Audrey Mildmay

Glyndebourne’s unsung heroine

Audrey Mildmay

Everyone who knows Glyndebourne knows about John Christie – the focused, determined, Pickwickian eccentric who decided to build an opera house on his kitchen garden. But Glyndebourne Festival Opera had two co-founders, John, and his wife Audrey - without whom there would never have been a Glyndebourne as we know and love it.

Grace Audrey Louise St John Mildmay was born at Herstmonceux, East Sussex on 19th December 1900. Her father, the Reverend Aubrey St John Mildmay, later 10th baronet, emigrated to Canada to accept a living at Penticton, British Colombia when Audrey was still a baby. There, during the course of her education, she studied the piano until a singing teacher discovered the greater potential of her voice. She gave her first public recital at 18, and six years later came to England to work with Johnstone Douglas, at the Webber Douglas School in London.

At the end of her training, she embarked on a long tour of Canada and the United States as Polly in The Beggar’s Opera, returning to England in 1930 to join the Carl Rosa Company. Earning £2 10s per week, she toured with the company all over the country performing the roles of Gretel in Hänsel und Gretel, Musetta in La bohème, Micaëla in Carmen and Zerlina in Don Giovanni, amongst others.

In December 1930 she found herself engaged to sing the role of Blonde in an amateur production of Act I from Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail in the Organ Room at Glyndebourne. The fee was £5 with free board and lodging. Glyndebourne’s owner, John Christie, had been mounting concerts and amateur operatic excerpts there for friends and family for some years. He was an old friend of Johnstone Douglas and had asked him to recommend a soprano for the role. She was accompanied by a tenor colleague, but the remainder of the cast were amateurs, and the entire affair was hilariously unprofessional.

For John Christie however, it was an epiphany, for the 48 year old batchelor was instantly captivated by her vivacity and charm. On a tour of the house, he impetuously showed her the bedroom they would share when they were married, and on her return to the Carl Rosa, showered her with hampers of goodies and gifts. She begged him not to fall in love with her, and asked for time to make up her own mind.

Six months later however on 4 June 1931, Audrey and John Christie were married in the Somerset village of Queen Camel – home of her Uncle George St John Mildmay.  The couple immediately set off on a honeymoon in Germany and Austria to enjoy an orgy of opera. Despite putting on a brave face, after three weeks Audrey admitted to not feeling at all well and submitted to a thorough examination. The doctor diagnosed tonsillitis, rheumatism, anaemia, colitis and a hammer-toe, but more importantly appendicitis. She underwent an operation to remove the troublesome organ and then had her other problems addressed. Upon discovering that his own appendix might be slightly tender, John decided to join her and had his own appendix removed as well. They made full recoveries and enjoyed yet more opera before returning home to Glyndebourne. 

On their return, John set about realising his plans to extend the Organ Room, providing space for larger concerts and operatics. During a visit from stage designer Hamish Wilson, an old friend from Audrey’s Carl Rosa days, discussions naturally turned to the work in hand. “If you’re going to spend all that money John, for God’s sake do the thing properly!” Audrey said, and all thoughts of semi-amateur productions were thrown aside as John, in characteristic style, decided upon a proper working theatre in which opera of the high quality enjoyed in Europe could be performed in England. Glyndebourne Festival Opera was born.

The following three years were very busy. John was constantly supervising the on-going building work, Audrey finally had her troublesome tonsils removed and after a spell of recuperation began studying with a young Hungarian singing coach in Vienna. (Jani Strasser eventually came to Glyndebourne and remained as Head of Music for many years). Back at home, Audrey sang in productions of Carmen and La bohème in Brighton and concerts at Glyndebourne, and she and John even ran a musical Summer School for a season. She immersed herself in the running of the house and gardens, and then there was the birth of their first child, a daughter named Rosamond, on 19 October 1933, and later a son, George, born on 31 December 1934. Despite marriage and motherhood she continued her studies in Vienna, which necessitated leaving her baby daughter at home. John’s letters from this period are packed with details about the new building, but only the odd sentence about Rosamond, such as “I saw Baby tonight, it smiled at me”. Hard times for a new mother.

By January 1934, the artistic team of conductor Fritz Busch and director Carl Ebert was in place for the first Glyndebourne season. One of Busch’s conditions was that despite Audrey’s role as co-founder of the Festival Opera, she must audition for him before he would accept her as a principal. Audrey, being a true professional, quite understood how important this was for the integrity of the project, and happily did so. Busch’s audition notes included the following comments: “a delightful voice, well-trained and full of artistry. Italian good. Strongly recommended. Properly used, her talent would have success in Dresden and Berlin.”

The success of the Festival Opera is well documented elsewhere, Audrey’s success less so. Countless reminiscences and interviews testify to her tireless work during the opera seasons, seamlessly combining the roles of principal singer, hostess, chatelaine, mother, wife and friend. She rehearsed endlessly with the other performers, kept the evening meals alight with her wit and laughter, always had time for those who were feeling a little down or lost. The staff were devoted to her, and it seems that all who met her were warmed by her radiant charm. She continued her music studies between Festival, and the critics, who were captivated by her Susanna in 1934 and Zerlina in 1936, remarked upon her continued improvement, most especially in her role as Norina in Don Pasquale in 1939.   

As a result of the internationally recognised success of Glyndebourne Opera, and Audrey’s own success within it, she made a successful concert tour of Austria, Hungary and Germany in 1936, gave performances of Susanna and Zerlina in Brussels and Antwerp, and was invited to sing in Hamburg and Munich and to reprise her role as Susanna at the Salzburg Festival in 1939. Although the German visits went ahead, after consultation with the Foreign Office Audrey eventually, regretfully, had to refuse Salzburg. With the outbreak of the war, Glyndebourne shelved its Festival plans, and decided to tour the country with a production of The Beggar's Opera in which Audrey sang Polly. The tour lasted from January to May 1940, but Audrey missed the last few weeks as she contracted German measles.

After much heart-searching, John and Audrey decided that she and the children should go to Canada for the remainder of the war. Accompanied by her god-daughter Iona Tottenham and the faithful governess Miss Morgan, the small party set off on 19 July 1940. As the war progressed, John was not allowed to send money to his family, and Audrey sang in concerts all over Canada and America in an attempt to provide a meagre income, but even so, she had a struggle to make ends meet. Letters flowed constantly between John and his family, he encouraging Audrey and advising the children, she trying to curb his excessive enthusiasms. Her last professional appearance was as Susanna, in Montreal, in 1943 under Sir Thomas Beecham. Beecham sent John a telegram stating that "...Audrey as Susanna has scored a brilliant and special success..." but Audrey was worn out and longed to be home. Finally, in May 1944, the family was once again re-united.

The immediate post-war years were a hive of ideas at Glyndebourne, some worked and others did not. One which did, saw Glyndebourne assuming management of the Children’s Theatre in London, a project very dear to Audrey’s heart. Audrey and John sat on the Council and even provided money out of their own pockets to help finance the non-profit making organisation, originally set up by Toynbee Hall. In the four years of its existence, over a thousand performances of straight plays, performed by adults, were seen by over half a million children.

Opera was heard once more at Glyndebourne in 1946 when Benjamin Britten and his team of singers arrived to stage the world premiere of The Rape of Lucretia. Plans to form a Glyndebourne English Opera Group foundered, but Britten and co returned in 1947 under their own steam as The English Opera Group with a new comedy, Albert Herring. It is interesting to note that however difficult the relationship between the two camps had become, Britten and Pears wrote to Audrey asking her to become a Trustee of their new company. She eventually refused as she felt that there could be conflict with her Glyndebourne and other commitments.

Closer to home, she became involved with the Lewes Music Festival, and later, from 1947 to 1951 she sat on the Music Panel of the Arts Council, and acted as one of the Vice Presidents of the Sussex Rural Music School.

During the wartime tour with The Beggar’s Opera, Audrey had looked up at Edinburgh’s brooding castle and remarked to Rudi Bing “What a place for a Festival!”. In the first years after the war, Bing remembered that remark and, with Glyndebourne’s blessing, approached the Edinburgh city fathers with a proposal for an International Festival of Music and Drama. Apart from the management expertise, Glyndebourne provided two productions for the first Edinburgh Festival in 1947 – Macbeth and Le nozze di Figaro. Ill-health however prevented Audrey from reprising her role as Susanna.

Carl Ebert later wrote “Giving up singing, after the vacuum of the war years, must have been a heartbreaking decision… I found Audrey alone in the Organ Room, playing and singing Dido’s last aria, ‘Remember me’. I was so struck by the expression in her voice that I could not withdraw. Upon finishing the aria she closed the piano, discovered me, and rose; I saw tears in her eyes, but she smiled. It was the resigning smile of the ‘Feldmarschallin’.”

Much to everyone’s dismay, Audrey was ill during the whole of the 1952 season, and was not even able to chaperone Rosamond in her ‘coming out’ season. Two operations to relieve high blood pressure and save her sight offered only temporary alleviation from illness and severe migraines. She died at Glyndebourne on the 31st May 1953, and seven days later, as she had stipulated, the Festival opened its doors – typical of her instinctive concern for other people’s welfare and enjoyment, and the last act of a real ‘pro’.

Words: Julia Aries, Glyndebourne Archivist.

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