Don’t panic - Glyndebourne Opera isn’t going anywhere, hopefully from strength to strength, but we have probably just paid our last visit.
I remember very clearly the first time we went in the late 1960s. Friends invited us – I was recently off the boat from South Africa and not really geared up for an English summer. It wasn’t that it was cold – it just poured with rain. We ate our picnic in the car in the car park and I ruined a pair of shoes in the mud. Those who were more experienced had wellies!
We visited from time to time until the 1980s when we started to go more regularly. My boss was a member and when his family had decided which operas they wished to attend, he offered to book for colleagues. We loved it so much that I put my name on the waiting list for membership, wondering if I would live long enough. You can read the history of Glyndebourne here.
The small opera house, seating 300 was enlarged over the years and finally in the late 1980s it was decide to redevelop it. At that point they wrote to everyone on the membership list to see if they wanted to remain for which they had to pay a £50 fee. This clearly reduced the size of the list dramatically as many had moved, died, or changed their minds and my membership came through in time for the opening of the new opera house in 1994.
After our initial visit we had varied weather and eating experiences but were never reduced to eating in the car. There are now many spaces under cover in case the weather fails and also several restaurant and café options. Eventually preparing a suitably sophisticated picnic seemed too much effort and we moved to one of the restaurants.
Glyndebourne on a sunny day has a dream-like quality – glorious gardens with people floating around in evening dress, drinking champagne – not quite Downton Abbey but some elegant private party. In the early days we would cool our wine in the stream, everything was left outside for the picnic in the long interval - the sheep in the fields are beyond fences and no one would touch your things. People would get there early to bag the best spaces and you would see everything from sandwiches eaten on groundsheets to tables and chairs and umbrellas being wheeled out with the hampers from Fortnum and Mason.
In the early days most of the visitors were regular attenders. You saw them with their teenage children, and then with the first boyfriend or girlfriend – everyone shiny-eyed and excited. It was always part of the social season but you did feel that they were there primarily for the music. The dress is black tie for the men – a sprinkling of white tuxedos – and long dresses for the women. I do remember seeing quite a few men in rather ancient dinner suits – you know how black goes slightly green when too old – probably tailor-made for their fathers many decades before. Long black or dark taffeta skirts and white or cream blouses for the women were de rigeur, Glyndebourne was fashionable but fashion wasn’t important.
We went on our own, with friends, with our children and their partners and subsequently spouses. It was never a cheap option but in recent years the prices have soared to the point that it is now generally more expensive than the Royal Opera House. As a private opera house without subsidy, every commercial opportunity has to be explored. The audience has changed: corporate entertainment is more common and not everyone is entranced by opera although you hope this might spur an interest. The dress code has been relaxed (apparently to make it more “accessible” – accessible to whom one wonders at those prices) and although most men still wear black tie, the women are more relaxed and more colourful but everyone still makes an effort.
|Number One Husband waiting for his "Ha Ha Tea"|
It is still a lovely evening with excellent opera and the production we saw of the “Marriage of Figaro” was up to standard as was the dinner in the restaurant. With typical Glyndebourne efficiency, you book and pay in advance and your numbered table is waiting for you at the long interval. There is an excellent buffet with a carvery or salmon and desserts including a memorable summer pudding!
The best value is the “Ha Ha tea” – four finger sandwiches, two huge scones with clotted cream and jam and four little pastries as well as tea or coffee – all for £15.00 – half of London prices. (Ha Ha is nothing to do with funny – see here for a definition.)
We will miss it but the cost has gone way beyond the comfortable and the over two hour drive there and back is now less attractive. On Sunday night the traffic was particularly heavy on our way there and two hours became three.
If you love opera and want to experience something that is everything you imagine to be quintessentially English – Glyndbourne is it