Summer arts: An operatic journey

My colonial childhood brought opera to life
June 20, 2012
Janácek’s opera The Cunning Little Vixen, left, is part of Glyndebourne’s 2012 season

In the “Best of British” tradition, the Glyndebourne opera festival began as an amateur undertaking, with a “for the love of music” attitude that has informed its ethos ever since. The festival’s origins go back to 1920, when John Christie inherited the Manor House at Glyndebourne, where he had built an 80-foot-long organ room to accommodate his great friend Dr Lloyd, a former Eton organist, whenever he visited Sussex. This purpose-built gallery quickly became home to amateur opera productions.

Until the age of 48 John Christie was a confirmed bachelor, but in 1930 he promptly fell in love with, and six months later married, Audrey Mildmay, a singer with the Carla Rosa company, who had come to Glyndebourne to perform in the Mozart opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail.

They honeymooned in Salzburg and Bayreuth, which inspired them to create their own small-scale opera festival when they returned to England. John planned to expand the organ room, but Audrey argued that if he was intending to spend so much money, why not “do the thing properly” and construct a theatre instead? Being a good egg, he wisely followed her advice and set about building a 300-seater. We have them both to thank for what continues to this day to be a uniquely personal “at home” opera-going experience.

My love affair with opera began in Africa 50 years ago, in one of the smallest countries in the southern hemisphere. Let me take you on the journey that catapulted this wide-eyed colonial boy from the bush to the immaculately coiffeured gardens of Glyndebourne.

When I was growing up in the 1960s, Swaziland was a former British protectorate whose capital “city” Mbabane numbered 15,000 people, with an amateur theatre club that regularly mounted productions of Gilbert & Sullivan. The club was founded and presided over by two powerful personalities, Peggy Stewart and Lady Riva Marwick, wife of the governor.

With no television and only the BBC World Service to receive information from the world outside, the time-warped hothouse atmosphere gave these amateur productions heightened status. Rehearsals went on for months rather than weeks and many a marriage went up the Khyber as a result. The three B’s of colonial life—boredom, booze and bonking were at full throttle. My parents were no exception.

My music teacher, Bunny Barnes, hailed from Scotland and had emigrated south to recover from respiratory problems. She was one of those life-changing teachers who transformed mine by simply believing that I had talent and determinedly instilling in me her Calvinist work ethic. It wasn’t enough for her to teach me once a week, patiently listening to my scales and arpeggios, plinking and plonking my way through Barcarole and Für Elise. “What music are you listening to at home? And I don’t mean the Beatles or the Stones,” she demanded. I duly listed our ad hoc collection of classical and opera records, which prompted her horn-rimmed spectacles to arch even higher.

“What do you like?” she queried. “All the loud bits,” was my 12-year-old self’s informed reply. This meant most of Beethoven and a great deal of Verdi’s opera Aïda which came in a multiple-disc set, housed in a black box and featuring a cover photo taken from Cecil B DeMille’s film The Ten Commandments, all sphinxes, pharaohs and slaves in lurid Technicolor.

In 1969, whilst the Americans planned to land on the moon, my recently divorced parents and newly married father decided that we should go on an “overseas” tour to get to know my new stepmother and to sample some culture in the northern hemisphere. First stop was Rome and the opera on offer just happened to be Aïda, starring Gwyneth Jones. We had a box that was jammed next to the proscenium arch with a clear view of the orchestra pit below and into the wings of the stage. It was a “rosebud” moment of my childhood. First time in an opera house, first experience of seeing and hearing a live orchestra, all with the bonus of being familiar with the music. Even though I didn’t understand a word of Italian other than “spaghetti,” I was utterly hooked on the entire spectacle and have remained a faithful follower ever since.

Back in Swaziland, Bunny decided that, since I had responded to Verdi so positively, it was time to taste the “whole Dundee cake of opera, sultanas, raisins, cherries and all—that is Puccini.” In honour of which she baked a cake, drew the curtains and provided the English libretto of Madame Butterfly so that we could follow the plot.

“Living in Mbabane, you will be all too familiar with the story of a foreigner arriving in a foreign land and falling in love with a local lass, having a child and then scarpering off back home, leaving her and the baby high and dry,” explained Bunny as she guided the stylus onto the vinyl. “Think of your Maths teacher and the German attaché, about which I will say no more.” Like all great teachers, Bunny personalised and localised the plot so that it had immediate resonance and meaning. You will appreciate the Pavlovian effect that this music has on me—when I hear so much as four bars worth of Puccini, I start salivating for a wedge of that rich fruit cake.

Fast-forward a few years and at 17, I was keen to dip my toes into Wagnerian waters, having listened to an album of his overtures over and over again. An inscrutably dark cloud of concern descended upon my beloved teacher’s long, pale face.

“Mmmmm, the Wagner…” she mused, looking me up and down, assessing whether I was man enough yet to “take it.”

A week later, I got the call. “Come over for an early lunch on Saturday afternoon and prepare yourself.” This time it was an apple strudel that concluded the meal, followed by the now ritualistic closing of the curtains, opening up of the libretto and settling down for a few hours of non-stop listening. With the exception that this time Bunny had rearranged our chairs so that we were back to back. When I asked why, she leant in conspiratorially and whispered that “Tristan and Isolde is so sexual and so intense, that I can’t bear the idea of you seeing me when I’m in this state!”

For a hormonally-charged teenager, endlessly falling in and out of love with everyone, this proviso about-turned my head in a Linda Blair 360-degree Exorcist swivel. The idea that someone the same age as my parents was talking about being so fired up in the nethers by an opera was a revelation. Again, the adulterous triangular plot was all too familiar, but nothing quite prepared me for the overwhelming experience of hearing that entire score for the first time.

Bunny advised me that “when, not if, you become a professional actor in England, you are to regularly visit Covent Garden and the Coliseum, standing if need be till you can afford a seat, and whenever that happens, to top it off by getting yourself togged up in black tie and to pack a picnic basket, and get down to Glyndebourne.”

I followed her advice to the letter, and when able to afford both dinner jacket, picnic hamper and good seats, motored down to Sussex with my wife for the first time towards the end of the last century. The sense of occasion, the sublime gardens accommodating everyone having a picnic, followed by a Mozart opera as the sun went down, is something I will never forget. Like Dick Whittington discovering his pot of gold, the unique experience that is Glyndebourne has proved to be an indelible treasure.