An opera maker’s home in Brighton reaches new heights | Interiors

FFor 40 years this Brighton apartment, set in an elm-shaded, stucco-fronted square in the upper town, was the home of opera director John Cox, who used it as a bolthole while working at Glyndebourne. A creative crowd, including David Hockney, (his bold graphic designs for The progress of the rake are a Glyndebourne perennial) mixed in the garden, masked by a heady curtain of white wisteria. At the end of the season, Hockney’s parting gift to Cox was the art deco fireplace, which brings a dramatic touch to the living room.

Today, the ground floor apartment has a suitably theatrical new owner. Gary McCann, a rising star in opera design (he has productions opening in Venice, Bologna and Bilbao) bought the apartment from Cox in 2016. It has remained “pretty much unchanged” since then, says the set designer and costume designer historically minded, which describes the architecture as a “Frankenstein monster” of the eras. “It was remodeled in the 1920s. There are early Victorian elements mixed in with the 1980s.”

There’s no central heating either, and the gusts of wind rattle the sash windows. “But I love all those layers of the past; that sense of continuity,” McCann explains, cutting a vintage twist into his three-piece tweed suit and pocket watch, waxed and twirled mustache. “When I go to the barber, I ask for a Nicolas II. I describe my style as a cross between an Edwardian gentleman and a WWII dispatch rider,” he continues, pointing to the swirling 1940s biker coat hanging next to his collection of bowler hats, presented as accessories in a period drama.

Rustic originals: the kitchen. Photograph: Rachael Smith/The Observer

In another neat twist, it was Cox who gave McCann his first lyrical break. “I had had a stable but turtle-like career working in theatre. But in the mid-2000s I needed work so I wrote to Cox who I had met when we were living close together in Greenwich. He offered me a job on Fidelio at Garsington. We became friends after that. When he decided to sell this place, he asked me if I would be interested in buying it.

There is a staged feel to the quirky layout. From the small sloping hallway, the rooms unfold in front, offering enticing glimpses. It was Cox who installed the living room doors, which swing open swaggeringly into the narrow bathroom with a washed checkerboard lino floor. The kitchen opposite has the original electric cooker and rustic surfaces. The large bedroom overlooks the pear tree in the garden; forward, the living room, lit by three bay windows, has kept the sumptuous brown carpet of the 80s: “It’s the only thing I don’t like.

Over time, McCann tweaked the color palettes – from dark grays to soft maritime blues and greens. There isn’t a stick of new furniture or art here. “It was all bric-a-brac,” he says, pointing to the 1930s pottery and mid-century sideboard and peach-tinted art deco mirror that complements Hockney’s fire surround. Cox bequeathed the first Anglepoise lamp and the elaborate firewall, with its orange tree motif: “It’s Arts and Crafts, but the mix works well,” says McCann.

One of the rooms with military pictures on the walls
Military presence: more portraits in one of the bedrooms. Photograph: Rachael Smith/The Observer

Combining the old and the new “with a touch of drama” is what McCann excels at. “I’ve always enjoyed mixing references to classical architecture with contemporary elements – it adds edge without alienating the audience.” A large-format critic described a recent production of the comic opera Last Rosenkavalier as a “swirling and gargantuan” party of baroque plasterwork, as the “best production in 50 years”.

Her childhood in the 1980s, growing up in a housing estate near Belfast at the height of the Troubles against a backdrop of ‘crude but picturesque’ protest murals and bomb blasts, also seeped into her productions. “Very often there will be images of destruction in my sets; things have been damaged or compromised. I like to convey the feeling that beauty is fragile.

Like characters from one of his productions, a cast of military types watch from the living room walls. McCann found the gilt-framed portraits in markets in Berlin and Vienna, where he designed productions for the State Opera: “All these people had extraordinary lives. So you could say that I created my own ancestors – even if I sometimes feel that they are judging me.

the art deco fireplace given to the former owner by David Hockney
Dramatic flourish: the art deco fireplace given to the former owner by David Hockney. Photograph: Rachael Smith/The Observer

An RAF officer is by AR Thompson, a war artist who painted the murals on the Queen Mary. There are two versions of the same aristocrat: confident and youthful in 1904; corpulent and worn by time after the First World War. “Telling stories is my job, so I was intrigued by the narrative behind the paintings.”

In the bedroom is a dark landscape east of Ashington, Northumberland. The mining village, with its slag heap and terraces, was the birthplace of the self-taught group of Ashington painters of the 1930s, most of whom were miners. In 2007, McCann designed the “clean Brechtian” setting for Lee Hall’s stage version of their story. The Pitmen Painters transferred from the sold-out series to the National on Broadway.

The narrow bathroom
Slim fit: the narrow bathroom. Photograph: Rachael Smith/The Observer

Nearby, the chrome-framed low bed is another Coxian heirloom. McCann thinks the headboard – made from an old paneled door – may have come from a Glyndebourne set.

One day McCann will redo the apartment and make it “more coherent”. But it will tread lightly. “It will take me a long time to plan because there is so much character here. You can’t just rip it out and put it in a standard kitchen. I need to retain its atmosphere of something that will last forever. An element will never change. The Hockney fireplace is, as he says, “embedded in the DNA of this place”.

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