DOSSIER - The Glyndebourne Festival - A Great Family Adventure and an exceptional Québec presence

DOSSIER - The Glyndebourne Festival - A Great Family Adventure and an exceptional Québec presence

This « Dossier » is published in French the issue number 30 (Fall 2022) of the printed version of the Revue québécoise d'art lyrique at pages 36 to 41.
This French version is also available this website by clicking here.



People who are passionate about opera often have dreams to fulfill. It may be to hear their favorite opera artist on stage, whether an artist like Jonas Kauffman or Anna Netrebko, or from closer to home, Marie-Nicole Lemieux or Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Another form that these dreams can take is to attend a production in a renowned opera house in Milan, New York, Paris or Vienna, or to take part in one of the prestigious opera festivals such as those of Aix-en-Provence, Bayreuth, Bregenz, Orange, Santa Fe or Verona. 

For the author of this text, some dreams have come true, but another one was to be realized: that of being present at the Glyndebourne Festival. As a student at Cambridge in the late 1970s, I dreamed of travelling from the big university town to the grounds of the Festival, which is located in East Sussex, in the south of England, a little over 100 kilometers from London. The limited means available to me at the time did not make such an operatic adventure possible, and I don't recall that there were then, as there are now, programs for young people that would have allowed me to travel to Glyndebourne... without worrying about continuing to pay the onerous tuition fees decreed by Margaret Thatcher's government! 

Some 40 years later, in June 2022 to be precise, I was finally able to live the Glyndebourne experience and even combine the useful with the pleasant. The useful part was to prepare this “dossier” and to share this experience with the readers of L'Opéra - Revue québécoise d'art lyrique, as well as to attend three productions of the 2022 edition of the Festival. The pleasant part was to do so in the company of opera lovers, my former student and law professor William Schabas and my friend, his wife, Penelope Soteriou, but also - and what a great surprise it was - to meet another Quebecer, a lover of music and opera, the former General Director of the Festival de Lanaudière François Bédard and his wife Françoise Michaud. 

The writing of this dossier was facilitated by the exemplary support of the Festival team, in particular that of Kate Harvey, an exceptional press officer. She allowed me to conduct interviews with Executive Chairman Gus Christie, Artistic Director Stephen Langridge, General Administrator Sarah Hopwood and Technical Director Éric Gautron, a Franco-Manitoban and Quebecer by adoption, whom you will get to know better in this “dossier”. With the remarkable help of archivist Philip Boot, and in order to document the Quebec presence at Glyndebourne - particularly that of my uncle André Turp - I was also able to research the Festival's well-catalogued physical archives, late supplemented by browsing the incomparable Opera Archive database available on the Festival's website. 

The Glyndebourne Festival made me realize that it is first and foremost a family adventure, and it is on this aspect that I will mainly concentrate followed by a presentation of the results of my research on the exceptional presence pf Quebec artists at the Festival. 


If we are to do justice to the history and to the two people behind the founding of the Glyndebourne Festival, it is safe to say that the Festival was - and still is - a great family adventure. Born of a love affair, a love of opera certainly, but also a love between soprano Audrey Mildmay and educator, landowner and businessman John Christie, the Festival has been run by three generations of Christies, with son George and grandson Gus taking over from their father and grandfather respectively. 

It was in 1931 that the Christie-Mildmay couple planned the creation of an opera festival and the construction of an amphitheatre that would host their summer productions. Their ambition was great, as evidenced by the statement of purpose that was set for the event in the making. The standard of excellence they intended to apply to the life of the Festival was stated as "Not only do we want the best we can do, but we aim for the best that can be done anywhere." 

Bust of Audrey Mildmay (1900-1953) and John Christie (1882-1962),
on the Glyndebourne Festival site
Photography : Daniel Turp

Three years later, in 1934, the project materialized and the first season of the Festival featured Mozart with the operas Le Nozze di Figaro and Così fan tutte, under the musical direction of conductor Fritz Busch and the artistic direction of Carl Ebert. Having fled Nazi Germany, these two artists accompanied the Festival team from the beginning of the Glyndebourne adventure. The team was completed in 1936 with the appointment of Austrian Rudolf Bing as General Director, who had also fled to the United Kingdom after holding administrative positions at the Berlin Municipal Opera and the Darmstadt Opera. 

The Festival's reputation grew rapidly with the first radio broadcasts of its productions in 1938, as well as the 1940 Glyndebourne Festival Wartime Tour, which included John Gay's The Beggar's Opera at the Theatre Royal in Brighton. But the intensification of World War II led to the suspension of the summer event from 1941 to 1946. 


The resumption of operations in 1946 resulted in the first premiere in Glyndebourne's history with the presentation of Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia, followed the next year by the world premiere of Albert Herring by the same composer. Subsequent years were characterized by a program dominated by Mozart operas, including the first professional presentation in England of Idomeneo in 1950. The seasons featured works from the great operatic repertoire of the 19th century, mainly by Giuseppe Verdi and Gioachino Rossini, but also operas composed in the 20th century, such as Igor Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress in 1953 and Ferruccio Busoni's Arlecchino in 1954. 

The post-war years brought about a significant change in the way the Festival was financed. Supported at first exclusively by John Christie's personal funds, the Festival launched an appeal to sponsors and patrons to finance its productions, the costs of which had increased significantly from year to year. This appeal was heard and considerable sums were raised. To this day, the Glyndebourne Festival's funding comes primarily from private and corporate sponsorship, with no public subsidy other than the support of the Arts Council England for its annual tour.


The decade of the 1960s began with the Festival's first participation in the BBC Proms, but was marked by the death of the Glyndebourne Festival founder John Christie in 1962 and the assumption of responsibility by his son George. Under George Christie's leadership, which spanned four decades, the Festival expanded with the establishment of the Glyndebourne Touring Opera in 1968. In 1980, an educational program was born. It began with school projects and evolved - as it still does today - into youth operas, including John Lunn's opera Misper, which was commissioned by the Festival and presented in 1997, as well as community operas and community projects. 

It was also during George Christie's tenure that the Festival acquired a new amphitheatre that would significantly increase its capacity to accommodate 1,200 opera lovers. In addition, the Festival commissioned new works, including the world premieres of Nicholas Maw's The Rising of the Moon, Nigel Osborne's The Electrification of the Soviet Union and Harrison Birtwistle's The Second Mrs. Kong. The Festival extended its activities outside the United Kingdom by presenting The Rake's Progress at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris in 1980 and by taking part in the Hong Kong Festival six years later. 

In 1999, George Christie decided to pass the torch to his son Gus. Gus inherited the responsibility of continuing and consolidating the work of his grandfather and father. He is committed to maintaining the "Glyndebourne" tradition while responding to the Festival's need for innovation and modernization.


 Among the innovations that have marked Gus Christie's tenure to date is the presentation of Richard Wagner's first operas. The 2003 production of Tristan und Isolde, with Nina Stemme and René Pape, which was revived in 2021 - in a concert version, due to the pandemic -  proved to be one of the company's great operatic moments. Similarly, the 2011 production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, directed by the Scotsman David McVicar, confirmed the Festival's ability to offer an alternative to Bayreuth in terms of the Wagnerian repertoire.  

In 2008, the Festival also broke new ground by creating its own recording label. The Glyndebourne Label is based on archival recordings, and a double album of the same opera is produced, combining a recording made in the original amphitheater and another made in the new one inaugurated in 1994. Innovation also took the form of a major digital shift, which resulted in the presentation of a Digital Festival in the summer of 2020. This made it possible to reach an audience despite the suspension of the usual Festival and culminated in the 2021 with the launch of the Glyndebourne Encore broadcast platform. Executive Director Sarah Hopwood is particularly proud of the platform, because it has made it possible to maintain a constant connection with members during the pandemic, while providing the Festival with unprecedented international reach. It will now extend the life of Glyndebourne's productions by ensuring that they can not only be seen by members, but also by opera audiences around the world. 

If the Glyndebourne Festival's great family venture is that of John, George and Gus Christie, it may be added that they have extended their family by welcoming musical, artistic and general directors of great renown. From Rudolf Bing to Bernard Haitink, Andrew Davis to Sarah Hopwood - the only woman to have held a senior position at Glyndebourne - the company is one big family. It is now in the hands of an artistic director, Stephen Langridge, who has already breathed new life into the Festival with the 2022 presentation of composer Ethel Smyth's opera The Wreckers, using the original French-language libretto. A new General Manager, Richard Davidson-Houston, will also take office in the fall of 2022.


Over the years, this great family has also brought together prestigious directors such as Franco Zeffirelli, Peter Sellars and Robert Carsen, as well as performers who have left their mark on the world opera scene, from Luciano Pavarotti, Janet Baker, Renée Fleming and Gerald Finley, to new generations of opera artists such as Juan Diego Flórez, Danielle de Niese, Isabel Leonard and Allan Clayton, a family to which many of Quebec's lyrical artists now belong.


In writing the section "Our Artists on the Road" since 2010, which is now available in the Bulletin québécois d'art lyrique, I have noticed a regular presence of Quebec artists at the Glyndebourne Festival. My curiosity as a musicologist and researcher led me to explore the question further to see if this Quebec presence was a new phenomenon or if previous generations of our singers had also taken part in the Festival's productions since its creation in 1934. 

Another pleasant discovery awaited me. The Festival's archives allowed me to see that Quebec opera artists have had a prominent place in the Festival for several decades, as the following table shows :

The great Quebec tenor Léopold Simoneau opened the ball in 1951 with the role of Idamante in Mozart's Idomeneo, but also as Don Ottavio in the same composer's Don Giovanni. Léopold Simoneau's early performances did not go unnoticed. A few years later, in Glyndebourne - A Visual History, George Christie commented on the singer's performance, as well as that of the other members of the prestigious casts of Idomeneo and Don Giovanni, in very complimentary terms: 

1951 saw the first professional production of Mozart's Idomeneo in Britain, with Busch, Ebert and Messel and Jurinac singing the most sublime Ilia I have ever heard or am likely to hear, Birgit Nilsson (Electra) giving her only performances with the Glyndebourne company, Richard Lemis (Idomeneo) guaranteeing much of his future career at Glyndebourne, and Léopold Simoneau (Idamante), in my view the finest Mozart tenor other than Fritz Wunderlich. Simoneau also sang Don Giovanni that year. The applause at the end of 'Il mio tesoro' was always prolonged. 

Pierrette Alarie, a soprano and the wife of Leopold Simoneau also sang Don Giovanni in 1951 as Zerlina, when the production was presented in Scotland as part of the Edinburgh Festival. Léopold Simoneau's talent earned him a return invitation to the 1952 and 1954 Festivals, where he reprised the roles of Idamante and Don Ottavio.

La soprano et épouse de Léopold Simoneau Pierrette Alarie prend également part à la distribution de Don Giovanni en 1951 dans le rôle de Zerlina, alors que cette production est présentée en Écosse dans le cadre du Festival d’Édimbourg. Le talent de Léopold Simoneau lui vaudra d’être réinvité aux Festivals de 1952 et 1954, à l’occasion desquels il reprendra les rôles d’Idamante et de Don Ottavio. 

Lors de l’édition de 1957 du Festival, le ténor Roger Doucet, qui se fera connaître plus tard comme l’interprète des hymnes nationaux lors des matchs de hockey, de football et de baseball à Montréal, tiendra le rôle du jeune noble dans Le Comte Ory de Rossini. Durant les années 1960 et 1970, le Festival invitera cinq autres chanteurs et chanteuses du Québec à prendre part à ses productions. 

Je ne suis pas peu fier d’écrire que mon oncle, le ténor André Turp, sera associé à la création mondiale en 1961 de l’opéra Elegy for Young Lovers de Hans Werner Henze, en y tenant le rôle de Toni Reischmann. Une lecture des divers articles publiés dans les journaux britanniques permet de constater que la performance de celui-ci – ainsi que celle de ses collègues – a été bien reçue. Le critique du New Statesman affirmait dans un article publié le 11 août 1961 que « [i]Elegy for Young Lovers is to return to the Glyndebourne repertory, there is already a basis for a fine production in the singing of Elisabeth Söderström and André Turp as the young lovers ». 

Two years later, in 1963, Quebecer Pierre Duval played the Italian tenor in Richard Strauss' Capriccio. Soprano Louise Lebrun appeared twice in 1970, playing Il Destino in Francisco Cavalli's La Calisto and the Queen of the Night in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte. In 1976, tenor André Jobin was given the co-title role in Claude Debussy's opera Pelléas et Mélisande. And at the very end of the decade, it was the turn of the great bass Joseph Rouleau to display his talent at Glyndebourne by giving life to the character of Vanuzzi in Richard Strauss' Die Schweigsame Frau (The Silent Woman). 

The 1980s and 1990s, however, revealed a dearth for Québec opera artists at Glyndebourne. Only one singer, countertenor Daniel Taylor, performed the role of Didymus in Handel's Theodora at the Festival in 1997.


The 21st century, and particularly its second decade, witnessed the regular presence of one or more Quebec lyric artists at the Festival, and several of them have made more than one visit. Soprano Karina Gauvin (2014, 2018), baritone Étienne Dupuis (2015, in two productions), and mezzo-sopranos Rihab Chaieb (2015, 2017) and Julie Boulianne (2019, 2021). 

Julie Boulianne (Dorabella)
Cosi Fan tutte (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart)
Glyndebourne Festival, 2021
Photography : Tristram Kenton © Glyndebourne Productions Ltd.

A few artists made one-off appearances: contralto Marie- Nicole Lemieux in 2009, tenor Pascal Charbonneau in 2010, bass-baritone Philippe Sly in 2016 and mezzo-soprano Michèle Losier in 2017. Directed by Renaud Doucet and with set and costume design by André Barbe, the production of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte was well received by Glynderbourne audiences, including The Guardian music critic Eric Jeal who, in an article on 19 July 2019, called the event a "visual feast of eccentricity". 

Without having done similar research for other major opera festivals around the world, be it Aix-en-Provence, Bayreuth, Chorégies d'Orange, Salzburg, Wexford in Europe or Glimmerglass and Santa Fe in the United States, it is possible to say that Glyndebourne is the one where Quebec opera artists have so far turned out in greater numbers. It is to be hoped that this presence will be maintained and even increased in the coming years. We already know that soprano Florie Valiquette will be in the cast of Francis Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites in 2023 and that she will play the role of Sister Constance, as she was expected to do in 2020, the production being canceled due to the pandemic. Several other Quebec artists could also seduce Glyndebourne audiences, whether through their voices, their staging or their musical direction. And thus, like their compatriots, leave a lasting mark on the Festival.


While I have learned from my various interviews that the Glyndebourne Festival is - and remains - a great family affair, I have come to realise that it is a festival that deserves its reputation as a world-class event. Having attended three of the six productions of the 2022 edition, namely Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro, Ethel Smyth's The Wreckers and Puccini's La Bohème, I found that the standards of excellence promoted since the Festival's inception in 1934 continue to be scrupulously respected. Not only were the soloists in all three productions vocally impeccable, but their dramatic performance also demonstrated the commitment to making Glyndebourne a place where theatricality is important. The cast of Le Nozze di Figaro, and in particular Hera Hyesang Park as Susanna, demonstrated this admirably. This theatricality owes much to the staging, and Floris Visser's new production of La Bohème was very well done, as was the costume design and the unique cobbled street set with its evocative chiaroscuro. And if the motto at Glyndebourne is not necessarily 'prima la musica e poi le parole' (first the music, then the words), musical excellence was again on show in 2022. This was evidenced by the performances of an orchestra rightly regarded as one of the finest opera ensembles in the world, but also by the quality of the chorus, particularly in The Wreckers, under the fine musical direction of conductor Robin Ticciati. 

I have yet to discover other festivals - to present them one day in the pages of this magazine - whether it be Bayreuth, the great Italian summer events in Florence, Macerata, Pesaro, Rome, Torre del Lago, Savonlinna in Finland or Wexford in Ireland. But one thing is certain: one day soon I will be back at Glyndebourne, because I saw and heard opera, “l’art total”, art at its best and had, as every opera lover wants, an unforgettable operatic experience. 


There are two books to learn more about the Glyndebourne Festival. Published in 2009 to mark the 75th anniversary of the Festival as Glyndebourne - A Visual History, this souvenir album is available from the Festival shop for £10. The book Glyndebourne: A Short History is also a valuable source, with a revised edition by Julia Aries published in 2019. 


Éric Gautron
Technical Director at the Glyndebourne Festival
Photography : James Bellorini

A nice surprise awaited me on my arrival at Glyndebourne: I met Éric Gautron, the Festival's Technical Director. A Franco-Manitoban born in St. Boniface and a graduate of the University of Manitoba's Faculty of Architecture, Éric Gautron also trained at the National Theatre School of Canada in Montreal. A Quebecer by adoption, he first worked at the Théâtre de Quat'Sous in Montréal and then joined Robert Lepage’s Ex Machina, where he participated, among other things, in the preparation of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen for the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  

His work obviously appealed to the Met's management, who subsequently recruited him as technical director.  After just over four years in New York, he was invited to become the Technical Director of the Glyndebourne Festival, a position he has held since May 2016. His work is highly regarded by the entire Festival team, with Gus Christie, Stephen Langridge and Sarah Hopwood all praising him. During my time at Glyndebourne, I spoke to a man who is passionate about his job and happy to lead a team of over 150 technicians, craftsmen and designers whose dedication and skills he in turn praises. He is particularly proud of the work he has done since arriving in England, but one of the biggest challenges he now faces is the installation of a new stage automation system.

Construction began in 2019 and will run until 2024. The first stage involved the installation of three new lighting bridges and 14 new state-of-the-art hoists, which will allow for the lifting of more complex shaped elements than traditional machines running parallel to the proscenium arch. The existing counterbalance carriers will be replaced in the second stage, along with related systems such as the orchestra pit lift, fabric storage lifts and side lighting ladders. New possibilities will be created with the installation of modern equipment. These will allow for even more daring stagings without worrying about technical constraints.  

At the end of the interview with Éric Gautron - in which we also talked about costume design, set design and relations with the artists and designers who bring each of the Festival's productions to life - one can only admire the work of someone who deserves to be presented as a true opera artist. And one is all the more convinced of the importance of the position he occupies when one reads the quotation from Louis Jouvet, French actor, director and theatre manager, which is posted at the entrance to his office: "When I consider theatre people, it is the stagehand who appears to me to have, better than any other, a sense of the dramatic. Everything I know about the theatre I learned first from the stagehands, on the stage, in that imaginary space where imaginary actions take place, which we call plays. In this profession, where everyone works under the influence of a feeling, the stagehand is perhaps the most prominent. The one who knows how to tell the meaning of invisible things, the one who knows how to make screens of them, the one who has the sense of theatre.


Note: Interviews with Executive Chairman Gus Christie, Artistic Director Stephen Langridge and Administrative Director Sarah Hopwood will be soon be added to the present « dossier ».