Since its inception in 1934 under John Christie, the Glyndebourne Opera Festival has been a highlight of the British summer social season, and a favourite among opera lovers and performers worldwide. Known for producing some of the best operas out there and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, it’s not often that you get to see behind the scenes of the operatic institution, still run to this day by the Christie family.
Unsurprisingly, an institution as old as Glyndebourne has quite a history, parts of which are still there to see if you know where to look. During World War Two, the festival had to shut down, and the house and grounds became a home for evacuee children (despite the house being directly under the Luftwaffe flight route to London); their dorms were the long low level buildings by the car park. The old theatre’s Green Room, a long narrow room with panelled walls hung with set and costume designs for artwork, and wide oak beam flooring, still exists behind the new bar, and acted as the school room for the children.
During recent cleaning under the floorboards they found toys and even letters to Father Christmas, now part of the festival’s archives. There are some still around now who remember this period of Glyndebourne’s history; the beekeeper was a boy at the time, living in the area, and would come to the house to play with the evacuees.
After the war, the festival was slow to recover and rented out its facilities to Benjamin Britten and his opera company. This period ensured the survival of the festival and saw the world première of The Rape of Lucretia. Once George Christie took over from his father, he built the Festival into its modern set up before handing over to his son, Gus.
George Christie started the tradition of bringing in theatre directors to make their operatic débuts, and introduce a real sense of drama to the festival’s productions. Over the years, David Hockney has done the design work for The Rake’s Progress, while Trevor Nunn and Peter Hall have directed. The problem with such visual and theatrical directors can be that they go a little overboard; in one production Peter Hall wanted live chickens on stage at the start, and for them to exit stage left on cue. To the production team’s credit they did manage to make it work – for a few of the performances at least.
By the eighties, a new theatre was needed to accommodate the new and ever more technical and complex productions, and so the current opera house was built. This second Glyndebourne theatre, alongside the first it replaced, are the only opera houses purpose-built in the UK in the twentieth century.
The new opera house was opened in 1994 with The Marriage of Figaro, sixty years to the day after the same opera opened in the old theatre. Amazingly, construction was on time and under budget, so only a single season was lost while it was being built. Designed to fit in with the house and newly re-revealed gable end of the Organ Room from which it stands just a foot away, it is constructed from 1.4 million bricks, all specially fired to the old imperial standard.
Concert halls and opera houses are often buildings of great engineering, not just to enable them to put on multiple technical productions during the same season, but because they need to be quiet buildings that accommodate their audiences in comfort. Thus the timber used in the auditorium (other than the American white oak for the seats) was mostly reconditioned wood from ships and one hundred years old, so it didn’t have to settle in. The cooling system, meanwhile, works by a large void under the stalls, keeping the air cool, which then seeps into the auditorium via slits in the left of each stall seat, so that it is almost silent.
But the public auditorium is only a small part of the opera house; a huge organisation goes on behind the scenes. Set backdrops are held above the set in an area that can hold up to seventy backdrops. They are all changed by hand rather than computer, given the less-than-perfect way that operas can play out from night to night. Wigs and costumes are made on site, but another company near Cardiff makes the sets. Some of the sets are huge, and much of the stage and back stage areas are taken up fixing them for storage if the opera is remaining in the repertoire. At any one time the programme is set for three years in advance, with years four and five roughly set but allowing for change so that new operas can be brought in or popular productions brought back sooner than originally planned.
Setting the schedule so far in advance is necessary anywhere, and even more so at Glyndebourne, given the unusually long rehearsal times that they have (six weeks as opposed to the normal four). Despite the extended rehearsal times, as with anything live, things do go wrong. During Love and Other Demons, the heavy steel set was lowered onto the thumb of one of the lead singers, so he performed the second half with a heavily bandaged thumb. On another occasion, when jumping through a paper set, one female lead landed badly, breaking her ankle and causing her to sing the rest of that section from the floor.
The most costly accident, though, saw another female lead fall from the stage, over the safety net and down into the orchestra pit, smashing a very valuable cello (if you ever see someone flying a kite before a performance at Glyndebourne, this is the cellist in question). Funniest of all incidents saw Don José arrive at the side of the stage late, so he ran on stage to kill Carmen leaving the dagger behind on the props table. That night, for the first time in operatic history, Carmen was strangled to death.
The chance to see behind the scenes of any arts institution is always a fascinating experience that adds to one’s appreciation and joy, garnered from the exhibits or productions it stages. Glyndebourne is no exception and has far more history to it than one could have imagined but, if you can’t get to Glyndebourne, the Royal Opera House is now also offering tours behind the scenes.