The Christie family at Glyndebourne: making an opera house a home

PUBLISHED: 17:27 02 July 2015 | UPDATED: 17:27 02 July 2015

Danni and Gus Christie. Picture by Jim Holden

Danni and Gus Christie. Picture by Jim Holden

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The Christie family have made an internationally renowned success of their Glyndebourne grounds. But how have Gus Christie and his wife, soprano Danielle de Niese, made an opera house a home?

Picture by Jim HoldenPicture by Jim Holden

At the time of my visit, the Glyndebourne Festival is just around the corner and the place is unsurprisingly buzzing with people dashing hither and thither in pursuit of scores, costumes, props and the like. Fragmented melodies can be heard on the breeze, and there is a steady flow of vans delivering everything from food to pieces of set. (They are inching around the roads when I arrive, comically trying to dodge a peacock who seems adamant on standing right in the way. Well he does live here, I suppose.) This isn’t called the home of British opera for nothing.

But today British opera must take a place on the chorus line, for it is the home of Gus Christie and his wife Danielle de Niese that is to take centre stage. Their house sits directly beside the opera house itself, but to say that one overshadows the other would be untrue – both are equally resplendent. As well as carrying forward his grandfather’s and father’s legacy, Gus says that his work will – happily – never be done. “Glyndebourne is like a living, breathing thing – it is constantly evolving and moving with the times.” But as he goes on to reveal, it is also a place very keen on tradition. “We are all about looking to the future, but with an eye on the past. We would hate to disregard anything that has gone before as everything has its place.”

Picture by Jim HoldenPicture by Jim Holden

Since he moved into the house in 2002 – “I actually did a house swap with my parents; they moved just down the road and I took up residence here” – Gus has treated the house in very much the same way as he has handled the business. There are furnishings and paintings around the place that have been there since he was a boy (he was born upstairs), but new lights have been installed to brighten the place up, the whole ‘back-passage’ area has been redone, and he got rid of some of the tallboys: “my grandfather loved them – there were two for every bedroom, so we had to get rid of some of those!” There is also a newly-planted rose garden, dedicated to his mother, Lady Christie, “which the expert team of gardeners, led by John Hoyland, have planted so that they will bloom just in time for the festival.”

The house is very much looking to the future, not only in terms of a few licks of paint, but also in its green credentials. Last winter saw the instalment of a wood chip burner to replace the old gas boilers, which Gus says has made “a huge difference”. It now heats the house, the organ room and one of the office blocks, but there are plans to extend this even further.

Picture by Jim HoldenPicture by Jim Holden

Once again in parallel, the opera house itself has also undergone something of a green revolution. There is of course the wind turbine that sits on the hill above the house, erected in 2012, but there is also new LED lighting to help reduce their carbon footprint, much of which operates on a sensor, so no lights are ever left on. “Energy consumption has been reduced by around 90 per cent,” says Gus, “but our long term aim is to be carbon neutral. I know that sounds ambitious but I really think that it can be achieved.” He goes on to say that the hardest part of their carbon footprint to reduce will be all the cars and coaches. They have installed power points for electric cars, and also extended the coach park and the lifts they offer from Lewes, to encourage people to leave their car at home.

The coach park has not only grown but moved from right in front of the house to behind a hedge, giving the family back some much-needed privacy. 
“That’s one of the big issues here – we have up to 70 singers and their families staying in the house nearly all the time, which we love, and obviously people all around the place rehearsing and preparing the shows, but at the end of the day this is our home, so it was so nice to be able to reclaim that little bit of lawn for ourselves.”

Picture by Jim HoldenPicture by Jim Holden

The next project on the immediate horizon is a nursery, for when I visit Danielle is a matter of weeks away from giving birth. But she is far from putting her feet up; when I meet the internationally renowned soprano her feet are encased in an unutterably glamorous pair of gold stilettos. “Oh, these?” she laughs “These are actually my small heels – they get so much bigger than this.” It’s not exactly the swollen-ankled state one might expect from a woman in the later stages of pregnancy, but then this is Danielle. I quickly come to realise that she is a force of nature, and once the baby is born she’ll have a few weeks before she is due to start rehearsing not one but two lead roles, for Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges: Fantaisie lyrique en deux parties. This will see her playing both a femme fatale and a small boy, while her young son or daughter (who will surely be musically-minded) looks on. “It’ll be a baby doted on by a company full of people, that’s one lucky baby!”

Danielle is keen to stress though that this is nothing remarkable – “the pressure may be on because of the audience factor, but this is something that most mothers go through – the need to get back to work quickly. I’m no different in that respect.” She is also going to have a year of her life covered by the BBC, with a view to producing a show next year. But that is the Christie family – at once homely, tightly-knit and traditional, but also forward-thinking, proactive and ambitious.

Picture by Jim HoldenPicture by Jim Holden

Gus’s grandfather used to joke that his son only ever missed one Glyndebourne Festival as he was still in his mother’s tummy at the time, but that he probably heard the whole thing.



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