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All the garden’s a stage

With theatres closed this summer, Glyndebourne moved performances outside. But it was not for the first time...

With theatres closed this summer, Glyndebourne moved performances outside. But it was not for the first time as Archivist Philip Boot finds out.

In 1981, Glyndebourne audiences sat in a dark, enchanted forest. Did that tree just uproot itself and walk or was it the wind? Fairies, Amazonian warriors, a donkey, a tinker, even a tailor were all present. The magic of the forest. But this was not a real magic forest, of course. It was not even a real non-magic forest. Do not let your eyes deceive you. This was Glyndebourne’s premiere of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Glyndebourne has always had a magical way of bringing the outdoors in.

The irony here is not lost. Shakespeare indoors. The Bard has traditionally been associated closely with outdoor performances, with the open-air Globe being the main venue for Elizabethan and modern Shakespeare audiences alike. Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost was performed in full in the gardens at Glyndebourne. This was for a BBC TV adaptation in 1975 and the audience for this were sitting at home on their sofa eating crisps and drinking tea – not on the Ha-Ha lawn enjoying a picnic. Ok, some people do eat crisps and drink tea on the Ha-Ha, but you get my point. This was not an outdoor performance for a Glyndebourne audience.

Keen-eyed visitors to the Festival in 2016 may have been seen A Garden Dream, an immersive new composition by Young Composer-in residence Lewis Murphy based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream that gave the illusion that Titania and Puck – and a fair few other fairies – had swiftly left the stage and ran outside to run amok amongst the flowers, lawns and picnickers. Using all the garden as a stage.

Lockdown and the COVID-19 pandemic have meant that the creative teams at Glyndebourne have had to think fast and adapt. Outdoor performances were the answer. Offenbach’s one act operetta Madames de la Halle, reinterpreted for modern audiences as In the Market for Love transforms Glyndebourne’s blissful gardens into a bustling marketplace. Social distances maintained at all times. Three metres. This is not a magic forest. But the magic of nature surrounds you always. The birds that make up the chorus, the gentle breeze and the gorgeous pink-orange glow from the setting Sussex sun. Watching the end of the opera and the end of the day simultaneously is an experience that 2020 wasn’t supposed to bring us.

Perhaps it is these moments that appeal to outside performance lovers. Experiences that, no matter how magical a forest is onstage, cannot be replicated inside the theatre. In 1991 six composers were invited to compose wind serenades for audiences in the garden. Each performed outdoors before the operas to celebrate Mozart’s bicentenary. Weather permitting, naturally. One of these serenades, Figures in the Garden, by Jonathan Dove made a welcome return in 2020, as part of a series of Garden Concerts.

But the beauty and appeal of Glyndebourne has always been its relationship with nature, and the best outdoor performances are often seen whilst enjoying your picnic. High tea. High drama. Romance, reunions, rivalry. The well-choreographed clinking of champagne glasses. They’ve always been there, these garden performances and they are always, always magical.


Image credits: A Garden Dream, 2016, photo by Sam Stephenson | In the Market for Love summer production 2020, photo by Richard Hubert Smith


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