Wasfi Kani

On a mission in music

Wasfi Kani brought opera to all in 2020 – for free, and in the middle of a pandemic, and has just been awarded a CBE in the New Year’s Honours List for her services to music. We find out more about this formidable force of the UK arts scene…

To say Wasfi Kani is something of a high achiever would be an understatement. Born in 1956 in London’s East End, she is likely the only opera impresario who spent her childhood in a house with an outside lavatory (her words), and has gone on to shape the UK arts scene, overcoming incredible obstacles to set up Grange Park Opera – not once, but twice (having been uprooted from their first home in Hampshire). Hampshire’s loss was Surrey’s gain and GPO has become a much-loved fixture at the West Horsley Place estate since it opened in 2017, and is one of the major summer opera festivals in Europe.

Productions take place at the Theatre in the Woods, a five-tiered, 700-seat opera house on the 14th century estate, which was inherited by Bamber Gascoigne from his aunt, the Duchess of Roxburghe. The £11.5m cost of the building was raised by Kani herself from private donations in just one year. And in 11 months, the opera house, modelled on La Scala, Milan, was built, and acknowledged as the “fastest construction of an opera house in history”. Its high profile supporters include the likes of Joanna Lumley, who is a trustee.

A violinist, Wasfi played for the National Youth Orchestra and went on to study music at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. After 10 years in the city, designing financial computer systems, she started a small consultancy which gave her the flexibility to spend more time conducting. By 1993, she had made music her full-time career. She went on to found Grange Park Opera and the sister charity Pimlico Opera, which has presented co-productions with prisons for 26 years, as well as the Primary Robins project, which gives singing classes to children in deprived areas.

So Wasfi wasn’t about to let a pandemic stand in her way of continuing in her mission to bring opera to all, and while it put paid to business as usual, the indomitable Wasfi looked for a way around it. Grange Park Opera engaged over 150 artists to create their Found and Interim seasons with 50 free online events, which included four staged operas. Her efforts were incredibly well received with the seasons garnering more than 70,000 views around the world.

She sees music as ‘food for the soul’ and believes she had a duty to carry on through the Covid crisis. “Everything just ground to a halt. And then there was a lot of talk and it seemed like everyone got stuck in talk rather than doing. So I decided I would do something. I went to a couple of colleagues with my ideas and said, ‘we’ll lose loads of money on it but it feels like the right thing to do’…”

“And then once we started, I realised it also makes a huge difference to the artists, because there are those who have been working for over 30 years and then overnight the work just stopped. Imagine how you’d feel, what it does to the brain. It’s so very difficult.”

“We are here to share music and to make people’s lives better.”

She can’t understand why there wasn’t more action around the world. “So many people love to say ‘…but…’ and have a reason for not doing something. That is boring and we need to do as much as we can before we die…”

“We did lose money, it’s fine. I’ll make it up somehow. But it had to be done. We are here to share music and to make people’s lives better.”

It certainly did that – and highlights of The Found Season saw superstars Sir Bryn Terfel and Sir Simon Keenlyside give concerts from their homes in Wales, and Tamara Rojo present a pas de deux from the English National Ballet. The Interim Season featured Owen Wingrave, a rarely performed opera created by Benjamin Britten specifically for TV in 1971, which was filmed on location in haunted houses around the UK.

And there was even the desire to commission a new opera, A Feast in the Time of Plague (pictured below), which was performed live on stage in front of an invited audience of 250 people. With a libretto by Sir David Pountney and music by Alex Woolf, A Feast in the Time of Plague was the only new opera to have been commissioned during lockdown and the first opera in the UK to be performed inside a theatre, and with an audience, since lockdown. It was filmed, and is now streamed for free.

A Feast In the Time of Plague

Wasfi has certainly earned her latest accolade of Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She was awarded an OBE in 2002 for her work with Pimlico Opera, so was she surprised to learn she’d also been decorated with a CBE too? She is modest in that she admits it still made her heart pound when she got the call from the Cabinet Office with the news, and she is at pains to point out that it is a joint achievement. “One person doesn’t make these things happen. It is a huge number of people all working together as well as those who gave me the money – the donors, who have been incredibly loyal.”

So what next for Wasfi? She is worried about how the year has started but it is not stopping her plans for the 2021 season, which includes La Boheme, Falstaff, Ivan The Terrible and the world premiere of The Life & Death of Alexander Litvinenko, the tragic story of the poisoning of the Russian dissident.

Wasfi believes that by April, they will be able to go into rehearsals and a plan is in place on how they will release tickets in order to be able to comply with whatever social distancing is required by the time the summer season starts. There’s also the issue of what to do with the orchestra – which is normally 60 to 70 strong and confined in the pit. “So that’s what I’m spending my time doing at the moment, and together with my colleagues, we’re coming up with some big positive plans for the summer.”

As for her hopes for the year ahead? “I tend to have projects rather than hopes. I’ve got a few new amazing things coming up, one of which I created over the Christmas period, which I think is quite a good idea.

“But I must admit that mentally I’m quite bogged down in just figuring out how we’re going to deal with the next few years, and trying to imagine what happens in the next few months. It’s just one step at a time. I think my message to myself is to be patient.” And that is one thing that Wasfi admits she isn’t that good at…