Thursday, May 7, 2009

Glyndebourne: preserving the festival's identity

Glyndebourne opera festival is celebrating its 75th birthday with innovations – but the old idyll persists

Watch Glyndebourne - Giulio Cesare on Plushmusic

Glyndebourne is about to hit its 75th birthday with a spring in its step. When the season opens later this month, there will be a new restaurant designed by architecture's oldest enfant terrible, Nigel Coates. A scheme has been introduced to woo the under-thirties by allotting them cheaper tickets.

There's been a clean-out of the notorious 20-year waiting list for admission to the club which sustains the enterprise, and 4,000 of those in the queue have just been fast-tracked into "associate membership".

A head of commercial development has recently been appointed, charged with "pushing the brand", and they're ahead of the game in exploring the potential of new HD technology and web broadcasting. The organisation is also busy reducing its carbon consumption, and plans for a 230ft wind turbine were approved last year – much to the rage of some of its neighbours.

But the old idyll persists – it's still one of the defining images of an English summer, a deeply serious opera festival framed by a faintly dotty country-house fête champêtre, inaugurated by John Christie in 1934 and now executively chaired by his grandson Gus.

A lavish new photographic book, Glyndebourne: A Visual History, with a sharply candid text by Gus's father George records the on- and off-stage glamour of the place, which author Jeanette Winterson has nobly defended from the puritanical sneers of Lefties and opera-loathers: "If life is about heightened moments, and living well when we can," she wrote, "then Glyndebourne is an essential part of life."

Somehow it all has to be paid for. Glyndebourne receives no public subsidy for the festival, and it has to make a profit in order to flourish. Recent successful seasons have allowed the build-up of some reserves, but the box office must hit around 95 per cent of capacity in order to fulfil the budget.

So far, however, the crunch is being faced with equanimity. Corporate sponsorship has been in decline for a decade, so the further inevitable drop this year is not significant, and there has been a simultaneous compensatory rise in donations from individuals (who are giving around £2 million this year).

A gala concert in June had to moderate its ambitions in order to sell out, but with the help of a big advertising campaign, box office for the festival is already running at 90 per cent, ahead of last year. Everyone knows that next year is likely to be the really tough one, but there are no signs of any tendency to make easy or lazy compromises on matters of quality.

David Pickard has been general director of Glyndebourne since 2001. To him falls the delicate task of assembling a menu which both sustains Glyndebourne's reputation at the operatic forefront (in the business, its overall standards are rated among the highest in the world) and satisfies a demanding clientele who feel that they pay good money to hear nice tunes and see pretty costumes and who baulk at horrible modern music.
This year Pickard has ruffled a few feathers by leaving out Mozart, whose operas have been Glyndebourne's bread, butter and jam since the Thirties.

Pickard is unapologetic, pointing out that there will be two Mozart productions in 2010 – a new staging of Don Giovanni (originally scheduled to be directed by Sam Mendes this summer and postponed for reasons of availability: sadly, Mendes has now dropped out of the project altogether) and a revival of Nicholas Hytner's elegant version of Così fan tutte. "We don't want to feel that Mozart must be included simply because he always has been," says Pickard. "There ought to be good artistic reasons for his every appearance."

The other signal he wants to give out is a long-term commitment to explore the Baroque repertory. This year, there will be a new production of Purcell's The Fairy Queen, conducted by William Christie, and another revival of David McVicar's hugely successful camped-up version of Handel's Giulio Cesare, starring Danielle de Niese as Cleopatra.

Mademoiselle de Niese's performance in this role so entranced Gus Christie when the production was new in 2005 that he is now engaged to marry her – one of many romances conjured by Glyndebourne's seductive ambience.

Further ahead, Pickard promises more Handel, and perhaps a crack at the tough nut of Rameau as well. Beyond the Baroque, two major additions to the repertory will be Britten's Billy Budd, directed by Michael Grandage, and Wagner's Die Meistersinger, directed by David McVicar.

Russian opera, a speciality of Glyndebourne's music director Vladimir Jurowski, will also feature strongly, including a revival of The Rake's Progress in David Hockney's immortal designs. Phobics of horrible modern music will be relieved to hear that no new operas are currently commissioned.

Glyndebourne works hard. "We play 120 performances a year," says Pickard, "which is more than most major Italian opera houses." Apart from the summer season, there's also a national tour every autumn, which this year moves from Glyndebourne itself to Stoke-on-Trent, Milton Keynes, Woking, Plymouth and Norwich.

This is an expensive operation: despite some Arts Council subsidy and audiences averaging 85 per cent of capacity, it loses the organisation some £200,000 per year. But commitment to the tour, says Pickard is "absolute", and lower ticket prices give many people who can't get to the festival access to Glyndebourne productions. Musical standards are high, with an emphasis on giving younger performers their head – the tour's recent music directors have included such distinguished conductors as Ivor Bolton, Louis Langrée, Edward Gardner and Robin Ticciati at the beginning of their careers, and singers such as Roberto Alagna, Gerald Finley and Emma Bell have all made important debuts here.

This year's tour, which also includes the new production of Falstaff and a revival of Jenu˚fa, will see chorus member Gillian Ramm take the leading role of Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte for the first time. Such internal promotion is happily typical of Glyndebourne, which prefers to grow its own organically rather than buy in over-priced imported goods.

Innovation, in other words, comes out of tradition – or, as Pickard succinctly puts it, "Continuity is what we value most."

Glyndebourne Festival's 2009 season runs from May 21 to August 30. Returns at short notice are often available for sold-out performances (01273 813813 or www.glyndebourne com )

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