Praise where praise isn't due

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The Independent Culture
THESE DAYS the words "operatic" and "miracle" do not spend much time in each other's company. "Operatic" and "disaster" maybe; "operatic" and "elitism" certainly, and all too predictably. John Jolliffe, though, bravely gives his history of Glyndebourne the subtitle "an operatic miracle".

For him, Glyndebourne represents the very best that opera has to offer. As early as his second chapter, he states confidently that "For the world of opera in England, nothing has ever been more fortunate than John and Audrey's marriage."

So forget Purcell, Handel and Britten; forget the Royal Opera and English National Opera. In fact, forget the whole of English operatic life. Think only of John Christie and Audrey Mildmay. They married in 1931, a year after Mildmay had sung in a performance of Act I of Mozart's Die Entfuhrung which Christie had put on at the large estate in Sussex he inherited (with much other property) from his father in 1930.

When John and Audrey met, Glyndebourne was a country house where music occasionally happened. Shortly after they returned from their honeymoon, they put plans in place to build a small opera house there: "Not since Count Esterhazy built his opera house for Haydn," hyperbolises Jolliffe, "had there been such a magnificent example of private musical enterprise."

Glyndebourne is certainly special, but you don't have to be an unreconstructed Spartist to wonder whether the wealth and privilege on which it is built, and to which it plays host every season, can really make the kind of contribution to a broader culture that Jolliffe claims.

He himself records a comment Christie made late in life, with no little irony, that "he would, if he could, have surrounded Glyndebourne with barbed wire in order to keep out the unworthy". Here the "unworthy" are those unprepared to take opera seriously, but you can't help but feel that a little social exclusion is also implied.

Why else encourage evening dress? Jolliffe suggests that this serves to discourage the frivolous, but surely it does precisely the opposite? Later he reveals the percentage of tickets available in 1985 to the general public, after "corporate and individual members had claimed their due". For Carmen, the figure was a minuscule 6.25 per cent; for Strauss's Arabella, 8.6 per cent. On the other hand, members had bought barely half the tickets available for Britten's Albert Herring, and fewer than a third of those for new works by a young composer (Oliver Knussen).

Of course, the corporate and individual subscribers make Glyndebourne possible, not least by having raised pounds 34m to build the new opera house that opened in 1994.

Their money famously enabled the place to get by without state subsidy, although Jolliffe points out that tax relief is available on some kinds of donation. However a relief is granted, it is a form of state subsidy, just as surely as the grant given to the two orchestras that play at Glyndebourne (the London Philharmonic and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment).

I'm sure Glyndebourne itself would concede that it could not exist without the infrastructure provided by state subsidy. Its touring and educational arms (culturally no less significant than the annual festival) do, of course, receive public finance, if not as much as they deserve.

Subsidy, privilege, outreach, education: Jolliffe touches on all of these, as well as on such thorny subjects as opera sung in translation, which he has no time for; production style, which he wants to be modern but decorous; and modern opera, a good thing as long as it behaves itself. By and large, though, what interests him is Glyndebourne as Glyndebourne, a subject he finds endlessly fascinating. He is unstinting in his praise of every aspect of it, even down to the catering.

Barely a dissenting voice is heard. He mentions, for example, that Jonathan Miller "did not feel at all at home at Glyndebourne" when he staged Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen there in 1975, but he has nothing to say about what made Miller feel uncomfortable. He's keen only to accentuate the positive, so that his book reads like an enthusiastic and eventually tiresome report to the AGM.

Is Glyndebourne, then, an "operatic miracle"? Well, it's unique, although others (not mentioned by Jolliffe) attempt something similar: big house, pretty gardens, evening dress and picnics, opera in foreign languages. And it would be churlish to deny that, in attracting great singers, conductors, directors and designers, Glyndebourne has enriched operatic life. But whose?

That's another matter, and it isn't just a question of how many seats are available, at what price, to non-members. While we grant all due credit to its touring company and educational work, they are not what is meant by "Glyndebourne". That remains more anachronism than miracle.

Nick Kimberley