I must have been in my early teens when I tuned into the then Third Programme and out from the boxy wireless came the music of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro overture. I remember how transfixed I immediately became. The effervescent music, the playing of the orchestra, the intimate acoustic of the opera house all contributed to this; but most memorably I could somehow sense the keen anticipation of the audience. I was listening to a live broadcast of Glyndebourne Festival Opera, not that I had any idea what Glyndebourne was then. It being a warm summer evening the medium wave signal gradually began to fade sometime after the first act. I seem to remember losing contact with the Countess at Porgi, amor; during which aria she heartbreakingly drowned in a sea of interference. I edged closer and closer to the loudspeaker until I eventually had to admit she was a hopeless cause. My ambition at that point was not so much to go to Glyndebourne one day, but at least to be able to get beyond the beginning of act two.
About twenty years later, in 1991, I had graduated and moved from Wales to London. Eventually gaining my first permanent post, I bought my own small flat at the bosky end of Streatham soon after. I had no one else to consider, so I decided that I would indulge myself with something that was important to me. I was to attempt an assault on Glyndebourne, the original British country house opera whose founder, John Christie, avowed to present ‘the best that can be done anywhere’. This small decision of mine was to give me memories if not completely golden then only slightly tinged with the ruddy hue of embarrassment, for I was young and a little headstrong.
I took a day’s leave from work on the off-chance that I could pick up an inexpensive day ticket on the morning of a performance. Fully prepared for disappointment, in what was the Mozart bicentenary season, I rang the box office and found myself for a ticket for that evening’s performance. Rather unnerved I soon found myself scooting out of
South London in the direction of Lewes in time for the five o’clock curtain-up. The opera that evening was Così Fan Tutte, a ‘comedy-drama’ that I had already enjoyed many times in varied productions. It was one of six Mozart operas produced an ambitious season to honour the anniversary of the death of a composer closely identified with the Festival since its inaugural season in 1934. As I entered into the narrow lanes of the East Sussex countryside I found myself in a convoy of Daimlers and Bentleys. Like a scene from an Ealing comedy, my little white Fiat Panda was sandwiched between them as the line turned to make its way up the drive of a sprawling red brick house set in green hills. It was not just my car that stood out, inside the driver wore a stripped cotton jacket, white shirt (with tie) and white trousers. In that morning’s precipitous rush one thing I had not prioritised was what I was to wear, compared to actually getting there it did not seem so important.
The early 1990’s were a time of change. The performance I attended was the penultimate season before the construction of the present-day structure. The old theatre, I seem to remember, appeared to be size of a large village hall. Of course I stood out. It was a mid-week night and I could immediately tell that the audience was a ‘non-tourist’ one. The formally dressed couples and parties of a certain age had the serious intent about them of Glyndebourne regulars – and perhaps this was my eventual salvation. When I entered the auditorium I inevitably sat in the wrong seat. An elderly lady, wearing a fur coat around which the aroma of naphthalene hung, put me right very gently. When I found my own seat it was next to a similarly clad and ‘perfumed’ elderly lady – neither batted an eyelid at my ‘après-tennis’ gear.
The overture sounded and the curtain rose on Trevor Nunn’s production that was based on a nineteenth-century Italian pleasure-cruiser that appeared to be sailing obliquely over the pit and into the stalls. Noted for its realistic lighting it was a jaw-dropping contrast to the workmanlike auditorium – as were my ‘smart casual’ clothes were to all my fellow music lovers’, but at least in the dark of the auditorium I was invisible. This is the point where I should rave about some current diva caught in the embryo stage by Glyndebourne; in fact that young singer was to have been ‘an immensely promising’ Amanda Roocroft who unfortunately had to cancel that night. Happily she has had long and successful career during which I have caught many of her performances, however, I could never airily drop into the conversation – if I chose to – ‘oh, I caught her early on at Glyndebourne’. The disappointing news had been announced by the then Lady Christie from the back of the pit; ‘she wearing the same dress as last night’ observed one fur coat to another.
The evening was a classic Glyndebourne one as I remembered from my hissing wireless. By then I had seen more thought-provoking productions but the luxury here was the sheer amount of rehearsal and preparation time that had clearly been put at the production’s disposal. Musically (the conductor was Simon Rattle) and dramatically there was no allowances needed for a less than the ideal performance, you could relax and luxuriate in the singer’s confidence in their roles, even if one was an understudy – a rare experience in any opera house.
After the first act came the long dinner interval of seventy-five minutes. The rain was by now descending in ‘stair rods’ on the garden and lawns. Elegant and undeterred, the audience ate their picnics where they could. Some sheltered under the eaves of a little walled garden where the warm air was infused with the aroma of their hampers’ contents; there was smoked salmon to inhale and it appeared to be raining Chablis on everyone. To mangle Shakespeare; let it rain Chablis and thunder to a tune of Mozart. It was the best meal I never ate.
I returned to the sloping field that was the car park to sit out the rest of the interval. I had looked in at the catering concession but sandwiches at six pounds each were a great novelty in the early nineties, at least for me. The car in front was enjoying their picnic as best they could. The hamper had to be left in the boot while the patriarch of the family wetted his greying locks ferrying each course to his patient wife and in-laws inside. His ‘black tie’ soon became a wetsuit, the patriarch turned into a sodden Toad of Toad Hall.
Reading the 1991 programme more than twenty years later I see that ‘black tie’ was ‘customary but not obligatory’. I wish I had read that then it might have given me a just little more assurance in a sea of formal, if soggy, dress. Despite this, the outstanding impression I had of that night was one of old world tolerance. I did not detect a haughty stare or sneer direct to me, only one generously delivered comment just within earshot about ‘being a music student’. I remember that evening as a conspicuous display of the love of music, something that I have come to realise as rather exceptional in the following years of opportunistic opera-going both in Europe and America. (Interestingly, Prof. Edible and I have only ever been shamed over our casual style at the opera in a theatre in Germany where our host suggested we use our shoelaces as neck ties.)
At the end of the performance, still under the heavy spell of Mozart’s music I disappeared into the night stopping only to gulp down a Mars bar at the first petrol station I came across. I had admitted to the smiling lady who answered the phone that morning that it was my first visit; she sought to reassure me, ‘Oh. You will enjoy it!’, and so it was.