Mozart in the Garden

What do you get when you mix classical music with talented singers and excellent libations—all in a private outdoor setting? An opera performance that’s uniquely…fun!

Bob Scott

Mozart in the Garden

For great opera we go to the great houses in Milan, London, New York and Farmville. Hang on—Farmville? Yes. In late June, Mozart’s opera buffa, Così fan tutte—“All Women Are Like That”— was performed in Farmville at the fine house of Reed and Harlan Horton. It was a garden party performance—private, intimate and delightfully decadent. While most operas are seen inside concert halls, of course—where we are nailed to our seats for three hours and there endure the baleful glances of dowagers when our glasses clatter to the floor during the briefest moment of inattention—the Farmville show was just the opposite: Imagine listening to Mozart’s classical music, and talented voices that bring the libretto to life, while milling about on a manicured multi-level garden with a gin and tonic (it was very hot) in hand?

Private opera events have become trendy in major cities, but not merely because they are different and, therefore, chic. According to Christopher Swanson, professor in the department of music at Longwood University, who hatched the idea for this “Summer Garden Opera” along with the Hortons and a few other Farmville residents, “This is in fact the way that opera, once upon a time, was supposed to be done… in a sort of casual setting where one could eat and drink and talk and walk around.” To press home the point, Swanson, in his curtain speech, more than a few times encouraged the audience to mill about and drink “more wine.” Adds Horton, who is an attorney; “I think there is a sense that one needs to go to Richmond or Charlottesville or Washington to really see something great. But we sometimes forget that there are wonderful [performances] right here in our own backyards.” Literally, it’s his backyard.

On this sultry summer evening, a party of about 120 seersucker and sundress clad patrons gathered for a light supper and drinks, followed by Mozart’s opera, first performed in Vienna in 1790. The performance took place in the Horton’s sunroom, which opens to the garden through three arched French doors. The setup enabled the singers to project their voices outside to the crowd and to play their roles a bit. The cast consisted of Swanson and Jennifer Capaldo, assistant professor of music at Longwood, plus imported professional singers Jan Cornelius, Scott MacLeod, Katy Wolfe Zahn and Kevin Wetzel. They were accompanied by Dr. James Kidd, professor of music at Hampden-Sydney College, and Lisa Kinzer, associate professor of music at Longwood.

Guests did as they pleased. Some looked on from chairs set about the garden’s lower tier, while others sauntered about between banquet tables and the bar on the garden’s upper area. “We didn’t have any idea of how excited people would be, or if anyone would want to support the event or even come,” says Swanson who was delighted with the turnout. The guests, a mix of locals and out-of-towners, included Hampden-Sydney President Christopher Howard and his wife, Barbara, and Walter Witschy, director emeritus of the Science Museum of Virginia. According to Horton, the event cost about $8,000 to produce—roughly half contributed by sponsors, chief among them Centra Southside Community Hospitals. Guests paid $20 each—a bargain for stuffiness-free high culture set among garden flowers, chirping crickets and the rise of a gorgeous honey-colored moon.

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