Gus Christie in conversation with Rivka Jacobson


Gus Christie is the Executive Chairman of Glyndebourne, the renowned international opera company. It’s annual Festival runs from the middle of May to the end of August then its torturing starts at Glyndebourne in October, before visiting Woking, Milton Keynes, Plymouth, Canterbury, Norwich, Stoke-on-Trent and Dublin. This year the tour features Verdi’s La traviata, Mozart’s La finta giardiniera and Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. There are concessions for students and family performances at each of the venues.

RJ: Glyndebourne was set up by your grandfather, John Christie, in 1934. What inspired him?

GC: It was a pretty crazy idea but he was pretty passionate about opera. He went to Bayreuth, the Wagnerian opera festival in Germany many times and felt that there was nothing like it in England. He started off by building the organ room in the 20s and would put on scenes from operas there to fulfill his passion and entertain his friends. He met my grandmother when he was 50 at one of the musical events in the organ room and ended up building her an opera house in the kitchen garden. She was a singer, and sang the role of Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro. My grandparents were a good double act; my grandmother was a bit more realistic than my grandfather, who had more high-flying ideas. Two German émigrés, Fritz Busch, as director, and Karl Ebert, as conductor, helped to set the artistic and musical standards very high; we still aspire to those standards today. It was a crazy idea but often the craziest ideas work!

RJ: Your father was only 23 when he took on the mantle of Glyndebourne. That’s quite an extraordinary feat!

GC: He was the only son and was groomed from an early age to take it on. It was very tough for him when he first took it over in the late 50s. In the forty years that he ran it, he turned it from a homespun county opera to the international opera festival that it is now.

RJ: Are you planning to put on any Wagner soon?

GC: We are reviving our 2011 performance of Meistersinger in 2016 [Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg] with Gerald Finley singing the role of Hans Sachs once more. We can’t afford to do Meistersinger too often!

RJ: Do you invite other companies to come and sing at Glyndebourne?

GC: We’ve just started doing co-productions with American opera houses. However, as we are a festival, we do six productions in the summer and three in the tour, and we want to originate these productions at Glyndebourne and give them our own character.

RJ: Do you think your grandfather wished Glyndebourne to be a family business?

GC: Having committed so much of his life to it, he was very happy to see my father take it on and would have been delighted that I inherited it, too.

RJ: How difficult did you find it to step into your father’s shoes?

GC: I was daunted. I have two tough acts to follow, but it’s a very challenging and worthwhile inheritance. You can never sit on your laurels and you’re always judged on your last season. It’s a privilege, actually.

RJ: What’s your vision for the next few years?

GC: We (the executive team) plan four years in advance. Together we work out where we want to be in five years’ time. We don’t want to take over the world, but we were the first UK opera house to stream into cinemas and online. This year we reached a 100,000-strong audience who accessed our operas for free through The Telegraph. Whatever we do at Glyndebourne is the most important thing and we have always been about quality, in look, design and costume. We have a long rehearsal process and if we maintain excellent standards we will continue to attract visitors. It’s not just an opera; it’s a whole experience. It’s not just a night at the end of a day’s work; because of its location, you have to take the afternoon off to get down to Glyndebourne. In this day and age, it’s nice that people do take a bit of time to appreciate what they’re seeing rather than rush in from work and fall asleep in the first act. It’s a very beautiful and magical place, and part of this is the dinner interval and the gardens.

RJ: Is it still the case that at Glyndebourne, people have to dress up to make the experience special?

GC: Black tie is customary but not compulsory. If you’re making an effort as an audience goer, you become part of the theatre. People like to dress up and it does make them feel special. Most people come in black tie, and some people in flamboyant outfits, which is great. There is quite a relaxed atmosphere there though: you can kick your shoes off and lie on the grass.

RJ: Is Glyndebourne a privilege of the rich?

GC: No. Opera is expensive to put on, especially something like Meistersinger; there are lots of people to pay. We have a wide variety of seat prices, from £250 to £30, and you can stand or perch for £10. We have under-30s nights where we offer top-price seats for £30, and anyone can join on our website. Also, ticket prices for the touring opera are a third of the normal price.

RJ: Do you have special programmes for young singers?

GC: Yes, it’s a big part of Glyndebourne’s ethos to bring on young talent. Each year we audition from all of the music colleges around the UK to recruit for our chorus. We have a 50% turnover each year for our chorus and we try to pick the best talent. If they’re good, they get understudy or touring roles, and if they’re good at that, then they migrate to the festival. Singers are keen to come and work in our chorus because they know that they’re going to get noticed. That’s one of Glyndebourne’s great strengths: the enthusiasm of youngsters in our chorus. We have various cash awards that we give to the best young singers, which they can use to further their studies and move to the next step. The John Christie award, for the best young singer, has been going for 50 years now.

RJ: Are there any awards for young conductors?

GC: We don’t have a specific award for the conductors, but the tour is a very good vehicle for trying out young conductors. We have a wonderful young man called Leo McFall directing The Turn of the Screw, and David Afkham, directing La traviata. Edward Gardner was the music director for the touring opera, as was Ivor Bolton, Louis Langrèe, Robin Ticciati (our current music director) and Jakub Hrůša, a Czech conductor.

RJ: Why doesn’t your tour come to London?

GC: There’s enough opera provision within London, although we have been to Sadler’s Wells and Wimbledon once or twice. The Arts Council encourages us to go to areas where there is less arts provision.

RJ: Any highlights for the forthcoming programme?

GC: Next year we’ve got a very interesting festival. We start the season with an unknown Donizetti opera, called Poliuto, which has never been performed in the UK, for which we have a very good French director called Mariame Clément. We’re doing a Handel oratorio called Saul, which is very beautiful, and will be directed by Barrie Kosky, who is quite an extraordinary character; that might put the cat among the pigeons! Then we have Carmen, which is a very good toe in the water for those who have never been to Glyndebourne before. Fiona Shaw directed a very good The Rape of Lucretia, the Britten opera, for the tour last year and that comes into the festival next year. We premiered the work in 1946 and this is the first time we’ve done it since, but Fiona’s production is ingenuous. We finish with the Ravel double bill, L’heure espagnole and L’enfant et les sortilèges, which will be directed by the French director Laurent Pelly. My wife is singing the lead role in both operas.

RJ: Do you like to introduce actors or those from a theatre background into your opera productions?

GC: Fiona has done The Marriage of Figaro at the ENO and one or two other theatre productions. We took a gamble hiring her but it was a very worthwhile one to take. Her production is extremely imaginative, real, and tells the story extremely powerfully. We’re delighted with it, but it’s not an easy opera to sell! Just as musicians often make good conductors because they know what the orchestra needs from the conductor, so actors can make good directors.

RJ: Does your wife, Danielle de Niese, inspire your programme choices?

GC: At the moment she’s singing in a Handel opera in San Francisco and she sings all around the world. I’m learning a lot from her. The main programming choices are made by our general director, David Pickard, in collaboration with our music director Robin Ticciati, Steven Naylor, director of musical administration, and myself. Thankfully there are many operas vying to be put on the Glyndebourne stage!

RJ: Does visiting other opera houses inspire your choices?

GC: It’s always interesting to see what other opera houses around the world are doing and the style of their productions. In San Francisco they’ve got a 3,200-seat opera house there and they have to do the classics to fill the house; they’re struggling to get audiences. They’re generally far more conservative in their production styles than continental Europe, particularly the radical, contemporary productions in Germany. I think England is somewhere in the middle.

RJ: How many seats do you have at Glyndebourne?

GC: We have 1250 so we can afford to take some very well calculated risks.

RJ: What’s the way forward for Glyndebourne?

GC: We should continue to do what we’ve done for the past eighty years, which is putting on transformative, life-enhancing, high-quality productions, both of the known and the lesser-known repertoire, as well as commissioned new works. Our aim is to inspire, challenge and entertain people.

RJ: What are your artistic highlights of your period as Executive Chairman?

GC: Handel’s Giulio Cesare, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, our Meistersinger in 2011, Laurent Pelly’s Ravel double bill, and a Michael Grandage production of Billy Budd we took to New York this year.

RJ: Thank you Gus. We look forward to Glyndebourne next season.


A Short History of Glyndebourne from Glyndebourne on Vimeo.