Stories from the Archive

Audrey Mildmay

This month’s treasures from the archive all celebrate Glyndebourne’s original leading lady.

On the anniversary of her death, we celebrate Glyndebourne’s original leading lady.

Audrey Mildmay, later to become Audrey Christie, was the charming and vivacious soprano who performed in an early musical project at Glyndebourne and captured first the attention and, soon after, the heart of John Christie.

Audrey Christie’s time at Glyndebourne was cut sadly short by her early death in May 1953, but her legacy lives on in the energy and spirit of the festival today – a festival she set in motion with one simple phrase: ‘If you’re going to spend all that money John, for God’s sake do the thing properly….’

Portrait photograph of Audrey Christie

This lovely portrait of Audrey Christie was taken after her marriage by the fashionable London society photographer ‘Vivienne’ (Florence Vivienne Mellish). The soft prettiness and shy sidelong look may suggest a fragile character, but Christie was both ambitious and tremendously hard-working, as her time at Glyndebourne bears out.

Christie’s ambition almost gave Glyndebourne a very different story. Having accepted John Christie proposal of marriage, the soprano – who was very reluctant to give up a singing career just beginning to flourish – then changed her mind when she was invited to an audition in London. A letter from John Christie to his mother still exists in the archive today telling her that ‘The wedding is in doubt’.

But John prevailed and the two were married in June 1931. Another singer might have assumed leading roles at the nascent Glyndebourne Festival as her right, but Audrey not only auditioned for artistic directors Carl Ebert and Fritz Busch but did so, according to Busch, with real nerve, keen to impress on her own merits.

She needn’t have worried. Busch and Ebert, who had demanded final say on all casting decisions, were charmed by her, and cast her to sing her first Susanna at the very first Glyndebourne Festival in 1934 – an achievement all the more impressive because Mildmay had given birth to her first child just months before auditioning, and would deliver her second before 1934 was over.

Christie sang just a handful of roles during her short Glyndebourne career – Susanna and Zerlina plus the spirited Norina in Don Pasquale at Glyndebourne and Polly in The Beggars’ Opera on tour.

Audrey Christie’s costume for Le nozze di Figaro

When the Glyndebourne Festival first opened to the public in 1934 it was with Mozart’s sunniest comedy Le nozze di Figaro. Celebrated German baritone Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender (father of mezzo-soprano Brigitte Fassbaender) took the title role, with Christie as his wife Susanna.

Many Glyndebourne costumes disappeared during the war, and only one costume from the 1930s survives in our possession – this delightful wedding dress, worn by Christie in the second half of this original Figaro and its subsequent revivals. A Fragonard-style fantasy of pastel ruffles and floral embellishment, the dress looks pink from a distance but is actually made from a very fine candy striped cotton, with embroidered floral love-knots and garlands covering the central skirt panel.

Designed by Ann Litherland (sister of the set designer Hamish Wilson), the dress was made up (like all the early costumes) by local seamstresses from the village, working with treadle sewing machines and wooden ironing boards – an extraordinarily intricate debut into costume-making, even for the most experienced of seamstresses.

The dress is an important part of Glyndebourne’s history and is on display in the Archive Gallery this summer, though in the absence of the original cage that would have sat underneath the skirt the dress is instead puffed up and out with large quantities of bubble wrap and loo roll!

Audrey Christie’s diaries

‘Rehearsal on stage; first time for Figaro….’

Audrey Christie kept some form of diary throughout most of her life. Many tiny leather-bound books are still held in the Glyndebourne Archive, filled with often cryptic notes of appointments and activities, but Christie also wrote fuller accounts of her life, and although the diary dating from the first Festival year of 1934 is missing we do still have a vivid account of 1935.

Figaro returned to the stage for its first revival in 1935, and if Christie’s diary entries are anything to go by, there was no slackening of pace or endeavour compared the previous year’s premiere. Christie records running every scene between Susanna and Figaro in a single day, working right through to 8.30pm. Having presumably missed dinner, she retires to bed ‘with an orange’ at midnight.

The sense of Christie’s multiple roles – singer, hostess, wife, mother – is conveyed here in a telling detail. Having rehearsed all day, Christie’s work is still not done. Concerned by a ‘badly sold’ house for the next day she spends time in the evening ‘making lists’ in hope of remedying the situation.

Written by Alexandra Coghlan and Julia Aries

Photo credits
Main image: Roy Henderson, Audrey Mildmay and Aulikki Rautawaara in the 1934 production of Le nozze di Figaro.
Audrey Mildmay portrait photo: Florence Vivienne Mellish
Costume and diary photos: Sam Stephenson

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