Glyndebourne Festival Opera
Royal Albert Hall - Proms

 Darlings, I arrived at the queue for season tickets for the Proms. After a minute I noticed ladies in long dresses and men in black ties. I thought, “have I missed something from the program? Am I in the right place?”  I put my backpack down to keep my place and went round to find out why they were dressed so.  I went to where they were having their usual picnic to ask someone there. Not being very informed about the Proms, I overheard a girl talking who had apparently bought the dress she was wearing especially for that day.

I was getting really curious so I asked the lady that I’ve noticed brings the picnic bag and lots of bottles of wine “why are you dressed like that?” She said: “It is the GLYNDEBOURNE NIGHT”. The pronunciation was difficult for me. I went back to my place to retrieve my camera and returned back to them. They were very much into wine and eating while they talked about all the dresses. One of the gentlemen at the party was obviously a Scotsman, as he was wearing an evening jacket and kilt.  I took some photos. I went back to my place and asked the man next to me the same question regarding their dress.  The reasoning was still unclear to me.  He said, “They are the posh of the Proms!” “Really?” I said. “Yes they dress like that every year when the Glyndebourne Festival Opera comes to the Proms. They are posh people.”  Just then I realised what a wonderful experience I had stumbled into; I was having the “Glyndebourne Experience” for just two pounds. When I got inside I noticed that there was actually Promenades – the ladies with their long dresses and the men in black ties all in the front row.  

My Malaysian friend came to explain to me about Glyndebourne. He told me: “every year the Glyndebourne Festival comes to the Proms. Sir John Christie (1882-1962) in his beautiful Sussex home founded it in 1934. He married Audrey Mildmay (1900-53) an English soprano that delighted people with her singing of Susanna, Zerlina and Norina. She asked for a theatre and because he was so in love with her and the opera that he gave her a theatre. With the best people in the opera – Fritz Busch as conductor and Carl Ebert as producer they opened with Figaro and Cosi Fan Tutti on 28 and 29 May 1934. Those productions were unprecedented in the British operatic history, with the best of British and foreign artists. Premieres of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia and Albert Herring and Ferrier in Orfeo made the name of this opera house great. Sir George Christie, the founder’s son and Chairman for 41 years retired in 1999, from Glyndebourne Festival Opera. (It has always been a family affair because his son, Gus Christie, is the new Chairman.)

The Festival became more and more interesting with magnificent artists coming to sing and music direction from Fritz Busch succeeded by Vittorio Gui, John Pritchard, Bernard Haitink, Andrew Davis and now Vladimir Jurowski. (They were so successful that Rudolf Bing, Audrey Mildmay, Busch and Elbert, all part of Glyndebourne Festival, created the Edinburgh Festival, Festival of Music and Drama in 1947.  Opera was the centrepiece of the Festival.) 

Sitting next to me (as my Malaysian friend was explaining about Glyndebourne) was “The Man in Red”, not dressed in his usual bright red but in a more subtle shade known as “Bordeaux red” (wine-coloured) who had actually, this year, been to Glyndeboune. So naturally I asked him all about it. He said, they had a new theatre holding 1,200 people, which was opened in 1994, and that you have to arrive in evening dress. Usually one takes a picnic basket – smoked salmon and chicken – finishing with strawberries in the interval, but most of them have bottles of champagne and Pimms and some even have a butler and a Bentley!

This is an Opera House in the middle of the Sussex countryside, performances beginning at around 5pm. (You can always tell when it is the “Glyndebourne season” – Victoria Station is full of these people in evening dresses with their picnic baskets, rugs etc. boarding the train for Lewes where they disembark and are ferried to Glyndebourne by coach.)  You must make an entire day of it and arrive in good time to have your picnic in the beautiful gardens and show off your clothes.  The real event is not only the opera but also the exclusive glamorous, unashamedly elitist audience, all tremendously excited to be there. You get the impression that they feel “well, we’ve made it…the eccentricity, beauty and magic of the extraordinary place, or impressed by the high standard of musicianship and dedication that goes into every performance, in this most elitist of Britain’s opera houses.” You have to wait to become an individual member for twenty-one years. They are, of course, usually sold out, and they are extremely expensive. But you must remember that you are not only paying for a performance, you are paying for the ambience of the surroundings.  

“The Man in Red” told me to go by train or by car or – if you found a rich boyfriend – you could go by helicopter, as they have a helicopter pad at Glyndebourne. I must confess that I was speechless. I arrived home and connected myself to the Internet to and put myself on the list for a ticket, which I hope I’ll get before I die, so I have plenty of time to buy a new long dress.

But this year Glyndebourne Opera’s sponsor has created a lot of controversy in the world of UK opera. This year’s season featured Don Giovanni, Ihigenie en Aulide, Katya Kabanova, Euryanthe, the one I saw at the Proms. Peter Hall’s staging of Albert Herring revival and Carmen with Sofie von Otter, the Swedish mezzo-soprano, coming in from the cold and for playing a femme fatale, she was sexy and humorous, as I read in the newspaper. I personally cannot see a Swede playing a Spanish gypsy without a dark wig! 

Anyway, what really amused me was the sponsorship of the British American Tobacco Company’s contribution of nearly £200,000 for Carmen, which caused major controversy.  The opera is about an orphaned Spanish girl who works in a cigarette factory. Sir Jonathan Miller, the award-winning opera director, described the “brilliant marketing” deal as “amoral”.  He said,  “Allowing anything to be endorsed that is a killer is amoral. Glyndebourne would expect me to be indignant as they would say ‘well, he’s not performing this year’, but I would have very serious misgivings if BAT were to sponsor one of my productions.” He also criticised this deal as this product is sold to, “less advantaged in the world. Making money from the less-advantaged in the world to entertain a very privileged audience is not morally right.” Also the American bass-baritone Mark Doss said, “Good lung capacity is essential for singing. I also consider it inappropriate for a tobacco company to finance an operatic production in any way other than anonymously.” Then a charity that helps people give up smoking said, “One in two smokers at Glyndebourne will die early because of smoking. Internationally acclaimed singers could have their voice boxes removed because of smoking. Tobacco sponsorship cannot justify the loss of irreplaceable talent or an early death.” (My mother is now in the hospital and has been for nearly 5 years, all connected with her smoking three packets (20s) of Dunhill a day.) 

The famous teacher of singing and conductor of the Royal Welsh Ladies Choir – Clara Novello Davies (the mother of Ivor Novello) advocated smoking as a means of “clearing the throat” – she was nearly 80 when she died. A spokesman for BAT said, “We’ve been consistent, of small-scale, supporters of the arts in Britain and around the world. We thought Carmen was an appropriate thing to do in our centenary year. I don’t believe a single extra person will smoke because BAT is sponsoring Carmen at Glyndebourne.”  David Pickard, the opera house’s general director, said, “Glyndebourne receives no state funding and therefore, like many other charitable organisations in the arts, relies heavily on third-party support.”  I really like what Amy Burton, a soprano with New York City Opera, said, “This sounds like ado about nothing. Consider that the opera Carmen itself glorifies smoking. It’s a natural connection. If the tobacco company was sponsoring La Boheme, with Mimi coughing all night, perhaps that would be in bad taste, but Carmen? It’s a brilliant marketing scheme!”  

So the famous Glyndebourne performance really took second place as I could only think of picnics and champagne, (remember the late, great Maurice Chevalier singing “The Night they Invented Champagne” in the film Gigi).  The Promenades, who were thinking that they were at Glyndebourne, drank nearly three bottles of champagne, which cost more than £100 a bottle.

It was 3 hours and 45 minutes of serious opera.  A great romantic opera in three acts Euryanthe by Carl Maria Weber (1786-1826, text by Helmina von Chezy, with the Glyndebourne Chorus and the Orchestra of the Age Enlightenment, and the conductor was Mark Elder.  Darlings! It was sung in German. I followed with my programme and I’m really getting into German after this first month at the Proms; it is an amazing and powerful language when sung  

Carl Maria Weber was born in Eutin, Lubeck 18.11.1786 and died in London on 5.6.1826. The story of this great composer that I like most is the story about his death. He travelled to London for the premiere of his opera Oberon at Covent Garden in April 1826, and died the day before he was going back to Germany. He was buried in the Catholic Chapel in Moorfields where his body remained until 1844, when Wagner and Meyerbeer arranged for its return to Dresden. He was re-buried to funeral music arranged from Weber’s opera by Wagner, who was deeply affected by the occasion. Standing by the grave, he announced, “Behold, the Briton does you justice, the Frenchman admires you, but only the German can love you, a bright day in his life, a drop of his blood, a particle of his heart.”

Carl Maria Weber became a cousin of Mozart by Mozart’s marriage to Constanza Weber. Carl Weber studied with Michael Haydn, brother of Joseph.  Above all, Weber is celebrated as the founding figure of German Romantic Opera and the German National Opera with Der Freischutz 1821. Euryanthe, 1823 was the only completely sung opera. The plot is taken from an Old French legend of a virtuous woman wrongly accused. The intrigue, which Weber introduced into the theme of the legend, allows one to suppose that Euryanthe was unfaithful, and that she was so because she knew things, which she ought not to know; the idea of the ‘secret’, was to be taken up by Wagner in Lohengrin. Weber’s final opera, Die Drei Pintos, was unfinished when he died of consumption and was completed by Mahler.  

Weber played a major part in the establishment of German Romantic Opera. He was the link between Mozart’s Magic Flute and Beethoven’s Fidelio and the massive achievements of Wagner. He wrote over three hundred works.

I am looking forward to him (the man with “the sexy eyebrows”) to give me the complete “Glyndebourne Experience”, preferably by helicopter, but the Bentley will do.

Verinha Ottoni


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