Lacking provincial venues, English opera took root in the grand country house in the 1930s, and it has evolved into a ritual involving evening dress, a gourmet picnic and a sense of exclusivity. Glyndebourne is the oldest of the élite, followed by Garsington and, since 1998, Grange Park, which keeps up with the others on all counts
setting, performances, food and a dapper audience. While they all have priority booking for members, the public can obtain tickets months before the season starts but be quick, since availability is limited.
The auditorium on the terrace at 17th century Garsington Manor, just outside Oxford, seats around 500. You can eat in the restaurant, order a picnic or bring your own. Dine in the all-weather tents or the Italian gardens with their yew hedges, statues and water features, which are sometimes used as scenery for productions. The 2007 season includes Richard Strauss's modern take on Greek mythology, Ariadne auf Naxos.
June 9-July 9
Public booking opens April 23
TICKETS $156-$264 tel: (44-1865) 361636 garsingtonopera.org
Not far from Lewes, West Sussex, is a Tudor mansion with its own opera house. It lives up to its founder's aim to provide "not just the best that can be done, but the best that can be done anywhere." Bring a picnic; eat in the tearoom or restaurants (named after Hampshire villages Over, Middle and Nether Wallop); or order a gourmet hamper. If it rains, retreat to the big tent or the theater's covered exterior gallery. The lush walled English gardens are worth a stroll, and you may find a sheep eyeing your dinner, as there's only a ha-ha (dry ditch) between lawns and fields. This year's highlight is the first-ever staging of Johann Sebastian Bach's St. Matthew Passion.
GRANGE PARK OPERA
Near Winchester in Hampshire, the theater is a converted orangery, the mansion itself houses the restaurant. Fields and woods make the perfect backdrop for a picnic eat in the big tent or a private Indian pavilion (but make note: if you bring more than one servant, you must book a separate pavilion for them). At season's end, some productions move briefly to Nevill Holt in Leicestershire, a medieval house with a theater in the old stables. Rare treats this season are Michel Legrand's 1964 marriage-of-convenience saga Les Parapluies de Cherbourg and Sergei Prokofiev's compulsive case history The Gambler.
May 31-July 4;
Nevill Holt July 6-15
Public booking opens March 15
TICKETS from $88 (restricted view) to $2,050 10-person box tel: (44-1962) 868888; grangeparkopera.co.uk