Wasfi Kani was born in 1956 in Cable Street in London’s East End, and is almost certainly the only opera impresario who spent her childhood in a house with an outside lavatory. Her parents, from Delhi and Agra, had fled India at Partition to take refuge in the UK. During her early years, the family moved to west London and Wasfi attended Burlington Grammar School for Girls, where she excelled at Maths and Music. A violinist, she played for the National Youth Orchestra and went on to study music at St Hilda’s College, Oxford.
After 10 years in the city, programming and designing financial computer systems, she started a small computer consultancy which gave her the flexibility to spend more time conducting. By 1993, she had made music her full-time career. As she once said, “I’ve always had this sense that the arts provide some kind of insight into the ultimate truth, whereas banking and computer systems don’t.”
In 1992, Wasfi was made Chief Executive of Garsington Opera in Oxford. Set in Ottoline Morrell’s garden, this festival grew during her five years’ tenure, and she more than quadrupled its turnover.
In 1997, Kani founded her own opera company, Grange Park Opera, which in 2016 moved to West Horsley Place, an estate in the Surrey Hills inherited by Bamber Gascoigne. Here, in the grounds, Kani created from scratch, Theatre in the Woods, a 700-seat opera house based on La Scala, which is the UK’s first new opera house to be built in the 21st century.
Since its inception of the GPO, Wasfi has produced more than 75 operas, which have been performed to audience of more than 300,000. She has built award-winning theatres, nurtured the careers of young singers and created a family of supporters that has helped her raise more than £22m in funds to support Grange Park Opera, which receives no subsidy from the government.
Wasfi Kani is an Honorary Fellow of the RIBA and St Hilda’s College, Oxford. She received an OBE in the New Year’s Honours List 2002 for her work in bringing her second opera company, Pimlico Opera, into prisons. This annual initiative gives inmates the opportunity to work with professional directors and singers in creating a production which the public attend. The most recent show, Sweet Charity at HMP Bronzefield, was the 27th collaboration and more than 60,000 public have ventured inside to witness remarkable talent. Besides the work in prison, Pimlico Opera gives a half hour singing class to 2,000 primary school children every week of the school year.
As Kani says, “Opera is a form of almost religious aspiration reaching upwards to the stars – and into the depths of the human soul.”
What they say about Wasfi Kani:
“Wasfi Kani had two years to find a new site, get planning permission, raise £10m and build a new opera house. Miraculously she did it." The Times