In December 1930, John Christie planned to give the latest in a series of amateur operatic excerpts in the Organ Room at Glyndebourne, his country-house estate in Sussex. However, for the first time, he hired two professional singers from the Carl Rosa Opera Company.
The subsequent performances from Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail were hilariously unprofessional – as all family entertainments should be. But for John Christie, this familiar event proved life changing, for at 48 years of age, he fell head over heels in love.
Audrey Mildmay and John Christie. Photo: Glyndebourne Archive
Opening Its Doors
So too did Audrey Mildmay, aforementioned Carl Rosa soprano, and in June 1931 the couple were married and set off on a European opera-filled honeymoon, returning home with John full of plans for extending the Organ Room to provide a small stage.
It was Audrey, from her perspective as a professional performer, who told him quite firmly ‘If you are going to spend all that money John, for God’s sake, do the thing properly’. All thoughts of amateur performance were banished and instead John set about the construction of a small purpose-built opera house in the grounds of his home, and two years later the Glyndebourne Festival Opera opened its doors, on the 28th May 1934.
Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, 1934. Photo: Glyndebourne Archive
The New Opera House
George Christie took over the reins from his father in 1958. Aside from continuing the growth and success of the Festival, he also established the Glyndebourne Touring Opera to enable the Festival’s productions to reach a wider audience, and in 1987 he hatched a plan to demolish and rebuild the opera house. Privately funded, the rebuild took place in 1993, and the new opera house opened with a production of Le nozze di Figaro on 28th May 1994.
Evening Dress Traditions
And what of the audiences? Taking the atmosphere of the European festivals as their inspiration, the Christies designed their performances to provide a sense of occasion. A chance to relax and enjoy the beautiful gardens and countryside views, a long interval in which to sit and eat, timings which fit in with the train back to London, and a recommendation to wear evening dress – which John Christie saw as a mark of respect to the artists.
In 2000, Gus Christie succeeded his father. Determined to continue the family tradition of creating world-class opera, he has also been inspired by a love of nature and energy conservation: this led to Glyndebourne installing its own wind turbine in 2011 and the opera house is now one of the first arts organisations in Europe to be wind-powered, both on-stage and off.
Glyndebourne skyline and wind turbine Photo: Sam Stephenson
Glyndebourne exists, over 80 years later, to open all hearts and minds to this extraordinary art form. What drives and unifies Glyndebourne is the same three words that have always been at its heart: No Ordinary Opera.