I recently traveled to see two productions at Glyndebourne, a summer festival about 60 miles outside London, on England’s southern coast. The opera house sits on a country estate, abutting a manor house dating back 600 years with rolling green fields and meadows seen in every direction.
The historic manor house of Glyndebourne, with the opera house to the right.
Opera at Glyndebourne is a beloved tradition that began in 1934 when the owner of the Glyndebourne Estate, John Christie, and his Canadian soprano wife, Audrey Mildmay, built the first opera house, then a 300-seat intimate theater specializing in the works of Mozart. The Christie family continues to oversee the festival with John Christie’s grandson, Gus Christie, the current Executive Chairman. Harkening back to his grandfather, Gus also married a soprano, the Australian Danielle de Niese, who was on our War Memorial stage in 2014 with Partenope.
Audrey Mildmay and John Christie, the founders of Glyndebourne.
While visiting Glyndebourne this time, I was shown around backstage by Front of House Manager, Jules Crocker. Jules’ time at Glyndebourne predates the new theater which was built in 1994. Prior to that she was stage manager in the old theater; after that time she moved front of house which gives her a unique perspective on the whole enterprise.
As someone who actively worked in the old opera house, Jules shared with me that the entrance to the original theater was through…a fireplace! Yes, patrons entered the theater through the huge arch of the fireplace in the Organ Room, a purpose-built high-ceilinged room that used to house a fully functioning pipe organ. This kind of whimsical, intimate experience speaks to the original intent of Glyndebourne: that patrons should feel like guests at a lavish house party.
House Manager Jules Crocker in the Organ Room, with the entrance to the original theater in a small door behind the red chair!
The original house was on the same land as the current theater, but inverted so the audience is now where the stage was and vice-versa. This allowed the new building to greatly expand in backstage capability. You can get a sense from these pictures, not only of the backstage storage for active sets, but also the rehearsal rooms that adjoin the backstage, allowing for seamless use of scenery in rehearsals or on stage.
Backstage views at Glyndebourne. The tall expanse of the rear stage storage area, which then leads on to two large rehearsal rooms where full sets can be easily erected.
The graceful sweep of the auditorium.
Buildings at Glyndebourne had traditionally expanded somewhat ad hoc and, prior to this year, the production shops (scenery, props, costumes, wigs, etc.) had been scattered all over the campus. This year, Glyndebourne opened “The Hub” – a purpose-built building which brings all of these crafts together under one roof, providing state of the art facilities in which Glyndebourne can build and care for its productions.
The Hub: Glyndebourne’s new purpose-built facility for scenic and costume construction.
Jules told me that, prior to The Hub, peacocks had been frequent visitors to the building where props were made. During construction the peacocks sadly disappeared but, to everyone’s relief, the peacocks have found their way back, and somehow have gravitated to the props area once again!
Glyndebourne Peacocks. Photo courtesy @GFOPromptDesk
Glyndebourne is an incredibly creative opera company, originating almost all their work, and then taking a big portion of it on tour around the UK in October after the festival has finished. I grew up on many Glyndebourne productions on tour, seeing them in Oxford.
One of their most lauded productions in recent years is Billy Budd in the production by Michael Grandage which is currently rehearsing here in San Francisco! You will have an exciting chance in just a few weeks to see a Glyndebourne-created production!
Glyndebourne’s production of Billy Budd, opening at San Francisco Opera on September 7. Photo by Alastair Muir.
Glyndebourne produces 5-6 operas each year in a season that runs from May through the end of August, followed by the UK tour. During the height of the season, they are performing seven days a week using two different orchestras – the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the London Philharmonic. In this season, for the first time ever, they had all six productions active at the same time either in rehearsal or performance.
The most unique aspect of Glyndebourne is the patron experience. As I mentioned, the goal is for it to feel like a glorious country house party and every aspect of the experience is beautifully curated to that end, both by Glyndebourne staff and the patrons themselves. The dress code has remained almost exclusively black tie, and it’s a formality embraced by everyone of all ages (they have a very active under 30 program). Performances begin around 4pm (5pm during the summer when it stays lighter for longer), and you can arrive a couple of hours before that. It’s a full afternoon and evening experience and you dedicate yourself to opera for the whole day – it’s a very relaxed way to enjoy art!
The exquisite grounds at Glyndebourne.
Upon arrival you see hundreds of formally attired patrons carrying elaborate picnic setups onto the manicured grounds, searching for the best nook of the gardens in which to enjoy the evening where some will drink champagne and munch on hors d’oeuvre before the performance. The real dining experience begins in the long intermission. Each opera has a 90-minute intermission during which the most elaborate picnics come to life – crystal glassware, elegant china, delicious salads and plenty of bubbly. Many bring their own, but others purchase picnics onsite, and others dine in one of three elegant restaurants in the grounds.
Elegant dining al fresco on the Glyndebourne grounds.
Juxtaposed against this elegance and keeping an eye on the whole proceedings is a flock of sheep! In a verdant meadow just feet away from the glamorous picnics, hundreds of sheep are busy munching away at more humble fare. They are separated not by a fence but by that most gloriously-named garden feature, the ha-ha. It’s a small walled ditch that separates the formal garden from the animals, built in a way that renders it invisible from the garden itself. It’s a wonderfully whimsical feature that underscores the jovial atmosphere so present at Glyndebourne.
The sheep are discreetly kept apart from the tuxedoed guests thanks to the ha-ha.
After enjoying a sumptuous picnic, operagoers take a turn around the estate, soaking in the early evening air amidst towering trees and grassy pathways.
Taking a stroll in the grounds before the final act.
Back for the final act, and you’re finished around 8:30pm with plenty of time to head back to London on the train, or grab a pint at one of Lewes’ historic old pubs.
A post-performance pint at the Lewes Arms, one of the town’s most historic pubs.
This immersive experience means that Jules, the house manager, has a particularly interesting job. She oversees a venue that has patrons in attendance 7-days a week from 1pm until 9pm with another two hours after that to finish up. It’s a venue in which weather plays a bigger-than-usual role, and in which patron servicing is taken to new heights. It’s been known for house staff to loan tuxedos to the odd patron who falls in the lake on the property after getting a little too close to the water’s edge for a selfie! Jules’ decades of service to Glyndebourne exhibits the kind of love affair that people have with Glyndebourne. The day after I took a tour with her was her day off. Her plans: to go and see one of the operas!
If you ever have a chance to be in the UK over the summer and to visit Glyndebourne, it’s an incredible operatic experience: amazing artistic quality, a breathtakingly beautiful setting, and a chance to stroll around in black tie amidst sheep and peacocks! It’s one of the great operatic experiences of the world.
Performance bows from Handel’s Rinaldo and Mozart’s Magic Flute this summer at Glyndebourne. The Rinaldo starred Jakub Jósef Orliński in the title role; he will be with us in Partenope next June.
I can’t wait to share one of their productions with you in just a few weeks as Billy Budd sets sail. No sheep, but great art nonetheless!
A tribute to Sir John Pritchard, Music Director of Glyndebourne from 1963-1977 before he became Music Director at San Francisco Opera from 1986-1989.