7 May 2014

George Christie, Chairman Who Transformed Glyndebourne Festival, Has Died

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George Christie, the longtime chairman of Glyndebourne Festival Opera, who transformed the company from a tony, country-house presenter of operas into the largest private opera company in the UK, has died. George Christie's death was announced today by Glyndebourne, which will dedicate the 2014 season — the company's eightieth — to his memory.

George Christie succeeded his father, Glyndebourne founder John Christie, in the position in 1958, when he was only twenty-three. George Christie's connection to the Glyndebourne stage began literally before his birth: his mother, soprano Audrey Mildmay, was two months pregnant with him when she sang Susanna in the Carl Ebert production of Le Nozze di Figaro that inaugurated the Glyndebourne Festival Opera on May 28, 1934.

John Christie (1882–1962) started the Glyndebourne Festival Opera on the grounds of the Sussex estate that had been purchased in 1861 by his grandfather, William. Thanks to John Christie's passion for music, musical performances were a part of life at Glyndebourne beginning in the late 1920s — John Christie himself played Beckmesser in an amateur performance of Act III, scene one, of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Glyndebourne in 1928. Musical matters became more important when Christie met and married Mildmay, an English-born lyric soprano who had been raised in Canada.

Glyndebourne's first theater was literally part of the Christie family home. George Christie spent his early childhood there; when the festival was on hiatus during World War II, he spent some years in Canada with his mother and sister. After the war, in 1947, George Christie made his actual on-stage debut as Fleance in Glyndebourne's Edinburgh Festival performances of Verdi's Macbeth. He was educated at Eton and at Trinity College, Cambridge before joining the family firm.

After his father's death, in 1962, George Christie began a series of changes that transformed the country-house atmosphere of Glyndebourne that had been the hallmark of his father's years at the helm. Glyndebourne retained its highly personal, slightly eccentric charm, but George Christie made his family's business into an international-class opera company. In 1968, George Christie founded the Glyndebourne Touring Opera — an organization that would extend Glyndebourne's activities into the months outside the traditional summer season. In the early 1970s, the arrival of conductor Bernard Haitink and directors John Cox and Peter Hall, plus the ascendancy of conductor John Pritchard, began a twenty-year golden age for the company, during which time its impressive, imaginative productions, beautifully cast and played, caught the attention of the opera world. Throughout the 1970s, Christie continued to expand the way Glyndebourne was funded: the model from the early days, during which the family fortune literally supported the opera company, was set aside beginning in the 1950s in favor of a system that raised funds through corporate sponsorship and private donations. (The company remains the largest opera company in the U.K. that operates without government subsidy.) In 1986, he founded Glyndebourne's education department, now celebrated for its work in schools and community programs. George Christie's most enduring accomplishment was the construction of a new state-of-the-art opera house, designed by Michael and Patty Hopkins, that increased the seating capacity at Glyndebourne from 850 to 1200. The new Glyndebourne Opera House was inaugurated in 1994 with performances of Le Nozze di Figarospacer 

George Christie was knighted for his services to music in 1984 and appointed a Companion of Honour in 2002. In 1999, he was succeeded as Glyndebourne chairman by his son, Gus Christie. spacer 

More information can be found at Glyndebourne and the OPERA NEWS Archives (here and here).

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