No dinner jacket required

Champagne hampers and penguin suits have earned Glyndebourne Festival Opera an unfair reputation as an elitist playground. But the company's touring division - beloved by Roberto Alagna and Simon Rattle, among others - is doing much to dispel the myth. David Lister reports
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The Independent Culture

When Delon Dotson, one of the founders of the Internet portal Netscape and the music download site MP3, was looking for a new venture, he made what might have seemed a curious choice. The entrepreneur, who has also played keyboards in the rock band Genesis, wanted to produce a CD-Rom and eventually help with an Internet site that would encourage a new audience on to the Net. But instead of turning to rock music, he decided to approach Glyndebourne.

When Delon Dotson, one of the founders of the Internet portal Netscape and the music download site MP3, was looking for a new venture, he made what might have seemed a curious choice. The entrepreneur, who has also played keyboards in the rock band Genesis, wanted to produce a CD-Rom and eventually help with an Internet site that would encourage a new audience on to the Net. But instead of turning to rock music, he decided to approach Glyndebourne.

It wasn't just the world famous summer festival with the picnics on the Sussex lawns that attracted him. It was Glyndebourne on tour that had caught his interest: the annual autumn trek when the Glyndebourne singers, orchestra and lorry-loads of equipment take to the road and perform in towns and cities not always associated with grand opera - Stoke-on-Trent, Milton Keynes and Norwich, for example.

Glyndebourne Touring Opera, since its inception in 1968, has been the breeding ground of new operatic talent. Just as the festival has seen some notable debuts - Pavarotti, for one - so tenor heart-throb Roberto Alagna made his operatic debut on the tour; and Sir Simon Rattle conducted opera for the first time with a Glyndebourne touring production.

But the talent that finds its feet on tour does so in a set-up quite different from the summer festival. This is the other side of Glyndebourne. It is a youthful, vibrant and occasionally precarious journey which takes opera far away from the dinner jackets, designer gowns, champagne and supper intervals that are longer than some operas. This is a world of low ticket prices, orchestras in improvised pits (or no pit at all), box offices that have to juggle selling opera seats with marketing their own Christmas pantomimes, and distraught divas who find that digs in Stoke have their own charm, but are not quite La Scala.

As well as masterminding the tour from her Glyndebourne office, Helen McCarthy, the company's tour administrator, has to sort out accommodation, travel, babysitters and restaurants. That is in addition to playing the therapist and soothing many a ruffled baritone. "A lot of the foreign artists haven't travelled to British cities outside London before," McCarthy says. "One, from Italy, accused me because there were so many homeless people in Manchester. It is strange for them to be in digs in the provinces, and we tend to have some moving around of singers after the first night. I will get a call on my mobile at 8am saying, 'I can't bear

it.' The singers can be quite emotional, but although there has been shouting and a few tears, no one has actually walked out."

The audience for the tour comes in jeans, not evening dress, and they pay affordable prices. But what they get is some of the best that Glyndebourne has to offer. Indeed, this autumn's tour will feature two productions that can be seen on the road before the festival itself gets to see them. They are Harrison Birtwistle's much anticipated new opera, The Last Supper (taking the audience on an exploration of Christianity in which the 12 disciples are invited to another supper, this time in a contemporary context with Christ offering a ritualistic cleansing of the bestiality of the intervening 2,000 years); and a new and vibrant production of La bohÿme.

These will be joined by one of the most talked about productions at this summer's festival, Graham Vick's compelling production of Mozart's Don Giovanni. Such a huge undertaking is not without headaches. Take the small but vital matter of surtitles - the line-by-line translations of the libretto that appear on a screen above the stage. Sarah Plummer, the musical resources administrator, sits with a laptop computer at each venue, and cues each caption on to the screen.

In some of the venues, including Oxford, Woking and Plymouth, she sits in a soundproof box in the auditorium and has the music piped in. Needless to say, the sound sometimes fails on the speaker, and then she has to rely on lip-reading. "You have to live on your wits," she says. But at least these days she can keep her clothes on. Until a few years ago Glyndebourne toured with slides and a projector. The slides had to be warmed up in a wig oven (wigs are baked to set all the glues), and so the oven came on tour, too. In those days, with the heat from the projector, Plummer would sit in an alcove of black cloth in various states of undress. To add to the confusion, occasionally the slides would fall on the floor, and the libretto would take on a very different form.

Orchestra pits vary from theatre to theatre too. At some venues the pit is not all one level, and, if you're not careful, there is the problem of the orchestra not being able to see the conductor. "At Stoke and Plymouth," says Plummer, "we have to have the conductor specially raised up. It can get very Heath Robinson. In Oxford we don't have a pit at all. The musicians are sitting out in the stalls. So we have to make sure there's no a double bass in the audience sight-lines and that the lights from the pit don't dazzle the audience. But the musicians love Oxford, because for the first time they can see the action on stage."

Nicholas Snowman, the general director of Glyndebourne and former head of the South Bank Centre in London, believes Glyndebourne on Tour to be something unique among opera companies. "We are the only opera company which has its own conservatoire on the move, literally," he says. "Most companies have young singer programmes, but we have a whole system. Young people can come into the festival chorus, and our chorus is a collection of soloists, and many of them get the opportunity to understudy in the festival and move into principal roles on the tour, where they find themselves in the company of already established singers.

"It means that a young singer has a career path, so it's a vital stage between the Royal College of Music, or whatever, and the big international stage. The training offered is unique. Every opera we do has a complete understudy cast worked on by an assistant director, so there is a complete shadow cabinet for every production.

"I actually think people come to Glyndebourne for the opera; it's a myth that it's just corporate binges. But, yes, of course the tour is different in that it goes to places at far lower prices, and it brings in an audience that doesn't live in southern England. It is also great fun, and there's nothing wrong with that. I walked into a rehearsal of La bohÿme. It's a young cast, and there's a great feeling of youth, excitement, discovery, young people playing young people. The tour is a treasure."

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