Early years

The first curtain rose at Glyndebourne in 1934

The curtain rose on the first performance of the Opera Festival at Glyndebourne on 28 May, 1934. It was the culmination of one man’s obsession with the idea of presenting “not the best we can do, but the best that can be done anywhere”. The words are John Christie’s, owner of the estate at Glyndebourne, which he had inherited in 1920. He “felt that it [opera] was almost non existent…in England, so we ought to begin to bring it here”. The term ‘we’referred to him and his wife Audrey Mildmay, herself a professional singer. They had met at Glyndebourne when John was 48 years old and apparently a confirmed bachelor. Audrey, then a member of the Carl Rosa company, had been engaged at the suggestion of a musical friend of his, to provide a little professional polish to one of John’s amateur opera productions in the Organ Room at Glyndebourne. Built to provide his friend and Eton organist Dr Lloyd with an instrument to play when he was in Sussex, the room had become the focus of musical activity at Glyndebourne.

After their honeymoon spent attending Salzburg and Bayreuth Festivals, the Christies returned with John full of plans for an extension to the Organ Room to enable better performances to take place. It was Audrey who realised that the project was neither one thing nor the other, and urged, “If you’re going to spend all that money, John, for God’s sake do the thing properly!”. He immediately took his wife’s advice and set about creating a small purpose-built theatre to hold 300 people, a reasonable orchestra pit and a stage furnished with the most modern technical and lighting equipment.

The timing of the project was perfect: it would probably never have succeeded if built earlier or later. Financially Christie gained as England came off the Gold Standard, and as a result of some accidents and coincidences he eventually found the men that he wanted for his opera house. Both Fritz Busch from Dresden and Carl Ebert from Berlin had left Germany because they could not work under the Hitler regime. They accepted the posts of conductor and producer respectively on the condition that in all artistic matters they were to have sole responsibility. Christie’s only condition was that they should leave all matters regarding the cost of running the opera festival to him.