Like so many of its founder’s beloved operas, the Glyndebourne Festival begins with a love story – and one that has its own tragic ending.
John Christie inherited the estate at Glyndebourne in 1920. His fondness for music led him to stage amateur opera evenings at the grand house, and some 11 years after coming into his inheritance it was at one such evening that he met the woman who would become his wife.
Sussex-born Canadian soprano Audrey Mildmay, a singer with with the Carl Rosa Opera company, had been invited to perform at one of Christie’s evenings to add a touch of professionalism. She sang the role of Blonde in a December 1930 production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio, 1782). At 48, Christie was 18 years her senior, but he was immediately smitten. The pair married in June 1931.
Returning from their honeymoon – an opera tour of Austria and Germany taking in the festivals at Salzburg and Bayreuth – the couple set about bringing professional opera to Glyndebourne. Mildmay said of her husband: “He felt that it [opera] was almost non existent in England, so we ought to begin to bring it here.”
Christie’s original idea was to extend the Organ Room, in which he hosted his opera evenings, but his wife encouraged him to think bigger. With Christie’s exhortation to present “not the best we can do, but the best that can be done anywhere” in mind, they set about creating a fully equipped 300-seat theatre in which the highest-quality opera could be performed.
The purpose-built theatre was completed in 1934. Christie engaged the talents of conductor Fritz Busch as music director, Carl Ebert as artistic director and Rudolf Bing as general manager. All three men were exiles from Nazi Germany. The first two-week season at Glyndebourne opened on 28 May 1934. It comprised six performances each of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786) and Così fan tutte (Women Are Like That, 1790). Mildmay took the role of Susanna in the former. The Guardian’s reviewer described hers as “one of the best individual performances”.
The festival was a huge success with public and critics alike. That same reviewer commented: “The sun and the gently rounded, richly wooded, Sussex countryside were at their best, and all that taste and money and nearly all science could do to make a perfect home for opera had been done.” Glyndebourne’s reputation for quality and uniqueness was cemented, being soon recognised as an outstanding artistic event. The festival returned the following year and has built on this initial success ever since.
And that tragic ending? By 1947, Audrey Mildmay’s failing health meant she had to give up singing professionally. She was unable to reprise her role as Susanna in a performance of Le nozze di Figaro at the first ever Edinburgh Festival. Her strength deteriorated and Mildmay died at Glyndebourne in 1952; she was not yet 52 years old. But her and her husband’s legacy lives on in the continued success of Glyndebourne Festival.
A Short History of Glyndebourne
Opera lovers enjoy a picnic during the 2006 festival season at Glyndebourne House (Wolfiewolf via Wikimedia Commons).