80 glorious years
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Preparing for the first Glyndebourne Festival in 1934
As we count down the weeks to the opening of this year’s Festival, we look back at how preparations for the first Festival were progressing.
On 1 May 1934, John Christie wrote:
We are very busy indeed. There is still a great deal to do. The kitchen plant is to be ordered tomorrow. The range is already on order, and sinks. The heating of the kitchen was tested today. All the cloakroom fittings are still to be made. The fire apparatus in the opera house is not started. The lighting is finished except for details about lamps and fittings. The scenery is finished except for odds and ends, but there are many of these. The caterers are not yet settled. I am trying to get the Savoy to do it.
On 3 May, he wrote:
I seem to have no time … All is going well and I think we shall get through. The Building Works have nearly finished scenery. The lighting is done except for a few details and preparing light filters. We are surrounding the green Figaro scene with a ring of white muslin 6 feet away and suitably lit. We start erecting the staircase scene tomorrow. The balustrade is cut out. We shall then paint it and I expect this can go on during rehearsals…
We may no longer offer ‘an excellent landing ground for aeroplanes 100 yards from the Opera House’, or audience parking ‘under AA supervision’, and I’m fairly sure that most audience members are no longer ‘waited on by their own servants’, but it’s still true that ‘the Opera House is surrounded with beautiful lawns and gardens’ and ‘the grounds are encircled by gracious hills and in whichever direction one looks the eye is met by views of unspoiled loveliness’. And yes, Evening Dress is still recommended today...
PS I expect Lyons will do the catering.
On 8 April, he wrote:
Our latest success here in the Opera is outstanding. We have finished the decoration of the Proscenium Wall. Dull black or very dark blue. It looks just like rich velvet but is cheap paper. The effect is wonderfully good. It makes the auditorium look bigger, it shows off the curtains and the stage pictures & it reveals more clearly the curves & proportions of the building itself. Audrey opposed it for a year and is now overwhelmed by its beauty.
Another major figure in the establishment of the Festival was Fritz Busch, conductor and Glyndebourne’s first music director. Politics had John Christie and Fritz Busch fighting on opposing sides during World War I. Nearly 20 years later, it was politics that brought the two together to create opera performances of the highest standards that this country had then seen.
In the November of 1933 the leader of the famous Busch Quartet, Adolf Busch, found himself stranded by thick fog in Eastbourne, and he accepted local hospitality arranged through the offices of the Quartet’s devoted general factotum, Miss Frances Dakyns. After dinner their hostess mentioned Glyndebourne and the opera house, adding that John Christie had not as yet found a conductor. Adolf immediately thought of his brother Fritz and the next day their hostess took Adolf over to Glyndebourne to meet with John Christie.
Fritz Busch was not well known in Britain in 1934, his work and energies had always been focussed in Germany, most recently as Music Director of the Dresden State Opera, a post he had held for 11 years, premiering new works by Strauss and establishing a high standard of performance, before his removal by the Nazi regime following the 1933 elections. Frances Dakyns contacted him at his base in Copenhagen as soon as she and Adolf Busch returned to London outlining what they had seen at Glyndebourne and finishing the letter ‘If you could come to conduct and take charge it would be the beginning of opera in England.’
Busch and Christie finally met on 26th January 1934 in Amsterdam. Many of the preliminary details had already been settled - the first Festival was fixed for a two week run, starting on the 28th May, with six performances each of Le nozze di Figaro and Così fan tutte . Busch admitted in later years that he only agreed to direct the first Festival because he did not believe that there could ever be a second…
From the very beginning the declared aim was to use only the best singers for a role, and within the ensemble – no big names. Busch himself came to England in March and April 1934 to hold auditions for the British singers, including Audrey Mildmay. His 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.”
Photo: Audrey Mildmay and Grete and Fritz Busch, 1934
Thank you to all our members who have sent in memories of their visits to Glyndebourne over the last eight decades. Sharing their memories are Philip Freeman, Sue Mortimer and Brian Stevenson.