Skip to main content

Since the beginning of Waterperry Opera Festival, inclusivity has taken centre stage. With a diverse programme of English language performances – from Mansfield Park to Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes – the festival has brought opera to new audiences since 2018.

Behind the scenes is founder and Cardiff alum Guy Withers, who’s driven by the knowledge that opera can change people’s lives. “Art, music, theatre, dance – these are what make life special, right?” he smiles. Now approaching its seventh edition, the festival’s audience has grown significantly over the years, from greeting 900 attendees at its three-day debut, to welcoming 5,000 across ten days in 2023.  

Staged against the backdrop of Oxfordshire’s Waterperry Gardens, the open-air event is incredibly picturesque. But despite these luxurious surroundings, Waterperry dispels common misconceptions of opera as elitist or out of reach. “It's more Glastonbury than Glyndebourne,” Guy says.

By prioritising affordable tickets and socially relevant productions, the festival continues to welcome first-time operagoers, including families keen to get back to nature. One particular highlight was an immersive woodland performance of Hansel and Gretel, in collaboration with local deaf communities. “Rather than featuring a British Sign Language interpreter, we incorporated a deaf character who signed during the show,” Guy explains. “So, for all the children in the audience who were deaf or could sign, they saw something that was for them.”  

Guy’s own passion for singing started at a young age, but it wasn’t until his teen years that he discovered opera. “Up until that point I was going to study mathematics or engineering, and have music as a hobby on the side,” he says.

Then on a big family holiday to Australia, an initially reluctant Guy saw his first opera at – where else – the Sydney Opera House. It was a modernised production set in 1920s New York, a choice that would later influence ideas for his own contemporary performances. He describes a moment of inspiration: “I didn’t expect it to be so interesting and passionate, and I'd never experienced anything like it. I said to my parents, ‘that's what I want to do’.”

Guy Verrall-Withers (BMus 2013)
Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, Waterperry Opera Festival

A few years later, Guy applied to Cardiff University and secured a Music scholarship, something which gave him a real confidence boost:

“It was incredibly special to be given that sense of belief. I think it can really change your life.”

He would later found the University’s Opera Society, and a student performance of Pride and Prejudice would set him on course to a career in producing.

“I fell in love with Cardiff and how musical it was,” he says. “I felt the Music Department believed in me and the staff were really supportive. It was just the perfect place for me, and I couldn't have wished to be anywhere else.”  

Guy now pays that support forward as part of his work at Waterperry. For emerging artists looking to access education, he explains, a lack of financial support and fewer opportunities outside of London can act as major barriers.

“There’s lots of training that takes place, but this still requires the knowledge and funds to get there,” he tells us. Waterperry’s solution is the Young Artist Programme, a fully funded initiative which not only supports participants to showcase their talents, but also gives them the tools to succeed as creative professionals. Aspiring artists both on stage and behind the scenes benefit from mentorship and placements, as well as advice on the ins and outs of CVs and auditions.

“It’s really done wonders,” Guy says. “We have stories of people from our course who’re now singing at the Royal Opera House.” The initiative has already supported 50 budding artists to date, but Guy's mission to widen access to the arts shows no sign of stopping.

Looking ahead, he plans to collaborate with local schools, connect even more young audiences with the arts, and share the creative inspiration that sparked his own career today.  

The 2024 edition of the Waterperry Opera Festival will take place across 9 - 18 August.

More from Cardiff Connect magazine

Cardiff Connect 2024

In this Summer 2024 edition of your alumni and friends magazine, you’ll hear how our talented alumni are supporting the next generation of students and making a difference to the world around them. Learn how our researchers are advancing our understanding of tuberculosis and using cutting-edge technology to improve global women's health.

Giving future archaeology students the best opportunities

Julia Wise (BA 1986) is helping to ensure the next generation of archaeologists can study at Cardiff, free from the pressure of financial worries.

Welsh surgeon’s legacy lives on, empowering the next generation of Cardiff medical students

Dr John Thomas' passion for medicine and making education accessible inspired his family to establish the Dr John Thomas Bursary.