Glyndebourne: Hot tickets that don't go for a song

Glyndebourne is the ultimate summer night out for opera fans – but it can come at a high price, says Jessica Duchen

As summer approaches, prepare to put on the glad rags and raid the bank account. Glyndebourne, the most famous rural opera house in the UK, is ready to welcome ticket-holders to its sheep-surrounded home near Lewes, East Sussex, for its 2014 festival. Picnic in exquisitely landscaped grounds and enjoy a world-class performance: it's the ultimate summer night out – at quite a price.

This year Glyndebourne celebrates a triple whammy. It is the festival's 80th anniversary and the current theatre's 20th; and a new music director arrives, the 31-year-old British maestro Robin Ticciati, taking over from the Russian conductor Vladimir Jurowski. The festival opens with a new production by Richard Jones of Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, a sprawling, great-hearted social comedy unseen at Glyndebourne for several decades.

When its owner Sir John Christie opened Glyndebourne's doors for its first opera in 1934, the exclusive atmosphere could go unchallenged by populist mass media. But today – though the festival receives no public subsidy – Glyndebourne has to do more and more to show that it is reaching a wider demographic while representing value for money. Its top ticket price, £250, is comparable to the Royal Opera House's. The place may have gorgeous gardens, but it can never rest on its laurels.

Renewal is a constant issue and the current theatre was a major step forward in that process. By the 1980s, Glyndebourne's old house was antiquated and inadequate. Building the new one cost £34m, achieved with funds raised from private donors. When it was unveiled in 1994, the auditorium's sound quality was adored, but the red-brick exterior less so. Twenty years on, its pros and cons are clearer still.

David Pickard, Glyndebourne's general director since 2001, acknowledges that it lacks the old charm, "the sense that you were in a secret theatre in somebody's home". That was sacrificed to vastly improved comfort, acoustic and artistic potential. "I once came to hear Der Rosenkavalier in the old house and noticed the boxy sound of a big orchestra in a small space," he says. "But when Robin raises his baton on opening night we'll hear that music in a glorious acoustic."

A few design glitches, though, won't go away. Some seats have restricted views thanks to the theatre's horseshoe shape and even these can set you back by £95. A funny way to build a modern opera house? Pickard says that a sense of intimacy for the performers was paramount in the design: "When you stand on the stage you feel cocooned by the audience, which seems so close to you," he says. "The reverse logic is that if singers feel comfortable performing there, the audience is more engaged." He adds that the most restricted views are unsellable and are used as house seats.

Worse, the orchestra pit is too small and restricts the potential repertoire. "We almost couldn't do Britten's Billy Budd," says Pickard, "because we couldn't accommodate the nine drums it requires." A makeshift solution was found and the result was Michael Grandage's celebrated 2010 staging; but Pickard has not ruled out seeking ways to enlarge the space when the time is right.

As for the audience, it is more vital than ever to attract younger people. This year one performance of Handel's Rinaldo is designated for under-30s, with tickets £30 each. Pickard says it sold out within 24 hours. "We had to raise £100,000 to cover the cost," he adds, "but it's worth the effort." Cinema relays meanwhile have massively extended Glyndebourne's reach and all of last year's festival productions were streamed free on the internet. For 2014, Der Rosenkavalier, La Traviata and Don Giovanni will go to the big screen plus streaming.

But Glyndebourne's renewal is probably strongest in its nurturing of new talent, not least via its busy education department and touring during the rest of the year. A new festival production, Mozart's early opera La Finta Giardiniera, has been entrusted to the young British director Frederic Wake-Walker. "I've directed shows at Glyndebourne for the tour and I feel I've really learnt my trade here," Wake-Walker comments. "It's hard for young directors to be given a break in opera because the stakes are so high and opera houses are understandably reluctant about taking a risk. Glyndebourne's support for young artists is second to none."

Rising-star singers, too, often perform here before they are famous: luminaries like Renée Fleming, Rolando Villazón and Nina Stemme all enjoyed vital breakthroughs on this stage. Watch out this year for Ekaterina Scherbachenko, BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2009, as Tatyana in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin; the Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier; and the multiple-award-winning American tenor Michael Fabiano making his UK debut as Alfredo in La Traviata.

The harsh bottom line for an unsubsidised festival, though, is whether the market can take the ticket price; and apparently it can. Seats may be expensive, but Der Rosenkavalier and La Traviata are completely sold out, with the others filling fast. Glyndebourne may not be perfect, but it must be doing something right.

Glyndebourne Festival Opera (01273 813813) opens with 'Der Rosenkavalier' on 17 May

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect