Festival Atmosphere
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Festival Atmosphere

The well-loved traditions at Sussex’s Glyndebourne are in no danger of disappearing. ADRIAN TINNISWOOD visits a uniquely British cultural institution.

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Gus Christie, Glyndebourne Productions’ current executive chairman
© Simon Dack/Alamy 2015
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A view of the Glyndebourne auditorium, which has a seating capacity of 1,200
© Leigh Simpson 2015
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David McVicar’s 2011 Glyndebourne staging of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, with Gerald Finley as Hans Sachs
© Alastair Muir 2015

"I used to get upset, because every time Glyndebourne was mentioned, there would be a picture of someone in evening dress, drinking champagne and looking at a sheep,” says the Glyndebourne Festival’s general director, David Pickard. Now, after fourteen years at the helm, he is more relaxed about media coverage. But he smiles ruefully as he mentions the question most frequently asked by callers to the box office: What happens if it rains? “When you explain that we have one of the most modern opera houses in the world,” he says, “they’re rather surprised.”

An international festival that regularly commissions new work and has put on the world premieres of works by Britten and Birtwistle, as well as British professional stage premieres of Poulenc, Stravinsky and Monteverdi, obviously takes its opera very seriously indeed. But from the day in May 1934 when the festival opened with Le Nozze di Figaro and the reviewers gushed that “the sun and the gently rounded, richly wooded, Sussex countryside were at their best,” Glyndebourne has always been about more than just the music. The country-house setting, the sweeping lawns and formal gardens, the consciousness of taking part in a distinguished tradition of operagoing combine to weave a potent spell. The downside is that sometimes the sound of champagne corks popping on a summer’s evening can take center stage, as though the music were no more than an accompaniment to a vast and expensive exercise in corporate hospitality. 

There was a time back in the 1990s when rows of tuxedo-clad recipients of that corporate hospitality snored gently through Così Fan Tutte or Manon Lescaut. Some still do. But while the image lingers of Glyndebourne as a picnic on the lawn with an opera thrown in, the reality is changing, as one of the landmarks of the London social season adjusts to a more exacting financial climate. 

Costs are kept down. There is no permanent company and Glyndebourne doesn’t pay top rates to its performers. But the festival offers them congenial surroundings, long rehearsal periods and the opportunity to excel. “We recruit our chorus annually,” says Stephen Naylor, director of artistic administration. “A lot of these people are young soloists. And the really good ones will be given [jobs as] understudies. Then we get them into the tour, then into the festival. We do that with conductors as well. Really talented assistant conductors are given opportunities to do one or two performances on the tour, then graduate to the festival. That happened with Robin Ticciati [Glyndebourne’s new director of music].” 

Unlike some of the other big hitters in the world of British opera, the festival receives no help from the central government. The Royal Opera House was awarded £26.4m from the Arts Council last year. English National Opera received £17.2m and Welsh National Opera £6.3m. Admittedly, state subsidies are dwindling: ENO’s grant for this year has been cut by nearly a third, for example. But it still receives more than £12m. Glyndebourne gets nothing, which is why it used to rely so heavily on the corporates. 

“Used to,” because these days in Britain, big business is as reluctant as government to finance the arts. Glyndebourne has moved toward an American model that focuses on individual giving and, crucially, on box-office takings. In a typical summer, the festival puts on seventy to eighty performances and needs to fill 95 percent of its seats to cover its costs. 

In spite of the class-warriors who accuse it of outmoded elitism, the Cassandras who routinely predict the end of country-house opera in Britain, Glyndebourne must be doing something right, because last year it hit 98 percent. “Even when times are bad,” says David Pickard, “people don’t want to miss their visit to Glynde­bourne.” There is a ten-year waiting list for Festival Society membership and a thriving associate-membership scheme that, for a £500 joining fee and an annual subscription, procures you a place on that waiting list. The fact that there are now plenty of operatic rivals in the U.K., from Grange Park to Garsington, doesn’t bother Glyndebourne, which positions itself as an international festival. Asked whom he benchmarks against, Pickard ignores the other country-house opera festivals and names instead the Royal Opera House, Aix-en-Provence, Salzburg and Bregenz. 

Maybe, just maybe, this has something to do with the quality of the opera. The original auditorium at Glyndebourne, built by founder John Christie back in the 1930s, held 300 seats, a private box for the Christies and a special place in the hearts of festivalgoers. The acoustics weren’t great; the size of the stage and the pit limited the repertoire; and the facilities for performers were appalling. Over the years, some clever tinkering raised the number of seats to 850, but this just wasn’t enough to meet demand; and in the 1990s the old theater was replaced by a 1,200-seat building that opened on May 28, 1994, sixty years to the day after the first festival opera at Glyndebourne, with a performance of that same opera, Le Nozze di Figaro

The new theater — and it will always be “new,” even though it is now more than two decades old — has better acoustics, a bigger and more comfortable auditorium, improved facilities and a stage that can support a more varied repertoire. This has meant that one of John Christie’s most cherished dreams has finally come true. “He was a complete Wagner nut,” says his grandson Gus, the third generation of Christies at Glyndebourne and the current executive chairman of Glyndebourne Productions. In 2003, forty-one years after John’s death, the festival put on Tristan und Isolde in a production directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, with American tenor Robert Gambill and Swedish soprano Nina Stemme in the title roles. It was followed in 2011 by David McVicar’s Meistersinger.

If the new theater has lost something of the boxy, quirky feel of the old Glyndebourne, it manages to combine an improved fitness-for-purpose with something of the old intimacy. The seating capacity of the auditorium is still less than two-thirds that of the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth (and the seats are a good deal more comfortable), and even from the back of the upper circle the audience is close enough to see the expressions on the performers’ faces. Operagoers accustomed to big urban houses such as Covent Garden, the Met or the Opera Bastille feel wrapped in a comforting cocoon as they take their seats (emotionally comforting, at least — the horseshoe shape plays havoc with some of the sight-lines). But if they expect anodyne opera that will provide the bookends for Glyndebourne’s ninety-minute dinner interval, that isn’t always what they get.  

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A view of the Glyndebourne grounds, beloved by the operagoing public (and photographers) since 1934
© Clive Nichols/Corbis 2015

When the success of a festival depends so completely on a full auditorium, the temptation must be to stick with safe settings and old favorites, which is what happened last year, with a program that included Don Giovanni, La Traviata and Der Rosenkavalier. Hence, perhaps, that box-office figure of 98 percent. Straying too far from the middle of the road can be a risky business. In 2013, audiences walked out during the second half of Katharina Thoma’s World War II production of Ariadne auf Naxos. “How can an opera go so wrong?” was the headline in one British review. 

This year’s Glyndebourne has its crowd-pleasers. Chief among them is a revival of David McVicar’s 2002 Carmen,withStéphanie d’Oustrac, and a new Die Entführung aus dem Serail, also directed by McVicar, with Sally Matthews and Edgaras Montvidas as Konstanze and Belmonte. 

But the 2015 program demonstrates one of Glyndebourne’s great strengths — its ability to test  audiences, to offer a path out of the comfort zone. This year’s offerings also include Saul, a Glyndebourne premiere, which promises to shake up received ideas about Handel’s oratorios; a revival of a Ravel double bill, L’Heure Espagnole and L’Enfant et les Sortilèges; and a welcome return for TheRape of Lucretia, one of Britten’s more challenging works, not seen at Glyndebourne since it received its world premiere there back in 1946 with stunning sets by John Piper and Kathleen Ferrier in the title role. Fiona Shaw’s production is a perfect example of the Glyndebourne method. Leading English mezzo-soprano Christine Rice, who plays Lucretia, started her singing career in the festival chorus. So did Duncan Rock, who sings Tarquinius, and Kate Royal, the Female Chorus.

Then there’s Poliuto. Sometimes it feels as if no opera festival would be complete without a revival of a forgotten Donizetti work. With Poliuto, a tale of Christian martyrdom in third-century Armenia, Glyndebourne has come up with a real rarity. True, there have been occasional revivals, most notably at La Scala in 1960, a production in which Maria Callas made a triumphant return to Milan. But Glyndebourne’s Poliuto will be a U.K. premiere. Already being described in the British press as “highbrow” and “intellectually demanding,” it will also be something of a commercial risk, as those epithets suggest, and there is a certain nervousness about it. Although those with archival instincts will be keen to tick off another in the seemingly limitless Donizetti canon, Poliuto won’t have the popular appeal of a Traviata or a Figaro

Glyndebourne is still on a changing path, from a small, membership-based organization to an insitution whose work is shared much more widely. There is an under-thirties scheme designed to draw in younger audiences, as well as a community program, a Young Composer residency and performances for schools. An American Artist Fund offers early-career singers from the U.S. the chance to perform at Glyndebourne. And like other opera houses, the festival is increasingly making use of film and live streaming to reach out to nontraditional audiences. 

Often the benefits are unexpected. When the filming of performances began, everyone had high hopes that this would be an important new revenue stream for the festival. That hasn’t happened, but more access to performances has meant even more interest in the festival itself. People watch an opera online or on TV, and they don’t think, “That’s it. I’ve done Glyndebourne.” They want to come and experience it for themselves.

This is what everyone involved in the running of Glyndebourne comes back to — the recognition that while change is good, it must not be allowed to break the spell or to interfere with a winning formula. I suspect that when Glyndebourne celebrates its centenary in 2034, there will still be a picture of someone in evening dress sipping champagne and looking at a sheep. There will still be critics prophesying the end of an elitist institution that has no place in modern Britain. And the auditorium will still be filled with tuxedos and satisfyingly good opera. spacer 

ADRIAN TINNISWOOD is a British historian whose interests range from Britten to seventeenth-century Puritanism. His latest book is The Rainborowes: One Family’s Quest to Build a New England.

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