Pre-war years

The creation of an entirely new standard of operatic performance

The first season lasted for two weeks, with six performances each of Le nozze di Figaro and Così fan tutte . The first performance of Figaro was unlike anything that the audience had experienced before, and whatever their reason for coming, visitors who had certainly arrived in a mood of scepticism returned knowing that they had enjoyed a unique experience. It was not only that they had enjoyed a good dinner during the long interval and a walk in a garden surrounded by beautiful downland scenery; they had witnessed the creation of an entirely new standard of operatic performance.

It was a standard achieved by endless rehearsal and by attention to detail – in the orchestra, the singing, the acting, the scenery and costumes. There were no star names among the singers; the secret of the success of the first Glyndebourne performances was the quality of the ensemble, which was built on the principle of choosing the best singers for the parts, no matter where they came from. The first season’s company included singers from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Finland, Italy, America, England, Scotland and Wales. Apart from their vocal talents, the main criterion was simple: the women had to be pretty and the men good-looking!

The first Glyndebourne season began as what many thought of as merely a rich man’s folly, but it ended with Glyndebourne becoming an international institution.

Almost every year alterations, extensions and improvements were made to the theatre: in 1937 the Covered Way was built, filling in the Lily Pond, which had caught out a few unwary visitors in the dark! The new Wallop dining halls were erected named Over, Middle and Nether Wallop after villages in Hampshire from which the Earls of Portsmouth take their family name. Lady Rosamond Wallop, sister of the eighth Earl, was John Christie’s mother. The theatre itself was gradually enlarged, from a capacity of 300 to 537. A flytower, scenery store, offices and a cyclorama were added. The repertoire also grew with each season: the five Mozart operas were joined by Verdi’s Macbeth and Donizetti’s Don Pasquale .

By the time the War came in 1939, a Glyndebourne tradition, style and standard had been firmly established. But it was to be more than 10 years before the Festival Opera returned to normal. Indeed, during the War the house was turned into a huge dormitory for East London evacuee children and babies.