David Pickard: looking back on 14 years at the helm

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At the start of the millennium, a new generation took the helm at Glyndebourne.

When Gus Christie succeeded his father, George Christie, as Glyndebourne’s Executive Chairman in 2000, the same year Vladimir Jurowksi, then 28, was appointed as Music Director. And in 2001 Glyndebourne required a new General Director to complete its team.

David Pickard, then 41, was Chief Executive of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE), one of Glyndebourne’s two resident orchestras.

‘I remember thinking, “This is the kind of thing that I will regret not having applied for, but clearly they’re not going to be interested in me.” ’

‘In fact, I think Gus would say that it was my youth that appealed to him. He didn’t want to have someone coming in who was 20 years older than him and had run three opera companies before.’


David Pickard, Vladimir Jurowski and Gus Christie pictured in 2003. Photographer: Andrew Hasson​.

Before his feet were even under the table, a decision needed to be made that would prove hugely significant.

‘I can remember sitting in my office at the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Gus calling me and saying, “There’s this idea to do a new production of Giulio Cesare with Bill Christie conducting and David McVicar directing and we really need to decide now because their diaries are getting full.”’

On the basis of his admiration for the work, and the quality of the team involved, Pickard gave his support.

‘And of course the irony is that that turned out to be probably one of the most iconic productions of my 14 years here. Just as there are other projects that you sweat over to get right and they don’t always turn out exactly the way you’d hoped they would.’

Once he did arrive in post, Pickard recalls a real sense of excitement:

‘There was this sense of the three of us all finding a way forward together, which I remember feeling very mutually supportive. It was exciting because we were all discovering together.’

Expanding repertoire

Giulio Cesare is one of 17 new operas introduced to Glyndebourne’s repertoire during Pickard’s tenure, a reflection of his desire to offer audiences a breadth of musical and theatrical experiences.

‘In the past it was a house that was associated with quite a small repertoire – Mozart, Rossini, Strauss, Verdi. I felt that there was an opportunity to look at the repertoire in a different way, and actually, isn’t a festival more interesting if you give an audience six pieces that all feel very different?’

One consequence of this approach was the emergence of a second wave of baroque repertoire following that of the 1990s, best remembered for Peter Sellars’s ground-breaking production of Handel’s Theodora.

Among the baroque composers added to the Glyndebourne repertoire under Pickard is Henry Purcell. The Fairy Queen debuted at the 2009 Glyndebourne Festival, the 2012 revival is pictured here. Photographer: Richard Hubert Smith​.

Pickard, however, denies that this was driven by a specific vision:

‘It’s been very interesting for me reflecting back on 14 years and having people telling me what my vision was in 2001, because I’m not sure it was there!’

Instead the expansion of the baroque repertoire at Glyndebourne arose out of a desire to recognise what the company can do better than any other opera house:

‘It strikes me that, with baroque music, if you have a theatre which seats 1,200 people, a fantastic, never-ending supply of brilliant young artists who can sing baroque music wonderfully well, a wonderful period instrument orchestra like the OAE, and a fantastic chorus like the Glyndebourne Chorus that can sing Purcell as well as they can sing Verdi, you have a chance of doing a Handel opera, or a Purcell opera, or a Rameau opera, to a standard that, I would say, you couldn’t see anywhere else in the world.’

Hit productions

Can you spot a hit?

‘With some shows, you know – with Guilio Cesare absolutely I knew it. I remember going into a rehearsal quite early on and Danni [Danielle de Niese] was doing one of her dance routines in the studio.’

‘I thought, “My god, this is clever. If everything else is as good as this, it’s going to be extraordinary.” And it was.’

Danielle de Niese as Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare in 2005. © Mike Hoban/The Hoban Gravett Archive​.

Other notable successes under Pickard’s tenure include Jonathan Kent’s popular 2009 production of The Fairy Queen, Michael Grandage’s epic 2010 production of Billy Budd, Melly Still’s fantastical 2011 production of Rusalka, and most recently, Barrie Kosky’s hit production of Handel’s Saul from the 2015 Glyndebourne Festival.

Away from the stage

Away from the stage, Pickard has overseen great strides within the education, communications and fundraising departments.

‘I wanted to be more involved in the business side than my predecessors had. The big thing for me was fundraising because I’d had quite a lot of experience at the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.’

‘I got much more engaged with that from the beginning because I could see that that was where I could make a contribution.’

Another area of focus has been new audience development initiatives:

‘What I really wanted Glyndebourne to do was to connect a bit more with the outside world. All these things that we’ve done to make our work more accessible – free internet streaming, cinema relays, reduced price tickets for under 30s, schools performances – they came naturally, unconsciously I think, from that.’

Much of the progress made in reaching broader audiences was driven by new technology. In 2007 Glyndebourne was the first UK opera house to screen its work in cinemas and in 2011 it was the first UK opera house to stream its work for free online.

A 2011 cinema screening at the Science Museum in London. Photographer: Tim Hawigins​.

But Glyndebourne’s membership model means efforts to broaden the organisation’s reach require careful consideration:

‘We will always have a healthy tension between exclusivity and accessibility. Our business model is based on exclusivity and we throw that away at our peril, but on the other hand we also want broad audiences to see our work.’

Glyndebourne’s model is also based on maintaining its financial independence – not an easy task in the current economic climate.

‘People may think of it as an artistic inhibitor but I’ve sometimes found it very useful when somebody’s said to me, “You can do this project, but do you realise it’s going to cost this?” Then you have to make the decision, is it worth doing or not?’

Future of opera

The cost of staging opera, the challenge of funding it and the threat of an ageing audience means there is much debate on the health of the art form.

‘We’ve still got a long way to go to make people understand what opera really is. One of the problems we have is that I don’t think any opera company has really properly succeeded in explaining to people that it isn’t a fantastically intellectual art form, you don’t need to speak five languages to come and hear it, you don’t need to know a lot about singers to get the thrill out of it.’

Pickard though sees much reason to be optimistic, particularly in the UK:

‘The death of opera has been predicted for so many years now, but there’s so much going on at the moment in the UK.’

‘In the last 14 years I’ve had the luck and the privilege to travel abroad to see opera in other countries, and I can absolutely promise people that the opera that you see in Leeds, Cardiff, Glasgow, Exeter, London, Glyndebourne, is of, invariably, a consistently high standard.’

Following a hugely successful 2015 Glyndebourne Festival, for which the company won a UK Theatre Award, David Pickard will soon take up a new role as the Director of the BBC Proms.

‘I think I’m leaving Glyndebourne at the right time, that’s for sure. One of the reasons I’m leaving is that I’ve got a fantastic new job to go to, but I love this organisation enough to know that it doesn’t need any more of me – it needs someone else to come in who’s going to take it in a different direction.’

‘I will really look forward to looking at my successor and thinking, “Damn, I wish I’d thought of doing that.” Because that for me will be success.’