Set in the heart of the Cheshire countryside, stands one of the North West's most unexpected cultural treasures - Clonter Opera Theatre which is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

This delightfully quirky venue contains a 400 seat theatre, complete with an orchestra pit and balconies, with adjoining bar and dining areas, providing a destination for audiences to enjoy a wide variety of musical and theatrical events.

During the July opera performances, people can also picnic in the grounds surrounding the theatre.

Opera first made its debut at Clonter Farm in July 1974. Friends and neighbours were invited to come to an ‘Operatic Picnic’ in aid of Cancer Relief at Clonter Farm, home of Jeffery and Anita Lockett and their family.

The programme was made up of operatic excerpts performed by The Abbey Opera Group, with whom Jeffery Lockett sang as baritone (while running his dairy farm in Cheshire).

A barn, full of straw bales, was converted for the night into a theatre.

The whole evening was such a success that the following year people began to ring up in January to find out when the next operatic picnic would be held. They sold out for the next eight years.

Due to the ever increasing popularity of these evenings, in 1983 Jeffery enlarged the theatre and six months later he had a raked auditorium with 400 seats and indoor dining areas.

In 1999 an orchestra pit was added and the roof raised to create better sight lines and additional balcony seating.

At this time there were very few professional opera groups performing in the area.

The Buxton Opera House, and the Palace Theatre in Manchester, were both unoperational and the newly formed Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester was only in its second year. There was also no Bridgewater Hall or Lowry then.

Opera lovers and seekers of the unusual made their way to Clonter from Manchester, Chester, Liverpool and the surrounding countryside.

The loyalty and pioneering spirit of these first audiences continues to this day, and it is thanks to their support that Clonter has continued to produce musical entertainment over the last four decades.

Forty years on, Clonter is a registered charity, providing training and performance opportunities for emerging professional singers.

Its highly regarded residential opera studio, acts as a springboard, helping to bridge the gap between the conservatoire and the profession.

More than 150 singers audition each year for roles in the main summer opera production, masterclasses, showcase concerts and oratorio opportunities, and an autumn tour to London provides singers with an opportunity to be heard by a wider audience.

Clonter’s opera productions have a reputation for giving audiences an opportunity to hear singers perform in an intimate and accessible way.

Clonter's Opera Novice Nights and extensive community outreach programme introduce opera to newcomers of all ages.

Many rising stars who have performed at Clonter over the last 40 years have international careers, namely Clonter's President, Simon Keenlyside, Amanda Roocroft, Jonathan Lemalu, Katarina Karnéus and Kate Royal, to name but a few.

To celebrate its 40th anniversary, Clonter will produce a new adaptation of Gounod's Faust with English spoken dialogue.

This production will enable Clonter to put on an opera with which it has strong links, for the first time.

Mezzo soprano Betty Bannerman, mother of Clonter’s artistic director and founder, Jeffery Lockett, performed the role of Martha in Sir Thomas Beecham’s 1947 recording.

Later in her career, Betty Bannerman started the French song class at the Royal Northern College of Music. Her students included soprano Joan Rogers, and Simon Keenlyside.

Performances of Faust will take place in Cheshire from July 19-26 and September 27 and at the Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music in London on September 30 and October 1.

Special 40th anniversary performances will be on Saturday, July 26 at Clonter and Wednesday, October 1 at The Britten Theatre.

There will be an Opera Novice Night with a pre-performance talk about Faust and a costume design workshop on Thursday, July 17 for newcomers of all ages.

Jeffery Lockett’s interest in jazz has also established a fine tradition of international artists coming to perform at Clonter, including George Shearing, Cleo Laine and the whole of the Dankworth family.

In recent times there has been renowned pianist James Pearson, Ronnie Scott’s artistic director, and award-winning Lianne Caroll. Gospel too, with the London Adventist Chorale, conducted by Ken Burton, has now been established as a much loved annual Christmas fixture.

The next generation are now heavily involved and Clonter's diverse 2014 programme includes folk, comedy and at the end of the year its first ever panto.

Clonter has also become a much valued community resource hosting community events, competitions, performances and concerts of all genres of musical theatre including an educational outreach programme for 2,000 children each year.

If you haven't discovered Clonter yet, a full list of events and dining options can be found on Clonter's website or just call the box office on 01260 224 514 to join the mailing list for free.