Glyndebourne’s Gus Christie and Danielle de Niese

PUBLISHED: 14:23 11 June 2013 | UPDATED: 10:19 21 September 2018

Gus Christie and Dannielle de Niese at Glyndebourne, East Sussex

Gus Christie and Dannielle de Niese at Glyndebourne, East Sussex

Jim Holden

Opera singer Danielle de Niese took Glyndebourne by storm when she thrilled audiences as Cleopatra. But she wasn’t just a hit with the crowd – she also won the heart of Gus Christie, the chairman of the prestigious Sussex-based music festival

A breath of fresh air has been blowing through Glyndebourne Opera House – and I’m not referring to its controversial new wind turbine. In 2006, soprano Danielle de Niese swept Gus Christie, Glyndebourne’s chairman, off his feet while playing a “hotter than hot” Bollywood-style Cleopatra.

He was recently divorced from Imogen Lycett Green (the granddaughter of Sir John Betjeman); she was at the stale end of a volatile relationship with another singer. Three years later, they got hitched in a winter wonderland wedding, in which she took on Christie (with all that entails in compromised privacy) and step-motherhood to his four sons.

On the face of it, they seemed an unlikely pairing. Christie, 48, is charming and very English, but clearly loathes discussing personal matters. De Niese, on the other hand, greets me effusively in her strong American accent and proceeds to open up about almost everything – including her plans for children.

But when we chat in the bowels of Glyndebourne House, just a stone’s throw from the opera house, they are cheerfully bickering like any other domesticated couple. Christie is bemoaning the fact that the house can feel quite lonely off-season when de Niese, 33, is performing abroad.

“I’ve spent many a night here on my own,” he ruminates, though he is the first to champion her career. “Well, I wouldn’t say many, darling!” exclaims de Niese indignantly. “There are pheasant shoots, and friends come over to stay the night. And your family come and visit...” Christie is unmoved: “Yes, but they don’t live here. I’m a bit of a social animal and I like having people around. I find it a bit odd being completely on my own.”

De Niese turns to me for affirmation: “You see, I don’t mind that because I started travelling around the world at 21, and was thrust into a life of living in apartments by myself. I’d go to a rehearsal, come back, make tea and watch TV. I had to get used to it.”

Appearances can indeed be deceptive. She may seem the softer of the two, keen to put you at ease, but deep down there’s a steeliness, born out of necessity. You don’t get to command an opera stage based on your upper register alone.

This promises to be quite a year for Glyndebourne. Two months ago, the opera house published its annual sustainability figures, which showed that its newly installed wind turbine has fulfilled its remit by producing nearly 90 per cent of the opera house’s electricity needs in its first year. Whether or not this has pacified local residents, who were concerned that it might blight their view, remains to be seen, but Christie is implementing further sustainable measures.

It’s a big year musically, too. The festival season promises to be as vibrant as ever – with six productions, including revivals of Verdi’s Falstaff, Britten’s Billy Budd and Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. De Niese will be performing for the sixth time, in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, which was last done in the festival in 1938 when Christie’s grandmother, Audrey Mildmay, sang the same role.

De Niese takes pains to stress that her popularity with Glyndebourne’s casting agents has nothing to do with her relationship with Christie. “Glyndebourne has its own administration. All the contracts are set up years in advance, and the casting team believed in me way back when people in England were asking: ‘Where did she come from?’ Everything is done by the book. If they want me, they call my manager.”

In addition, this will be Vladimir Jurowski’s last year as Glyndebourne’s music director. Christie describes him as “hugely talented and very intellectual”, and he will be replaced by Robin Ticciati, their tour music director for the last three seasons. He will be a very different kettle of fish – “more heart than head” – and Christie intimates they are lucky to have him. “He trained under Simon Rattle and Colin Davis. And he’s already had his Metropolitan Opera debut. He’s in big demand and he’s not even 30.”

De Niese, of course, knows a thing or two about making it before 30. Born in Australia to Sri-Lankan/European parents, she sang with perfect pitch at the age of two. At eight, her classical singing won her the top prize in an Aussie forerunner of Britain’s Got Talent. And when her parents moved to LA, she won an Emmy for presenting a TV arts show for children.

At 15, she debuted with the LA Opera, and before she had even graduated from the prestigious Mannes College of Music in New York she was chosen by the Met for the supporting role of Barbarina in The Marriage of Figaro. She was still only 18.

Moving to the Christie family estate would have daunted most, but nothing appears to faze de Niese. How does she juggle the demands of being a world-class opera singer with her responsibilities at Glyndebourne?

“It all depends on how I’m feeling, on the strength of the role I’m doing and how much energy that requires,” she says. “Gus and I make these decisions together. Of course, I won’t be entertaining into the wee hours the night before a performance, but you might find me silent at a dinner, and then I’ll retire early. There’s no pressure on me to do the impossible.”

Christie appears to thrive on the festival season, even offering directors, designers, conductors, assistants, repetiteurs and all the production team a room in the house while they’re working there. But he has never known anything else, and has fond memories of growing up at this world-famous opera house in the Downs.

“As boys, we climbed all the roofs and trees around here. We also played football on the front lawn until, infuriatingly, the audience arrived, so we’d streak naked across the grass, thinking it would get them off. My naughty elder brother Hector also dared me a million pounds to lift a woman’s dress. I fell for it, but all he gave me was a shiny farthing!” He looks furtive: “I think a few of the visitors’ strawberries also went missing.”

There’s no doubting his love for the place. “I was taught to play tennis by the English baritone Benjamin Luxon and snooker with members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. I blew the trumpet and banged the drums in the orchestra pit.”

While Christie was banging the drum for Glyndebourne, de Niese, back in Australia, was dreaming of becoming the next Kiri Te Kanawa. “Dame Kiri was my idol; she was from the Southern Hemisphere of mixed background, doing what I was dying to do.” Remarkably, the two singers now live just miles apart and de Niese visits her role model for singing lessons.

Her dedication is impressive. She works out every day, focusing on running and hardcore cardio, though that extra stamina isn’t wasted. This year alone she’ll be performing at Glyndebourne, the Met and Barcelona, as well as recording tracks for her next album.

Her devotion to the body beautiful hasn’t gone unnoticed and she has been credited with putting “the sex into Sussex”. Does she worry this might detract from her singing? “What I give as a musician comes from the inside out,” she says. “Besides, I live in the modern world; I don’t believe in wearing a white sheet from the neck down to prove I have something important to say from my core. If a person can’t see beyond the exterior, that’s their problem. What can I do? I can’t work any harder.”

But it’s not all work and no play for Glyndebourne’s golden couple. On their rare days off, Christie gets up early to mountain bike to Firle and Kingston with friends, while de Niese enjoys strolling through Friston Forest with Caesar, their Portuguese water dog, or catching movies at Uckfield Picturehouse.

Life could change, of course, if more little Christies come along. “People in the business have said: ‘Don’t even think about it. You’ll never be able to handle it with your career,’ says de Niese. “But I refuse to think, here’s my plate, it’s already full, so I won’t be doing that. We have inside stories in the business of how singers have timed their pregnancies to coincide with a particular gap in their diaries. When it happens, it happens – and I’ll work around it.”

It seems music may flow through the Christie veins for generations to come.

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