Stories from the Archive


Animals – both real and artificial – are stealing the spotlight this month, running riot, pulling focus and generally doing everything they shouldn’t….

Never work with children or animals, the saying goes.

But there have been plenty of both at Glyndebourne over the years. Animals – both real and artificial – are stealing the spotlight this month, running riot, pulling focus and generally doing everything they shouldn’t….

The donkey from L’elisir d’amore

For his beautiful 1968 Glyndebourne production of Donizetti’s classic comedy L’elisir d’amore, director Franco Zeffirelli insisted on using a real donkey. The animal’s role was simple: enter from the wings pulling a small cart, circle the stage, then be unhitched and led off. The Festival run went smoothly, but it wasn’t practical to tour a donkey throughout the autumn, so it was decided to ‘audition’ local donkeys in each town the Tour visited.

From a PR perspective, the idea was a good one. Thrilled with the idea, the press wrote enthusiastically about their new local stars. Unfortunately, in many cases delight in the donkey crowded out any detail about the actual performances themselves. A Manchester paper, for example, filled the entire space allotted for its review with details about Ringo the donkey. The only mention of the rest of the performance was a single sentence: ‘The opera itself was superbly presented.’

Other on-stage animals in Glyndebourne’s history include the live doves in Mozart’s Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail in the 1990s (eventually replaced by mechanical ones, as they had a tendency to coo, drowning out the singers), and two labradors who made a beeline for the tea table across the back of the stage in Albert Herring.

Photograph of a Christie family ‘Pug Party’

Pugs are synonymous with the Christie family. It was a tradition started by John Christie who adored the dogs, and whose letters to his beloved Audrey were often filled with stories and details of their latest doings. There’s even a rumour that George Christie was, in fact, named after his father’s favourite pug, who died shortly before his marriage, though since Audrey’s uncle also had the same name perhaps both sides of the family had their own motivation for the choice.

On at least two occasions the Christie family’s love of pugs took rather grander form. A Pug Dog Club garden party held at Glyndebourne in 1985 brought pugs from across the country together on the Glyndebourne lawns for competitions and games, which included a triumphant egg and spoon race entry by George Christie himself, running with his pug under one arm. Even more elaborate was the pug party held in 1995. 150 guests attended an event one newspaper reported as being ‘so glamorous that it makes Ascot look like a car-boot sale’. A fancy-dress contest was a highlight, and included a prize-winning entry by Glyndebourne pug Phoebe, dressed as the Queen Mother.

Glyndebourne’s dynasty of pugs is at present on hiatus, however. The family currently have two bulldogs – Norma and Mabel – as well as Caesar, a Portuguese Water Dog.

Pull-along sheep from L’enfant et les sortileges

American author and illustrator Maurice Sendak’s designs have featured in some of Glyndebourne’s most memorable productions including Where the Wild Things Are, L’amour des trois oranges, Higglety Pigglety Pop! and L’enfant et les sortileges. Frank Corsaro’s 1987 production of Ravel’s charming opera was the original home for this month’s final object. This green, wooden, pull-along sheep may be a simple child’s toy (owned by the wilful and destructive ‘enfant’ of the opera’s title) but is beautifully designed, with a face that could only have been drawn by Sendak. Attached to a string, the toy could be drawn along on wheels, following its young owner obediently.

Not all animals on Glyndebourne’s stage have been as docile. The parrots who were supposed to take a starring role in Adrian Noble’s Die Zauberflöte (2004) caused difficulties right through the show’s run. Supposed to fly majestically across the stage while Tamino played the magic pipes, the three birds would instead become entangled, and their intimate flappings became unintentionally suggestive. A single parrot, however, didn’t fare much better, stopping dead halfway across the stage on one occasion before eventually exiting with its bottom to the audience.

The dancing animals in this production included not only electronic creatures like the parrots but also dancers and puppets. A giant giraffe’s head (nicknamed Geraldine) was so fragile that it didn’t survive to the end of the tour, while on one memorable evening a dancer dressed as a penguin tripped spectacularly while entering. She fell and her head came off, rolling downstage, and had to be retrieved by Papageno later in the scene. The penguin herself, now helpless with laughter, had herself to be dragged offstage by her ankles.

Written by Alexandra Coghlan and Julia Aries

Image credits: Press cuttings, photos by James Bellorini | Pug party, photos by Guy Gravett | Archive objects: Pull-Along Sheep from L’enfant et les sortileges, photo by James Bellorini

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