Old and new in perfect harmony as WWM unveils Nevill Holt Opera theatre
RIBA Stirling Prize-winners Witherford Watson Mann have created a 400-seat opera theatre in a 17th-century stable yard. The project sits in the grounds of Nevill Holt Hall, a vast stately home in the Leicestershire countryside owned by David Ross, the co-founder of Carphone Warehouse.
Since its inception in 2013, Nevill Holt Opera festival has been operating out of a tent-like structure within the Grade II* listed stable yard. Now, the black tarpaulin has been replaced by Douglas Fir. Chris Watson of WWM – the firm behind the refurbishment of The Albany in south London – says the challenge was ‘to keep as much of the character of the stable yard as possible’.
He did this through a sensitively-chosen palette of materials: timber for the walls and roof, and cast concrete imprinted with timber planks on the floor. He rested the new walls on the existing orange ironstone walls, ‘to extend the volume up, which gives clarity to the singers’ voices’. And by making the balcony 3.5m high, rather than the usual 2.5m, details of the old walls are visible behind. Rather than fixing the balcony to the walls, WWM left a gap and supported it around the perimeter on slender columns of steel hand-painted a penny bronze colour.
Meanwhile, a roof light ‘washes the stone walls with natural light’ until the performance begins, when a horizontal blind is drawn. Acoustician Anne Minors of Sound Space Vision worked on the theatre’s sound quality. ‘The curved balcony disperses the sound, the stone’s solid mass reflects frequencies, and the timber gives a warm timbre,’ she explains.
In the tradition of all English country house opera festivals, visitors can explore the gardens – designed by Rupert Golby – before the performance and during the 90-minute interval. They are likely to run up against modern sculptures, including Allen Jones’ 2014 Dancers, Barry Flanagan’s 1989 Nijinsky Hare, and a Marc Quinn from 2012.§