Chris Addison on Glyndebourne, 'the politest of carnivals'

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Actor and comedian Chris Addison on his enduring love of Glyndebourne

Because I’ve spent the past 10 years and more politico-baiting on sitcoms, snook-cocking on panel shows and generally goofing about to mildly satirical effect, people seem to find it hard to process the idea I could possibly be a committed fan of opera.

Opera and me

Opera, you may know, is entirely for people who have been not so much born as drawn by Gerald Scarfe: as moribund, plastinated and self-congratulatory as the artform they pretend, for decency’s sake, to adore.

The idea that a gently lefty comedian would inhabit this world seems to make people’s circuits sputter and seize up. And the notion that I should hold an Associate Membership of Glyndebourne…

The place is an espresso-serving bastion of high-class smuggery, surely? All the clichés and stereotypes desiccated down to Oxo-cube strength. Is it? I’ve never found it so in the nigh-on two decades I’ve been going.

Glyndebourne was really my way into opera. I’d been briefly introduced to it in my teenage years by my grandmother (Viennese, escaped the Nazis, started life here as a cleaner, loved music) but I never really took to it.

Then in my mid-twenties I was taken to Glyndebourne by my now wife’s equally non-posh, culture-vulture family. With that visit Glyndebourne found a place in my bleeding pinko heart.

What makes it special?

Let’s tick off the non-music stuff to begin.

It’s a special – but accessible – treat

It’s very exclusive, apparently – tickets priced so only people who can have their not-for-best baubles couriered over to Cash4Tiaras could afford to go. Well, not precisely. It’s a special treat, certainly, but you can see opera at Glyndebourne more cheaply than you could U2, or Arsenal, or Michael McIntyre.

It isn’t actually stuffy

Then there’s the schmutter. Black tie. You might as well wear a T-shirt that says ‘I Went To Public School And Jolly Pleased About That I Am, Too’. Give over. For starters, you don’t have to wear black tie. I’ve turned up open-necked in some crumpled number from the back of the wardrobe before now and not found myself hauled before the Lewes bench.

Glyndebourne isn’t a society weekend, it’s a summer-long festival for, essentially, an audience of excited, shambling musos. The black-tie thing is dressing up – as in for a laugh, not for form’s sake.

It’s good fun

Besides, there’s that picnic in the 90-minute interval. You can’t be in Britain, the land of irony, and consider yourself as anything other than slightly ludicrous when sat in cocktail get-up, snarfing scotch eggs out of a Sainsbury’s bag.

It’s all about the music

But that stuff’s all just reflections on the surface – the music’s the thing. That’s why 100,000 people a year make the trip. You could make a strong argument to say Glyndebourne is the best place in the world to see opera. The auditorium itself is not showy or grand – it’s modern, simple, designed with sound in mind and small enough to be intimate.

It’s got a great atmosphere

There’s an energy about the place. Partly, I think, because Glyndebourne seems to pride itself on populating its clever, thoughtful productions with brilliant singers on their way up, rather than grand old stars of the scene. Inevitably that transforms the atmosphere. There’s more vim on that stage than your nan keeps under her sink. (One for the teenagers, there.)

And partly, it’s the audience. I’ve learned, over 20 years of touring, that what makes a performer better is an engaged crowd. That Glyndebourne muso audience is excited to be there – they’re in it with the performers, and you can feel that.

Glyndebourne is the politest of carnivals outside, and a thrilling whirl of incredible musicianship inside. You can’t beat it.

That’s my experience, at any rate. You should go. See what yours is.


Originally published in the Telegraph newspaper (September 2015) and reproduced for Glyndebourne with the kind permission of Chris Addison.