Shortly before he passed away in 2014, Sir George Christie (Glyndebourne Chairman, 1958-1999) started writing an account of his life at Glyndebourne. His writings have now been published as A Slim Volume.
We’re delighted to present an exclusive extract from the book, which you can read below.
A Slim Volume is available from Glyndebourne Shop.
The birth of ‘country-house opera’ as it is now generically – and rather disparagingly – known, was launched at Glyndebourne in 1934. It was inspired by my parents who had the extraordinary good fortune to nobble Fritz Busch and Carl Ebert who, although not Jewish, were refugees from Hitler’s increasingly repressive regime. All of this is well- documented, but justifies brief repetition in the context of the burgeoning growth and spread of ‘country-house opera’. Glyndebourne was conceived by a team of talent, experience and international reputation, which gave it a head start and pitched it immediately into the ‘first league’. Glyndebourne was starting half-way up the hill of its aspiration.
My father was unconsciously following in the footsteps of a tradition prevalent in earlier centuries when the playground of opera was provided in the courts of European aristocrats. ‘Country-house opera’ is not quite the preserve of the 20th century it is now popularly made out to be – the main difference between now and, say, the 18th century, is that the audience pay for their predilection.
The Christie family, 1937. John Christie and Audrey Mildmay with toddler George and his big sister Rosamond. Photo: Bassano
My father was by nature practical and resourceful, hence the reality of his achievement, but idealism with all its pitfalls was given equal opportunity in his scheme of objectives. Hence the mission statements.
He fitted no conventional models. The family owned several quite large estates in Sussex, Devon and Lincolnshire. He inherited the Sussex and Devon properties, and was not interested in ownership per se but in turning his assets to good account – be it for commercial profit or social/charitable gain. He was born in 1882 and was inevitably steeped in the mores of Victorian culture which conventionally fitted his birthright. He was by his up-bringing a conservative, but he was politically an odd-ball unaffiliated to any political party whilst holding steadfastly to what he believed was the right way forward in society. He was an eccentric – Childs, his butler, was his Best Man – and my godfather. Not positions customarily taken up by butlers. But Childs was an exception to the rule and must be the only butler ever to get an obituary in The Times.
Whilst my father was innately practical he was also prone to unrealistic ideas that were on the whole emotionally rather than intellectually motivated, and it was in this context that my mother’s influence came valuably into play. With her background as a professional singer she brought ballast to the balloons of fancy which he concocted. She was also invaluable in providing the heartbeat which was a hallmark in Glyndebourne’s nascent years and which, I like to think, my wife and I perpetuated with fervour later on.
Glyndebourne in the 1930s. Photo: Glyndebourne Archive
In the years leading up to the war Glyndebourne concentrated largely on the works of Mozart: the three da Ponte operas, Die Zauberflöte and Die Entführung aus dem Serail – Donizetti’s Don Pasquale and Verdi’s Macbeth (its UK premiere) were added to the repertoire in 1938 and 1939. Ebert directed everything and Busch conducted most of the performances. My father liked to aim high and he asked Arturo Toscanini to consider conducting an opera at Glyndebourne to which Toscanini replied: ‘But you’re already blessed with Busch’. Perhaps the most self-deprecatory remark he ever made.
Opera directors at the time were a rare breed in the UK and received no acknowledgement on playbills or in programmes as the dramatic content of opera was largely neglected. Ebert, with Busch’s connivance, corrected this situation emphatically, providing Glyndebourne’s performances with a rational balance – the dramatic narrative being given equal weight through the expression of music. The marriage of these ingredients is, after all, fundamental to the performance of opera – until, that is, the individuals get out of kilter and, as is wont to happen nowadays, the dramatic content is wantonly distorted.
Starting an opera company from scratch without public subsidy is a fairly lunatic concept and needs passion. Of the recent growth of companies that have sprung up, it seems to me that Garsington – a one-man band under the late Leonard Ingrams – takes the biscuit simply because he had very considerable knowledge of the operatic repertoire and an unswerving passion for it. Longborough, with its founders, Martin and Lizzie Graham, and Music Director, Anthony Negus, possesses an abundance of similar attributes. However, once set up, an opera company’s continuation will depend to a major extent on the choice of principal conductors and leading stage directors. This is where Glyndebourne scored perhaps above all others. Busch and Ebert had international reputations and they in turn attracted singers off the ‘top shelf’ – such as Willi Domgraf-Fassbänder, Dino Borgioli, Salvatore Baccaloni, Luise Helletsgruber, Alexander Kipnis, Aulikki Rautawaara, Ina Souez, Mariano Stabile and Risë Stevens. These singers are now almost forgotten – mainly because recordings of opera which help to maintain a singer’s reputation were in scarce supply at that time. Busch and Ebert also brought their power of persuasion into play in engaging Rudolf Bing as General Manager – a real coup for Glyndebourne, as he was one of the most outstanding entrepreneurs in the operatic world at the time.
The alchemy of the Busch, Ebert and Bing mixture combined with the feed-in from my parents gave Glyndebourne a kick-start which has had lasting effect.
My father fought in the First World War but at the age of 58 was not of course called up for the Second. So he spent a certain amount of time proposing grandiose ideas as to how to set the world to rights and, in particular, to bring some logic to the traditional chaos of opera in this country, culminating in his bid to buy the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. My mother had taken my sister and me to North America during the war and so was unable to hold my father’s flights of fancy in check. He was, thank heavens, pipped at the post in his quest to buy Covent Garden by John Maynard Keynes who negotiated its purchase for the nation.
Imagine now being the owner/manager of Glyndebourne and the owner/manager of the ROH. Talk about biting off more than you can chew. My gratitude to Keynes is boundless.
—Sir George Christie
You can continue reading Sir George Christie’s reminiscences of Glyndebourne in A Slim Volume, available now from the Glyndebourne Shop.