Glyndebourne Opera House

Glyndebourne is a 700 year old country house just outside the historic town of Lewes in East Sussex. Since 1934, it has been the venue for the annual Glyndebourne Festival Opera.

The house was built in the 15th century and has been altered many times since. It was originally called Wood’s Tenement in the Hole, although the name ‘Glyndebourne’ (‘glind’ meaning valley and ‘bourne’ meaning river or stream) came into use from 1610 onwards.

Herbert Hay bought the house in 1618 and the estate remained in the Hay family for the next 200 years. Four generations of the Hay family have produced Members of Parliament for local constituencies. The last of the Hay children died in 1803 without an heir. So by virtue of distant relationships, Glyndebourne was passed to Langham Christie in 1833. He had a keen interest in music and it is possibly from where the idea of an opera house derived, three generations later.

The house then passed to Langham Christie’s son, William, who was also the MP for Lewes. He carried out various alterations to the exterior of the house in the fashionable gothic style. William’s grandson John Christie thought that these alterations were in bad taste, and when he took over the house in 1920 he went about removing the ugly turrets and balustrades. He also built the organ room where he planned to hold a variety of musical events.

In 1931 he married a young opera singer called Audrey Mildmay who was 18 years his junior. Full of enthusiasm, he decided to extend the organ room and make it into a small theatre. With the strong advice of Audrey, who felt that the theatre’s design was neither one thing or another, he redesigned the theatre room and gave it a stage, orchestra pit, and modern lighting with the capacity for 300 people.

John Christie had previously managed an opera house in Tunbridge Wells which had performed everything except opera. This experience enabled him to build a practical theatre, although he was less practical about the type of operas that he wanted to perform. His wish was to put on Wagner, but Audrey persuaded him that Mozart was more suited to the size and atmosphere of the new theatre.

In early 1934, John Christie appointed Fritz Busch as the first music director, and Carl Ebert as the first producer. Both men were exiles of Nazi Germany. On the 28th May 1934, the first season opened and ran for two weeks. There were six performances each of ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’, and ‘Cosi Fan Tutte’. ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ was the first performance to be shown.

Members of the audience came from far and wide out of curiosity, a sense of adventure, or just to show loyalty to John Christie. At his request, the audience and critics wore evening dress, as he felt that this would be a compliment towards the performing artists.

They arrived at the opera house not realising that they were about to be part of a unique experience. Not only did they enjoy a new standard of opera, but also enjoyed a good dinner and stroll in the surrounding gardens.

There were no ‘star’ names amongst the singers as Christie was more interested in the quality and ability of the performer for the part in question.

The first season’s company came from all over the world. The singers had to be able to act well and look the part; men should be good looking and the women pretty.

In the years following the first season, improvements were made to the theatre which increased the capacity from 300 to 830. By 1937, there were five Mozart operas being performed, and by 1938, Verdi’s ‘Macbeth’ and Donizetti’s ‘Don Pasquale’ were added to the repertoire. This was the first time that Verdi’s ‘Macbeth’ had been performed professionally in England.

By 1951, the Glyndebourne Festival Society was formed which was to help secure financial support by way of subscription. Previous to this, John Christie had funded the opera house from his own personal fortune.

In 1958, George Christie succeeded his father as chairman of Glyndebourne Productions. Fritz Busch and Audrey Mildmay had since died with Carl Ebert to retire a year later marking this the end of an era.

Ten years later, the Glyndebourne Touring Opera (GTO) was formed with the idea of reaching a much wider audience. The first tour travelled to Newcastle, Liverpool, Manchester, Oxford and Sheffield. The productions included ‘L’Ormindo’, ‘Don Giovanni’ and ‘Die Zauberflöte’.

Many well known artists within opera circles started their careers with the GTO. Nowadays, it is used to test out new productions before they are made part of the festival season. Unlike the opera house, it is funded by the Arts Council, and also relies on sponsors for its existence. It is now known as ‘Glyndebourne on Tour’.

The Glyndebourne Festival is unique in that it doesn’t receive any state subsidy. Ticket sales contribute to 65% of the revenue with the rest coming from private and corporate sponsorship, as well as members of the Glyndebourne Festival Society.

During the 1980’s, George Christie realised that the old theatre was struggling to keep up to date with technically demanding productions, as well as the demand for limited tickets. He decided to build a new theatre which would meet his demands; that the theatre should blend into the countryside yet be a building of its time, that it should have a large auditorium yet retain its intimacy, that the acoustics must be as good as anywhere else, and that the facilities for staff and the public had to be improved.

The company employed to carry out the work were under strict orders to stick to the budget and ensure that only one opera season was to be missed. All of these demands were met.

The new theatre has won many awards for its architecture and its craftsmanship. With an extra 400 seats, it opened on the 28th May 1994, 60 years after Glyndebourne’s very first opera festival. The first production to be shown was Mozart’s ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ just as it been on that very first day.

George Christie decided to step down on his 65th birthday on 31st December 1999. His son Gus is now the present chairman.


© joanne 2008