Glyndebourne - The 75-year encore
PUBLISHED: 16:41 27 April 2009 | UPDATED: 15:58 20 February 2013
Internationally known but unique to Sussex, Glyndebourne opera house is a family legacy that, now in its third generation and still looking to the future, this month celebrates 75 years of peerless music, as Michael Palmer reports...
ON MAY 28, 1934, the curtain rose on the first performance of the inaugural Opera Festival at Glyndebourne. It was a moment that represented years of tireless work, ambition and vision from one man, John Christie, whose ethos of producing not just the best he could but "the best that can be done anywhere", saw his spark of an idea become a legacy that has lasted 75 years.
John Christie inherited the Glyndebourne estate from his father in 1920 and, a musician himself, initially the musical focus was the Organ Room, built to provide John's friend and Eton organist Dr Lloyd with an instrument to play while in Sussex.
In the Organ Room, John would host organ recitals and amateur opera productions, and it was during one of these that he met his future wife. Soprano Audrey Mildmay was singing with the Carl Rosa company at the time, and had been brought in, at the suggestion of a friend, to provide some sparkle to the production.
They were married in 1931 and, after a honeymoon spent at Salzburg and Bayreuth Festivals, the Christies returned to Glyndebourne. Feeling that opera was almost non-existent in England, they enthusiastically set about planning a small theatre on the estate.
However, it was through a suggestion from Audrey that "if you're going to spend all that money, John, for God's sake do the thing properly", the theatre plans were redesigned.
The new structure would incorporate a 300-seat room, with a good-sized orchestra pit and stage trimmed with the most up-to-date technical and lighting equipment.
Handing over artistic control to Fritz Busch and Carl Ebert, conductor and producer respectively, John had inadvertently benefited from troubled pre-war politics in Europe, as both men had left Germany unable to work in the new regime. It was to be Germany's loss, and the pair accepted the jobs alongside John's one condition: that all financial matters of the opera festival should be left to him.
A new standard
The opening festival was an event never before seen in the UK. Throughout the two-week extravaganza, six performances of Le nozze di Figaro and six of Cosi fan tutte were performed, stifling the critics and quashing the sceptics by demonstrating that this opera house, in the middle of the Sussex Downs, had set a whole new standard of operatic performance.
"Putting on risky things is part of what we are," says David Pickard, Glyndebourne's general director. "If we stop taking risks, then we start to lose the right to exist, really. I think we all feel very strongly that there is a thread that goes back over the last 75 years; for John Christie's vision to still be here 75 years later, and for us to be part if it, is very exciting."
Fastidious attention to detail - something for which Glyndebourne has become famous - meant that the first productions were rehearsed endlessly. Minute attention was paid to the detail of the orchestra, singing, acting, scenery and costumes, and the decision was made to choose the best singers for the parts, no matter where they came from.
This meant an international company from Italy, America, Finland, Germany and Austria among others, and it was this line-up that that, after just one festival, put Glyndebourne on the map.
The Second World War did little to diminish Glyndebourne's appeal, although the house was briefly turned into a large dormitory for housing East London evacuee children.
By the time the war was over, Glyndebourne had established itself as a major player in the musical world, and also managed to acquire some quirky traditions which were put in place by John Christie during those first performances. He felt that audiences should be appropriately attired, and so it became customary to wear black tie or evening dress.
An unusual 90-minute break for dinner meant that audiences could relax with a picnic on the lawns, and music lovers travelling from London by rail would be met at the station by coach and transported to the opera house.
Post-war, however, money was tight. More than £100,000 of John Christie's personal fortune had been spent on Glyndebourne, and in 1950 the first outside contribution helped ease the financial burden. More followed and after several years, John was able to entirely shift personal responsibility for the festival's finance.
But the equilibrium between finance and artistry is something which still provides the management with dilemmas.
"There are two halves to the job," says David. "One side is conscious of doing very artistic and exciting things, and the other is very conscious of cost - it's a balancing act."
A year later, the Glyndebourne Festival Society was formed, aiming to provide financial support for the festival by charging an annual subscription, and it's become the personal ambition of enthusiasts the world over to secure membership.
In the 1960s, a highly successful touring opera was set up by Glyndebourne, visiting Newcastle, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and Oxford. The idea was to make the work of the festival accessible to nationwide audiences, and also to give performing opportunities to up and coming singers.
With its legendary extended rehearsal periods, Glyndebourne's tour quickly made the only other two touring operas at the time look amateur by comparison, and public support for the annual tour has been overwhelming ever since.
By the late 1980s, it was becoming increasingly obvious that the original theatre was struggling to accommodate both the technical demands of new productions, and also the physical demand for tickets.
In 1987, plans were announced by Sir George Christie that a new opera house would be built. It was to blend into its surroundings, have a larger auditorium yet retain the intimacy Glyndebourne was famed for. The acoustics had to be second to none and staff, singers and audience facilities had to be improved.
Hand-made bricks were used in its construction, and pre-cast concrete was used for its floors and ceilings. The horseshoe-shaped auditorium was crafted from 100-year-old pitch pine, and despite the addition of more than 400 seats, the back wall of the theatre is actually 6ft closer to the stage than the original building.
It was the first opera house to be built in the UK since John Christie unveiled his in 1934 and, having been showered with awards, it was opened exactly 60 years later to the day, with the same opera - Le nozze di Figaro.
Today, Glyndebourne is embracing the future as much as it is learning from the past. Innovative uses of technology to bring opera to new audiences, including filming operas and showing them in cinemas and providing podcasts, are no doubt things that John Christie would have encouraged.
"I hope we never, as a theatre, grow any bigger than we are at the moment," says David. "What is wonderful about this place is that we've got a relatively small theatre, and it works under festival conditions.
"We've been able to expand our activities and make it known to a wider audience through filming and touring, and I also think it's incredibly important that we find ways for young people to experience the opera."
Environmental concerns are being addressed, most notably building a wind turbine to provide all the electricity to the site, and the £30 ticket to under-30s is helping inspire a whole new generation of opera lovers.
With a reputation for performing unusual works, arguably the most important factor in Glyndebourne's continuing success is its unique family connection.
"The family involvement is incredibly important to the artists," David says.
"The fact that Gus Christie still lives in the house, and that some artists even stay in the house, means that they feel that sense of history and tradition as well."
When John Christie stood down in 1958, his son George succeeded him as chairman. In 1999, on George's 65th birthday, his second son Gus was appointed executive chairman, and George still works in an advisory capacity to the board of trustees.
The Christie family continues to live in the house, and eagle-eyed visitors to Glyndebourne will spot the telltale signs that Gus himself has sons, hopefully ensuring that the Christie legacy will easily survive the next 75 years.
READ MORE IN THE MAY EDITION OF SUSSEX LIFE