The overture to greatness

As Glyndebourne tunes up for its 2004 season, Margaret Reynolds explores a treasure trove of letters that shed new light on our best-loved opera festival
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The Independent Culture

At the end of January 1917, a single man in possession of a good fortune was writing to his mother. At the age of 35, he was still at his old school, working as a physics teacher and reluctant to take on his responsibilities. "Somehow it is not easy to write as I should do. You wish me to give up Eton and to marry and settle down at Glyndebourne. My inclinations are not to do so. I detest politics and have no wish to take up county work. What the future will bring forth, I don't know. As regards marriage, I have never met anybody whom I wanted to marry and I believe I am too cautious to get engaged. Besides, I cannot imagine myself having any respect for anyone who consented to marry me. It seems to me to be impossible."

At the end of January 1917, a single man in possession of a good fortune was writing to his mother. At the age of 35, he was still at his old school, working as a physics teacher and reluctant to take on his responsibilities. "Somehow it is not easy to write as I should do. You wish me to give up Eton and to marry and settle down at Glyndebourne. My inclinations are not to do so. I detest politics and have no wish to take up county work. What the future will bring forth, I don't know. As regards marriage, I have never met anybody whom I wanted to marry and I believe I am too cautious to get engaged. Besides, I cannot imagine myself having any respect for anyone who consented to marry me. It seems to me to be impossible."

This may not have been an unusual dilemma for a young scion of the landed gentry but, as it turned out, his particular story was to be unique. For this was John Christie, the founder of a dynasty, an opera house and a legend.

Christie had a troubled relationship with his mother. She was estranged from his father Augustus, who had developed severe mental problems soon after their marriage, making him paranoid and, occasionally, violent. Everything depended on their only child. Lady Rosamund nagged. Her son wrote letters full of apology and regret. After her death, John Christie was to say: "I cannot find the words to describe the pride I feel she was my mother." He composed her epitaph: "An heroic woman possessed of great integrity, courage, dignity and kindness, tested and proved by incessant difficulties." Powerful though his mother was, it was another woman who changed his destiny.

Christie himself was a character, remarkable even in an age of eccentrics. During the First World War, his letters from the trenches had a characteristically calm and domestic tone. He describes eating bread and jam for supper, washed down with a glass of yellow Chartreuse. Or he enquires how to make Devonshire cream: "I have tried but without much success. I have really no news. Sometimes we hear the guns but it depends on the wind and we don't pay much attention to them. Occasionally we watch the effect of them if the shells are falling close but it becomes rather boring."

Christie loved building, and he set out to remodel the Victorian excrescences that marred his family home. He loved gadgets, and acquired an early motor car. He loved music, too, and in 1904 he packed himself and three friends into a homemade car fashioned from a cheese-crate, which he had shipped across the Channel on a barge so they could travel in it to the opera in Bayreuth and Munich. And he loved his friends. For Charles Lloyd, he built the Organ Room at Glyndebourne. For Fanny and Johnnie Mounsey, he set up a programme of concerts. And for Audrey Mildmay? Well, that is where the story of Glyndebourne begins.

In 1930, John Christie put on a small-scale pro-am production of Act I of Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail and engaged a professional singer with the Carl Rosa Opera company for the part of Blonde. This was Audrey Mildmay. She was pretty, cheerful and practical. She was a woman Christie could respect.

Today, at Glyndebourne, there is a remarkable archive that documents the history of Christie himself, as well as his estate and his opera house. In many ways this precious record is only an accident of history. John and his mother, Lady Rosamund, were often apart, each either living at one of the two large estates that belonged to the Christie family - Glyndebourne and Tapley Park in Devon - or separated by John's post at Eton, or by the First World War, when John spent two years in the trenches in France. As a consequence, they wrote to each other.

When Christie married Mildmay in 1931, they began to plan a country-garden opera house. Audrey travelled to Europe, not only in pursuit of her own career, but as an ambassador for the new enterprise. In January 1934, she wrote home from Vienna with good news about their newly appointed conductor, Fritz Busch, and some more disturbing information: "A bomb or a firecracker has just gone off in the street. I flew to the window and found everyone hurrying and running, but no Hitlerites to be seen. The Hitler demon- strators are mostly from the unemployed, who are paid from two to 15 shillings a day to walk about saying ' Heil'."

At the outbreak of the Second World War, and with the revolutionary out-of-town opera house barely established, Audrey and her two young children were sent to safety in Canada. Again, Audrey and John wrote to each other copiously.

These family letters form a precious part of the archive, but there are also many items relating to the founding of the opera house. There's a quick jotting in Audrey's hand headed "Possible operas (worth investigating)". There's another long typewritten list made by her singing teacher Jani Strasser, although hardly any of his original opera suggestions have been performed at Glyndebourne.

Audrey's many letters document her close involvement at every stage. She had her say on ticket prices: "Bayreuth did not start with such prices: even Wagner's arrogance did not go to such lengths. Surely £2 is mad? Even among your friends, I don't believe there are a dozen who will pay it." She was there, too, in the day-to-day management of the opening season in summer 1934: "Last night was the last performance of Figaro. However, it is most gratifying to John and all of us that, though there is a financial loss, there has been such an enormous artistic success. Most of our guests leave on Monday - thank goodness! Though individually I like them, en masse, when one is agitated and nervous, they are a bit exhausting."

On the more public side, the archive includes programmes and menus replete with period charm. In the 1930s, diners in the restaurant were informed: "Patrons may also bring their own refreshments and consume them in the Dining Halls, and in this case, they may, if they wish, be waited on by their own servants. No charge, of course, is made for this."

John Christie's influence was everywhere. "Why not," he wrote in one programme, "come and live within reach of this Festival Opera House? You will have the Downs, Sea-air, Woods and ' Kultur'. If you scatter yourselves all over England, you are too far away to support this enterprise. If you are near at hand, you can enjoy superb intellectual food which you cannot get elsewhere."

Glyndebourne could hardly have happened as it did at any other time - in the brief period of prosperity (for some) of the inter-war years. On the one hand, only then could there have existed an impassioned landowner who was enough of an Edwardian amateur to believe he could create something as grand as an opera house in his garden. On the other, only then did there exist a relatively large class of trendy moderns who cared about culture and who had access to swift and comfortable modes of transport.

And there is another time-specific reason why Glyndebourne so quickly established itself. At the end of the Second World War, John Christie was anxious to re-open the opera house. In 1946, the English Opera Group agreed to stage Benjamin Britten's new work The Rape of Lucretia, with Kathleen Ferrier in the title role. Ferrier was at the height of her powers, but she was not too grand to write to Audrey, telling her she (Ferrier) was a "very good washer-upper". The following year, Ferrier returned to sing the lead in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice. She wrote to a friend in May 1947: "I am doing Orfeo here with an American Eurydice, a Greek God of Love, a German producer and conductor and an Italian coach. Talk about the Tower of Babel!"

That was Glyndebourne's strength. Though it was quickly established as an international operation working to the highest standards, it was still a family home. Today, even in the state-of-the-art new theatre, John Christie's great-grandchildren are to be seen playing on the lawn.

As the opera house grew in confidence, its musical family expanded to include the most illustrious names in opera. The archive holds many memories from those early days. There is the pristine set of 78rpm long-playing records of the Amsterdam recording of The Rape of Lucretia, with a label addressed to Kathleen Ferrier at 2 Frognal Mansions in London. Sadly, it returned to Glyndebourne because Ferrier was to die, tragically young, in 1953.

There are some of her letters in the archive, and some from other famous names. In 1950, Marie Rambert devised a ballet for Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos. Afterwards, she wrote to Audrey Christie: "I have never worked in such ideal conditions - though the task I had undertaken was quite the hardest I had ever done." There are letters from Britten, about casting and musicians: "I can certainly confirm it that Marie Goossens is a harpist, and a very good one. She has played for me many times. She may have given up playing (I know she has a family), but I seem to remember hearing that she was playing as recently as Christmas."

One of the most intriguing collections of letters concerns the 1940 touring production of The Beggar's Opera. Audrey Mildmay played Polly Peachum with the same "war clause" in her contract as everyone else: "It is distinctly understood... that the Management shall have the right to terminate the engagement at any time if in their opinion emergency conditions make it necessary to do so."

Michael Redgrave, described by Rudolf Bing, the music director, as "a very nice and excellent young film star", played Macheath, and John Gielgud was the producer. The last appointment caused *

* some irritation to Christie who, for once, found himself worsted when Gielgud insisted on composing the programme note to put across his own ideas on the opera. Gielgud wrote to him: "As regards this being a 'realistic' production, that is not the word I should use at all. It will be fantastic, stylised, and melodramatic. The word 'realistic' suggests something modern and matter of fact, which could never be applied, at least by me, to so romantic a satire and such delicate music. There is, to me, a rather defiant ring about your phrases."

Christie lost that one, but The Beggar's Opera was a success, and the economist John Maynard Keynes, in his (rarely noted) capacity as a theatre manager, wrote to John Christie: "May I hope you will bring it to Cambridge, where I am sure it would be an outrageous success? It would, of course, be essential to pick a date in term time. Business this term has been a long way the best in our history."

In among these well-known names, there are later "family" letters, such as this from Margaret Bellamy, who worked for the Christies in the 1950s and, in the midst of detailing the health of the ponies, described the advent of recording for television in July 1951: "I suppose it was a scientific success... but Glyndebourne was like a nightmare while it was all on... Where places should have been beautiful and dimly lit... there were such bright lights it made your eyes ache and so many yards of cable and queer men with enormous glasses on that I really thought we would probably all blow up long before zero hour drew near. How on earth such a new industry as Television could breed a race of men in less than the time a man takes to grow I don't know, but breed, or adapt, they have."

The archive also holds many sound items, both music from the productions and collections of reminiscences made as part of a continuing oral history project. Here are the voices, speaking, not singing, of Joan Sutherland and Janet Baker, Elisabeth Soderstrom, Geraint Evans, Lady Barbirolli and, of course, John Christie himself. In one tape he explains why he expects his audiences to wear evening dress, and how he "educated" his audiences into a properly respectful attitude to the work of his artists by keeping the lights off at curtain down to encourage applause and prevent a stampede for the dinner interval.

And then there are the photographs: family snaps of a smiling Audrey Christie, and Sir George her son - a distinguished successor to his father and chairman of Glyndebourne from 1958 to 1999, but here appearing as a toddler in frilly short pants. There are pictures of the lawns at Glyndebourne during the war years, inhabited, not by extravagantly dressed opera-goers, but by babies, a hundred and more of them, evacuated from London to the fresh air of the Sussex Downs. And then there are the photographs of the productions, where opera lovers will meet a parade of familiar faces - Luciano Pavarotti, Simon Rattle, Kiri te Kanawa, Teresa Berganza, Mirella Freni - all in their youth and slim, dark haired, unlined.

Glyndebourne has had many successes on stage: Franco Zeffirelli's L'elisir d'amore in 1961, Peter Hall's La Calisto in 1970, Jonathan Miller's The Cunning Little Vixen in 1975, Bernard Haitink conducting Die Entführung in 1972 and The Rake's Progress in 1975, and, more recently, Peter Sellars' Theodora or Nikolaus Lehnhoff's Tristan und Isolde in 2003. There are hundreds more.

There have been a few dips. When Hans Werner Henze's Elegy for Young Lovers, with a libretto by WH Auden and Chester Kallman, was premiered in 1961, a carnival atmosphere prevailed and the opera was soon re-christened "Allergy for Old Buggers". The work seemed new and strange to some. John Christie recommended that the score be burnt. A member of the audience was heard in the interval to utter in tones of dismay: "We must warn poor Gwendoline." I'd guess that Gwendoline might cope with this classic piece today.

Off stage, too, there have been dramas and alarms, including the case of the American who fell into the lake trying to retrieve his bottle of wine and whom Wardrobe promptly kitted out with a full costume borrowed from Eugene Onegin. He turned out to be the chief music critic of The Los Angeles Times - and Glyndebourne got a rave notice.

One of Glyndebourne's most impressive off-stage achievements was the move into the new house 10 years ago. John Christie had modelled and re-modelled the original theatre, and was never happy in the closed season unless he had a building project on hand. By the 1970s, Sir George realised Glyndebourne desperate- ly needed more space and better facilities if it was to retain its worldwide reputation. The money for the rebuilding was raised during a period of boom, and the work was carried out in a recession. The project came in on budget and on time.

The archive, managed by Julia Aries, includes all the records of this rebuilding. It tries to keep everything: set designs, costume plans, rehearsal schedules, even the costumes themselves. It's an extraordinary record, and one to be proud of.

All the same, it is the small items that capture the romance of Glyndebourne. There's a scrap of paper headed " Porgy: Meeting with Trevor and Simon - July '85 - Chorus". The memo notes plans for rehearsals, dates and times, and who would be involved. It was part of preparations for the hugely successful production of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess that took place in 1986. And, of course, we are talking Trevor as in Nunn, and Simon as in Rattle.

In these days of e-mails and phone calls, such ephemera won't survive. When everyone throughout the theatre is working against time to put on a show - or rather, several shows each season - it's hard to persuade directors, designers, musicians and technicians that one priority should be printing out their daily e-mails. In the early 1930s, John Christie was writing day by day to tell his mother how they'd put the boiler in, or what he'd decided to do about the shape of the proscenium arch - and that precious record of minutiae has survived.

It is important to preserve the big things. It's even more important to go on doing the large work. But often it's the small things that make the difference. In 1917, John Christie believed that he'd never find the right wife. In 1930, she appeared, and everything that once seemed "impossible" came to be. But who could have guessed that this accident of fate could lead, not only, as expected, to the continuation of a home and a family, but to the creation of an opera house?

The 2004 Glyndebourne programme, 20 May to 29 August: Mozart, 'Die Zauberflöte'; Debussy, 'Pelléas et Mélisande'; Handel, 'Rodelinda'; Rachmaninov/Puccini, 'The Miserly Knight'/'Gianni Schicchi'; Bizet, 'Carmen'; Janacek, 'Jenufa' (01273 813813; www.glyndebourne.co.uk)

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