Heritage specialist on song at Surrey opera house

16 July 2017 | By James Kenny

Building a rural opera house in 11 months gave heritage specialist RJ Smith & Co a new set of challenges. James Kenny reports.

We’re in the in the orchestra pit of the first new opera house to be built in 50 years, deep in the Surrey countryside. Among the workmen and racket going on, Construction Manager has just been shown the first violinist’s chair – beneath which the ashes of Mary Innes-Ker, Duchess of Roxburghe, have been buried.  

The new 750-seat venue – known as the Theatre in the Woods – is being built for Grange Park Opera in the grounds of the 120 ha estate of West Horsley Place, near Guildford – a crumbling Grade 1 16th century Tudor pile unexpectedly inherited by historian and former University Challenge presenter Bamber Gascoigne after the death of his great-aunt, the entombed Duchess.

The £10m project is the brainchild of Grange Park Opera founder Wasfi Kani, who is on a mission to bring opera to a wider audience and has signed a 99-year lease with Gascoigne.

When CM visited the theatre a few days ahead of its successful opening performance of Puccini’s Tosca with tenor Joseph Calleja on 8 June, the tension was palpable on site. Dozens of workman and stage managers from the opera company were working cheek by jowl, polishing off the interiors while staff tested the rigging and make-up and sewed costumes.

The man tasked with orchestrating and bringing this all together is builder Martin Smith, director at Hampshire historic building specialist RJ Smith & Co. “There will be some late nights over the coming week, but we’ll get there in the end. While this isn’t biggest project we’ve ever done, it has thrown up quite a few challenges,” he says.

Martin Smith of RJ Smith & Co

As well as the unique woodland setting, a number of other unusual elements mark the new theatre out from its rivals: the doors to the theatre are copies of those at the Pantheon in Rome, a balcony is to be installed from which four trumpeters will summon audiences from their picnics, and there’s even talk of a model railway in the foyer.  

The project is working with a minuscule budget for an opera house, and the £10m has been funded entirely by private donations. However, to date only £8.5m of this has been met, and this is just the first phase of the project, with the main aim of getting it ready for the first production. Phase two, the completion of the opera house’s exterior brickwork and the finishing of minor internal touches – along with a fresh round of fundraising – will begin in July when the 2017 season winds down.

Smith explains: “We’ve had 11 months to get the project finished as acts had been booked, so it was imperative to get everything complete in time. While on some projects you have wriggle room, there’s been very little on this and if we’ve encountered problems, we just have to find a solution and stay within the budget.”

In this time the team has constructed a new drum-shaped steel-frame building infilled with blockwork – the finishing cladding will be completed at a later stage (see box below).

Smith credits the team that he has surrounded himself with, along with his company’s long tradition of specialist work, for the smooth running of the project. The Hampshire-based family-run company, which was originally started by his uncle Reg Smith, has been in existence since 1976.

Martin now fronts the company himself, working alongside his son Ed Smith. They employ 50 people and have built a reputation across the south of England for their work on the repair, conversion and alteration of historic buildings, churches and monuments.

The company is a keen advocate of training and employing specialist craftspeople, and this is an area Smith wants to continue to promote, and would like to see more young people in construction going into.

“We employ and train up specialist craftsmen, brickworkers, traditional joiners, stonemasons,” he explains. “It’s something I think the construction industry in general needs to embrace more, as these skills need to be passed on and encouraged.”

As well as the actual construction work, the company also carries out historic building research for clients and architects. Smith himself has long been a history buff: “We have a library of nearly 2,000 volumes of conservation arts which we use as a reference for our conservation work and new-build projects. With a lot of our work we work closely with English Heritage and do an awful lot of pre-research – but I also do my own and it’s something I’ve always been interested in, even when I was young and before I came into the business.”

It was through its past work for Grange Park that RJ Smith took on this job. In 2003 it transformed the Picture Gallery at the Grange, a Grade I listed neoclassical country house close to Alresford, near Winchester, into a prestigious 500-seat theatre.

While that conversion job gave the company its experience with the intricacies of building an opera house, the brand new bespoke Theatre in the Woods is an entirely different beast. It has been designed by Tim Ronalds Architects and acoustician Raf Orlowski and, as well as the budget and timescale issues, the company also had to deal with conservation problems.

Ed Smith, Martin’s son, who worked on the project, says: “Logistics have also been a big factor in the project, as well as the timing and deadline issues.”

The theatre is tucked away from the main house in a wooded area that is reached by a short path through a historic orchard. A wrought-iron gate leads into semi-formal gardens which will provide the bars, restaurants and meeting places usually located inside a theatre.

“The trees have preservation orders, so we only had a small space for any heavy plant and couldn’t bring in lots of cranes.”

Ed Smith, RJ Smith & Co

“I think the existing trees and working around them have been the biggest obstacle. They have preservation orders on them, so we only had a small space for any heavy plant and we couldn’t bring in lots of cranes,” he says.

The new building has been modelled on the four-tiered horseshoe shape of the La Scala opera house in Milan. The tiers of seating take a “U” form, and the volume and surfaces have been designed to target an optimum reverberation time of 1.4 seconds.

A generous orchestra pit allows the orchestral sound to develop within, and the tiered seating butts into the 11m x 7.5m proscenium, creating intimacy between performers and audience. The side stages are large enough to provide for the three or four sets used in a single festival season.

The stage, taken with the side stages also offers the possibility of a “studio format” performance space, operating independently of the tiered auditorium. The doors to the five grand tier boxes are covered in gold leaf (1,275 sheets) and the balcony is also themed in silver.

The foyer atrium has 13 tree-like columns around it. Backstage accommodation provides all that is necessary for the performers, musicians and stage technicians including dressing rooms, green room, wig, prop and equipment stores, and an unloading dock.

As the theatre will mostly only be used in summer, the building is kept cool on warm nights by air passing through a subterranean labyrinth beneath the seats of the stalls. Heater batteries will be installed for future winter use, and warm air from the theatre will be recirculated with fresh air drawn in from outside.

“This is like a great big tube: the air comes in and gets cooled by the walls and then gets passed down to the stalled circle, and that goes round the walls. It’s designed to then come out under the seats and out through small vents,” Martin Smith explains.

Looking ahead, he says he’ll be there proudly for opening night and is sure that a new round of fundraising will be successful once people have seen the building and the opera company in performance.

West Horsley Place: stages through the ages

Elizabeth I’s 1559 visit proved to be quite a performance.

Through his own research, R&J Smith’s Martin Smith discovered that West Horsley Place was once home to a now-forgotten 16th-century theatre, built to a tight deadline to entertain Elizabeth I.

Smith found documents that showed that, as well as entertaining Henry VIII, the estate was later visited by his daughter for a season of “revels”.

The queen arrived to visit her childhood friend, Elizabeth Fitzgerald, wife of Edward Fiennes de Clinton, Earl of Lincoln and Lord High Admiral, on 17 August 1559. Before her arrival, Thomas Cawarden, Master of Revels and Tents, was sent ahead to create the setting for an Elizabethan arts festival, building a permanent theatre in the grounds.

West Horsley Place in 1912, painted by James S Ogilvy

Accounts list that preparations began on 23 July for a “masque” performance, called Shipmen and Maids of the Country.

Thirteen tailors worked for a fortnight on “purple cloth of gold, barred over with gardes of cloth of green and silver, with sleeves of blue cloth, edged with gold and red silk lace”, while painters were hired for “the making of pictures upon cloth in the front and the gallery” Props and sets were carried by barge from stores in Blackfriars to Hampton Court, and then moved overland.

The monarch stayed until 23 August. It then took more than a month to take the masque paraphernalia back to Blackfriars, during which time Cawarden died at West Horsley Place of complications from a broken leg.

These days the house is acting as host to drama of a different kind, providing the locations for the new film My Cousin Rachel.

Orchestrating the development

Getting the building ready for the first night took 11 months.

Grange Park Opera’s new £10m Theatre in the Woods is almost double the size of its previous 500-seat auditorium at Northington in Hampshire, seating 750 but with potential to push this to an 850-seat capacity once phase one of construction is finished.

The new building has a classic horseshoe-shaped auditorium and an orchestra pit. Set in a brick drum, it has decorated balcony fronts, a painted ceiling and columns from floor to roof. The steel frame is clad in block with final finishes to complete later in the year.

For the 11-month construction schedule, the first task for RJ Smith & Co was to clear the trees and undergrowth occupying the footprint of the new building. This followed an archaeological survey and ecological surveys.

Following the stripping of the top soil, construction officially began on 20 June 2016. Concrete piles 19m long were driven into the ground – 146 of them at the rate of 15 a day. The construction of the superstructure, comprising 230 tonnes of steel frame and the slotting in of precast concrete floors and walls, was followed by the roof.

Once the piles were in place, the complex process of linking them together with in-situ cast reinforced concrete ground beams began. Once this was under way the undercroft – containing the 70-person orchestra pit, ventilation labyrinth and basement backstage accommodation – was excavated and formed.

On 13 September last year a small hole was cut on site into the concrete on the floor of the orchestra pit, at the position where the first violins are seated, and the Duchess of Roxburghe’s ashes were laid to rest with a gathering of luminaries from two charities – the Mary Roxburghe Trust and Grange Park Opera.

According to builder Martin Smith, the main achievement technically was making the building (relatively) watertight so early in the construction. This was only possible by freeing the superstructure steel and precast concrete from the in-situ concrete of the ground slab and retaining walls.

The arduous and lengthy process of forming the basement was thereby removed from the critical path and could be carried on under the protection of the roofs and in its own time.he building and the opera company in performance. 

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