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Glyndebourne, with its setting beneath the Sussex Downs, represents an English idyll. The rambling manor house with mellow brickwork looks over an English garden with herbaceous borders, with extensive lawns and a lake. Across the lawns, in the middle ground the sheep are grazing. Where one might expect the customary grouping round a manor house of barns and outbuildings Glyndebourne instead has an Opera House.
The fact that this does not seem particularly surprising is a tribute to the care in which the opera house has been integrated into the house and its surroundings. John Christie’s interest in music led to the addition of a music room, that and an opera singer wife led to a wish to put on operas, putting on operas led to creating a small opera house and the recruitment of outstanding music exiles from Germany.
Eventually the old opera house could not keep pace with the need to accommodate a larger audience, improved acoustics, new technical machinery and better conditions for the performers. George Christie raised the money needed to replace the old with an intimate circular horseshoe opera house providing air conditioning, good sightlines, closer proximity to the stage and outstanding sound. The design was a collaboration between George Christie, Michael Hopkins and Partners and Arup Acoustics. The first performance in 1994 was the 60th anniversary of the first performance in 1934.
Despite the requirement to dress up formally and travel long distances, the diet of stylish Mozart Operas put on for two weeks in 1934 was a success. Looked at now in the Glyndebourne pre-war film the music is fine, but the design to modern eyes is quaint. Over the years Glyndebourne has kept up with or made new musical and production standards. But the distance travelled between the operas of 1934 and Glyndebourne’s definitive productions of the Turn of the Screw in 2011, an opera not even thought of then, and The Mastersingers, is immense.
Glyndebourne has built an musical tradition over the years. Glyndebourne has appointed a succession of distinguished conductors as Music Director, as well as being able to call on many other well-known Guest conductors. Glyndebourne’s reputation also attracts the best theatrical and operatic directors. There is a long and intensive rehearsal period. A large musical and production staff back up the performances, together with a strong coaching staff. Singers come from all over the world to sing here. Starting in the chorus is often the prelude to a successful career for many young singers.
Much of Glyndebourne’s success must be due to retaining a winning formula of the best possible productions allied to social formality. Its early traditions have survived the years, especially the picnic on the lawn in the long interval, the preference for formal dress, and the social cachet of a summer visit.