin to hear who’s got potential, and then we’re giving them the leg up.” Among the artists performing at this year’s festival, alongside the relatively established Mark Stone as Rigoletto, a role that requires a more mature voice, is James Wafer, a fourth-year undergraduate at the Royal College of Music, London.

While Ross admits he’s no great expert in opera, and defers to his team at the opera company in programming the productions, he exercises more personal choice over the art that visitors see at Nevill Holt. He collects work “by British artists created or painted during my lifetime”, so 1965 onwards, though he admits that start date can be flexible if an exceptional work is available. The sculpture collection, though dramatic, is just the tip of the iceberg – not on public view is an extensive collection of paintings that includes notable works by artists from Bridget Riley and Richard Hamilton to Damien Hirst. “It is a defined universe,” he says, “and I suppose that my ambition within that universe – to the degree that you use a collection as an ambition – is to try and develop something that is quite unique in terms of British art history… You’ve got at least the scope to create something that is quite a unique commentary as well as being aesthetically delightful.”


Ross continues to grow his art collection as well as extending the opera company’s reach into the local community, and suggests the festival may develop into something even grander. Of his art collection, he says: “I’ve been doing this now for Nevill Holt for 15 years,” he says, “and it’s nowhere near finished – it’s really not a race.” This measured yet ambitious approach underpins the rich cultural journey on which he has embarked.


Tickets for Nevill Holt’s 2016 season go on sale on Friday 15 January 2016, with priority booking available to NHO Members from Tuesday 5 January 2016. Box Office 0115 846 777

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