Fathers' Day Out: Glyndebourne puts on the arias and graces: The fourth in a series in which Michael Fathers investigates the English social season

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The Independent Online
THERE is a wooden sign at the entrance to Glyndebourne from the car park that says, 'Chauffeurs may wait here'. On Thursday night during the interval of Death in Venice there were three of them - drivers, not signs.

'I was carrying six hampers for my governor and all he carried was a coffee flask. And then he tells me to stop and points out to his wife a couple of grouse making love in the grass. Six hampers in my arms and I have to wait with him while his missus watches some birds having it off]'

'What about this,' says another driver. 'I pick up my lot from a Swiss bank and when I get here the governor opens the hamper in the boot and starts counting the cakes to make sure I haven't nicked any.'

The chauffeur-of-the-six-hampers goes to Glyndebourne once a week with his governor during the festival from May to August every year. The governor is both an opera buff and a corporate member of Glyndebourne, which means he pays about pounds 10,000 a year to take business contacts to the most exclusive opera house in Britain.

The chauffeurs are a bit fed up with Glyndebourne. They complain they have nowhere to go and nowhere to eat. A strong yew hedge marks the boundary between them and the gardens where their governors, their wives, and sometimes their governors' girlfriends, have their picnics. And what a mixed bunch] There are scrawny old dames dressed in what look like the family curtains, others in flashy outfits that suggest they expected it to be like Tramp nightclub; most though just look rich.

The drivers used to hang about the backstage where they could get a cup of tea, but were barred a few years ago for making too much noise. 'It wasn't us,' said Six Hampers. 'It was the stage- hands.' All the drivers have nowadays for entertainment is the signpost.

It is beside a refreshment tent called the Fenchurch Mildmay Marquee where if you are lucky you can get a cup of tea and if you are not, you have to take coffee. The hot water boiler had been turned off, the food shelves were empty. The drivers said they had spotted a lemon cake and coconut cake in the marquee before they were chucked out at the interval.

I asked the tea lady if the canteen staff went to the dress rehearsals like every other worker at Glyndebourne. 'Canteen]' she replied. 'I'll have you know we are catering.' She never told me whether she saw the operas. But she did say the chauffeurs had to be kept in their place.

This year it is easy to get to Glyndebourne if you have a spare 90 quid. There has never been such a volume of returns, according to the box office, although the box office considers 10 spare seats in the 830-seat opera house a flood.

Some say it is the recession that is keeping people away; certainly the volume of helicopter traffic around this part of Sussex has fallen off sharply. Others say this season's repertoire is far too modern for the corporates - the sponsors who keep Glyndebourne afloat. There are two Benjamin Brittens: Peter Grimes and Death in Venice; a Tchaikovsky: The Queen of Spades; Jenufa by the Czech composer Leos Janacek and, horror of horrors, only one Mozart: Cosi fan Tutte.

'It's George Christie's way of showing his independence,' a member of the company said. 'He has always put opera first and sneakily we feel he's a bit fed up with the social bit.'

Sir George Christie, the son of the founder of the opera festival, seldom talks to journalists so I cannot confirm how he feels. But he would be an unwise man to turn his nose up at the source of the opera's funding. In fact he has just raised pounds 28.5m to build a new opera house to seat 1,150.

This year's Glyndebourne festival ends with a gala concert on 24 July. Tickets cost pounds 1,000 and pounds 750 and it is sold out. Then the wreckers move in, pull down the old building and the new opera house, it is hoped, will be ready by 28 May 1994. The extraordinary thing about Glyndebourne, though, is that corporate sponsorship is never heard and seldom seen. The only evidence that it exists is a tiny reference in the programme. It is this discretion - and the dressing up - that gives the season its enormous appeal and social cachet.

'You don't necessarily have to like opera to like Glyndebourne,' an American businesmen's wife said to me on the train down to Lewes.

There was a time even during the Eighties when it was fashionable for people to put their godchildren on the membership waiting list at Glyndebourne rather that buy them a present. The fee is pounds 50, the waiting is about 15 years.

Glyndebourne's appeal for the opera lover, however, is the sheer brilliance of its productions. It is marvellous. As a rank musical outsider I can vouch for that.

But it is all so bloody precious. That is what really gets up your nose. You are expected to talk about Glyndebourne in whispers, whether you adore it or dislike it. It is the Holy Grail. Someone ought to take the stuffing from it, perhaps even write an opera about it. Wolfgang Amadeus would have done it so well.

(Photograph omitted)