19 May 2022

A Guide to Glyndebourne

The summer season at Glyndebourne begins on 21st May 2022. Glyndebourne, which presents six operas from May to August every year, is the archetypal country house opera venue. It hosts one of handful of world-famous English summer opera festivals, which include The Grange, Grange Park and Garsington.

Country house opera represents a typically British attitude to the summer. There is a recognition of the unique beauty of manicured British gardens, picturesque and historic country estates, and summer views across glorious countryside. There is also a robust refusal to countenance the vagaries of the British summer – each of these festivals is built around an optimistic desire to indulge in long twilight champagne picnics in glamorous evening dress – a magical experience that can be severely hampered by rain and chilly evenings. Despite the risks of rain ruining al fresco dining, the opera performances are viewed with the utmost seriousness, and each location has a dedicated permanent opera house, which ensure that the performances are never disrupted by the summer weather. Indeed, each of these opera festivals is a renowned forum for world-class music.

Dating back more than 80 years, Glyndebourne opera attracts thousands of opera-lovers from London and further afield, especially for its Mozart, Handel and Janácek, staged in the acoustically brilliant, modern auditorium that opened in 1994.

Landowner John Christie, who inherited the historic country house (probably 16th-century), and his opera-singer wife Audrey Mildmay originally set up the festival as a showcase for small-scale productions of Mozart operas in 1934.

Encouraged by his wife (“If you’re going to spend all that money, John, for God’s sake do the thing properly!”), John Christie created an auditorium that could seat 300, and launched his first opera season with a repertory that initially focused almost exclusively on the works of Mozart, before gradually expanding to include operas by Britten, Verdi, Rossini, Handel and many others.

From the outset, the standard of operatic performance was unimpeachably high, and opera-lovers were gratified by the beauty of the downland setting and the exquisite gardens, both of which could be enjoyed during the long interval breaks. Far from being a rich man’s folly, Glyndebourne rapidly became a much-admired international institution.

By the 1990s it was clear that Glyndebourne needed an even larger auditorium so in 1994 a new multi-million pound opera house was built to seat 1,200, opening with a performance of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, a fitting tribute to the Festival’s origins.

Performances commence in the late afternoon and are punctuated by a lengthy 90-minute interval during which dinner can be taken on the extensive lawns, in the form of a picnic, or in one of the restaurants within the grounds. The operas all finish between 9.30–10pm, allowing opera-goers plenty of time to return to London by train from Lewes station. There is a ten, five and three-minute warning bell before curtain–up and at the end of the long interval. Latecomers are not admitted into the auditorium.

Dress Code

Evening dress (dinner jackets) is customary but not compulsory. There are changing facilities in the Plashett Building at the foot of the car park. It is advisable to bring a shawl, wrap or pashmina, as rural English summer evenings can be very chilly. Ladies may do well to devise evening outfits that include lightweight summer coats to ward off the chill.

Although there is no formal dress code, jeans, trainers, shorts and flip-flops will be frowned upon.

Traditional Picnics

There is a tradition at Glyndebourne of picnicking in the gardens, and most visitors choose to do this. It is customary to set up before the performance – and enjoy a glass or two with a canapé – ready to start the picnic dinner in the 90-minute interval. Arrive early to secure a good spot in the gardens; if it is windy, make sure everything is well-battened down. Picnic rugs are easiest to transport to and from the car but more formally dressed opera-goers will probably prefer the decorum of lightweight folding tables and chairs.

If the weather looks changeable, grab an undercover spot in the covered balconies of the Circle and Upper Circle levels, or in the marquee next to the Archive Gallery.

Glyndebourne is a special occasion, and opera-goers reflect the spirit of the evening with reasonably grand picnics. British summer classics, such as smoked salmon, asparagus and strawberries, are popular choices; real cutlery, linen napkins and glasses are the norm, along with a bottle of chilled bubbly. Awnings and gazebos are not permitted.

It is sensible to pack-up picnicware before the end of the long interval and leave it near the auditorium, allowing for a speedy exit at the end of the performance. Make sure you include a bag for your rubbish.

Opera Etiquette

• Arrive on time; most opera houses won’t let you in after the opera has begun and you will have to wait until the interval for admittance.

• Don’t ruin the drama by whispering, coughing or rustling sweet papers.

• Ensure that your mobile is turned off during the performance – ringing tones during a famous aria are a capital offence!

• It is customary to applaud only when the conductor takes to the podium, after the overture, at the end of an act, after an impressive aria and at the final bows.

• ‘Bravo’ is shouted during the applause; ‘bravo’ is exclaimed for a male performer and ‘brava’ for a female performer.

• Surtitles, also called ‘supertitles’, provide an electronic rolling text of a summary translation above the stage to help the audience keep up with the plot.

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