Michael Wade chief executive of CLM Insurance Fund, plans to turn his derelict country house into an operatic Mecca. Hugh Pearman, the Sunday Times architecture and design critic joins him to tread its boards
'The great thing about this place,' says Michael Wade as we pick our way through the north wing of his Grade I listed country retreat, 'is that it's collapsed. No-one's even looked at this part of the house for 50 years. We can open it up as a huge auditorium.' Not that huge, in fact - Wade, one of the City's original thinkers in the hermetic world of insurance, is thinking of a relatively modest theatre for 250-300 people.
An opera fanatic, Wade also chairs the company Opera Interludes, which puts on scaled-down (but full-costume) productions anywhere there is an audience. This can mean Number 10 Downing Street, embassies, and of course the country-house set. Last autumn Wade acquired this, his own country house, which he intends to turn into an operatic Mecca.
We gingerly explore the north wing with its missing floorboards, cobwebbed sash windows, worm-eaten tea chests and collapsing ceilings. Wet and dry rot have taken their toll: an owl appears to have moved in: at one point an entire floor has gone missing, leaving doors and windows perched surreally high in the air. I begin to understand his enthusiasm - with a place like this, you can do virtually anything. Where others would see big, expensive problems, he sees opportunity.
"I have always wanted to be involved in a project that brought music and architecture together,' he reflects as, the expedition round the abandoned arctic regions of the house complete, we sip drinks in front of a gratifyingly efficient log fire. Trafalgar House, a few miles outside Salisbury, is a large mid-18th century mansion with some fine interiors. Given by the nation to the Nelson family in 1815 (hence the name) it had been through many hands since the family sold up in 1948, had fallen on hard times, and was slated to be converted into a country house hotel when Wade saw its potential and snapped it up.
A single man with a passion for music, Wade knew at once what he wanted to do with the house. He will live in the south wing, the opera house will be in the currently derelict north wing, and the big original 1730s house in-between - with its perfect cube of an entrance hall, modelled on Inigo Jones's Queen's House at Greenwich - will become a place for dining, entertainment, and suites of rooms for the corporate sponsors of each production.
'I'm quite realistic about the project,' he says. 'You couldn't begin to afford just to live in a place like this. But you can make something of it for an on-going use. It flies in the face of normal business wisdom, but it's an opportunity to leave something behind - a fine architectural building with a purpose.' Wade, in his early 40s, is a born entrepreneur, as his successes to date - first with brokers Holman Wade, then with CLM, which he established in 1993 with Sir Peter Parker to raise corporate capital for the Lloyd's of London market - testify. The key difference between this project and his weekday work, he explains, is that it is open-ended. It will take years and years. He doesn't mind that. It's a labour of love.
Wade is gearing up for the first of his trial concerts in the hall. The great and good, from Salisbury and the City, are coming: members of Opera Interludes are here to plan the production. In the dining room with its 1766 Cipriani wall paintings, we tackle a steak pie, accompanied by good wine and a lot of opera talk. Wade intends to base Opera Interludes in the large stable block, which will also contain rooms for visiting singers. The first trial concert is very important. 'I'll be asking people: this is my idea - what do you think? I want to test reaction. Then, over the next five years, I would like to think we could slowly restore the building and develop the concept of the opera house.' Down the hill near the River Avon is another part of his estate: a tiny ivy-choked, bricked-up church, its yard full of the graves of Nelsons. Another restoration job, for another time. Wade is delighted that someone has cleared the overgrown churchyard. Only later does it occur to me: he's thinking very long term with this scheme, longer than any City business plan. Perhaps, one day, he can imagine his own tombstone in this remote corner of rural England. By which time, opera at Trafalgar may be as well known as opera at Glyndebourne.