Close to nature – inside and out
You could say Glyndebourne opera house is the English Bayreuth. It hosts an annual opera festival and is a mecca to opera lovers. But its green lawns are a popular place for picnics and with 1100 seats – half the capacity of Bayreuth – it is a relatively intimate venue. It operates its own wind turbine, generating 102 percent of the house’s electricity requirements, and brings in 65 percent of the budget itself. There to see the production ‘Pelléas and Mélisande’ by Stefan Herheim, our correspondent got to know the fabled facility.
“Hills, smiling, court the sky; the vales below, as with their streams, with plenty overflow: Beauty and plenty, dancing hand in hand, or once conspire to bless and deck the land” – William Hay wrote these lines in his 1735 poem ‘Mount Caburn’ in praise of the South Downs, the chalk hills in southern England. And still today, the languorously rolling hills and green mounds streaked with white chalk enchant visitors to Glyndebourne. The Hay family owned the estate before it was acquired by the Christie family in 1833. It was John Christie, a music enthusiast, who founded the famous summer festival in 1934. He and his wife Audrey Mildmay, a singer, wanted to bring home the music theatre that they travelled to Salzburg, Munich and Bayreuth to see. Today, John Christie’s grandson Gus is the chairman of the foundation that runs the house.
With the renowned Fritz Busch engaged as conductor and the theatre and opera makers Carl Ebert and Rudolf Bing also on board – all three of whom were exiles from Nazi Germany – England’s most venerable Country House Opera was launched. Today, visitors from all over the world flock to Glyndebourne in the summer months.
In 1968, the Glyndebourne Touring Opera was established to take three of the six productions shown in the summer across the country (or to test pieces on tour). In 1986 an educational department was added. These year-round activities are not only crucial for the opera’s survival, together with its £30 tickets for the under-30s, they also contribute significantly to maintaining its ‘democratic’ image.
Only the touring department receives any Arts Council subsidies – the rest of the budget is raised by the festival itself: 65 percent are brought in by ticket sales, 25 percent by fundraising, and 10 percent by the shop and catering. With a turnover of around £30 million, it is one of the three financially strongest companies in the UK.
Like today’s opera house, the original venue at Glyndebourne also had amiably undulating roofs around a central tower. Year for year, adjustments, improvements and extensions were added. A scenery storeroom, drawing floor, additional seating for 530 – the theatre grew with its repertoire and ambitions. By the ‘80s it had become so popular that only a new building could meet the growing demand. The key requirements: It had to fit into the existing ensemble and yet be contemporary, and to have a distinctly larger capacity without losing any of the site’s intimacy.
1994: A new opera house
Renowned architects Michael Hopkins & Partners submitted the winning design; Iain Mackintosh of Theatre Projects Consultants acted as planner and adviser on theatre-specific questions. With its walls made of handmade bricks, the theatre completed in 1994 harmonizes with the façade of the old manor house while the leaden stage tower rises confidently above it. “The building impresses me every day,” technical director Eric Gautron enthused on a tour of the grounds. “It doesn’t try to hide its function but is nevertheless discreet.” The curve of the auditorium, wrapped around the stage tower so to speak, is echoed by the offices and backdrop for scenery and decorative objects. The resulting shape is an oval that seems to have no end.
Towards the garden everything is set for summer: The ‘foyer’ consists of an open-sided marquee construction and there are open galleries to stroll down. When it rains, visitors huddle together on picnic benches here. Despite the transparent tarpaulins for cover, it can be quite a chilly affair; after all, this is England. “We are thinking about finding a more comfortable solution; it will no doubt be one of our investments in the next decade,” promises Hopwood.
In 2019, the theatre will celebrate its 25th birthday. Gautron, who left the New York Met to come to Glyndebourne two-and-a-half years ago, talks about the building with great affection. The horseshoe-shaped auditorium arranged within a cylinder, with its acclaimed sound qualities and warm atmosphere, is encased in pitch pine wood, sourced from old docks and other industrial sites. “I am convinced that we owe the acoustic quality largely to this wonderful wood. It was already over 100 years old when the theatre was built; it didn’t have to dry or settle any more. Like a beautifully aged instrument.” Seating 1150, the auditorium is small enough to convey an exuberantly direct sound – every word can usually be understood – but also large enough to allow a decent reverberation time (1.4 seconds). Arup Acoustics, directed by Rob Harris and Derek Sugden, was the company responsible for the acoustics.
Stage technology: in need of modernization
Nothing on the Glyndebourne stage – 17.7m deep, 18m wide (drawing floor) and 37.5m (side walls), proscenium: max. 11.6m – is automated, apart from some of the lights. “We work with 67 multi-fall counter hoists and three light bridges, all in the classic opera layout,” Gautron explained. So far, there is no revolving stage or trolley system. “If we need a lift or a staircase, we can build it in – below-stage there is a good two floors’ space (4.9m), which is hardly used. But because that is labour-intensive and expensive, we rarely do it.” The 100 m² orchestra pit, which can be raised to the level of the auditorium or the stage, can accommodate up to 80 musicians.
“Stage technology has made quantum leaps in the last 25 years,” concedes Hopwood. The next major investment for the festival will, then, most likely be technical upgrading over the space of five winters, to avoid having to cancel a summer festival. “We are planning a single, overarching, fully automated system into which production-specific elements can be fed,” revealed Gautron, who of course has a “long and expensive” wish-list.
Conversion: today and tomorrow
In the ‘90s, the scenery for the entire festival was stored within the theatre. “Even now, we do our best to plan the scenery so that it can stay in the theatre. While one stage set is being used on the stage in the evening, another one is standing behind, ready for the next morning. The scenery for two more productions is in use on the two rehearsal stages, which at 17.5m x 18m x 10.6m are almost the size of the main stage. A fifth is normally waiting, disassembled, to move on to one of the rehearsal stages.” The passageways are high enough for most changes to take place without the need for dismantling.
Currently, scenery is sometimes necessarily stored outside under a temporary roof (the festival has storerooms some ten minutes away for scenery that is no longer in use). Only one lorry can access the stage; trailers are lowered to ground level on a lifting platform for easy loading. But before refurbishment begins, another project must be completed: the £6.5 million production centre known as the Production Hub, due to open early next year. High time, because the workshops (for props, costumes, stage carpentry, wigs etc.) are also stretched to their limits. Scenery, meanwhile, is provided by external contractors.
The black façade of the production centre echoes the appearance of traditional southern English barns (located in South Downs national park, Glyndebourne is subject to strict regulations) and is designed to be an ultra-low energy passive house. The venue aims to attain the BREEAM label of excellence for environmental sustainability (in 2012, it installed its own wind turbine up on the hill, which generates 102 percent of its electricity requirements). Inside, the Production Hub follows the market hall principle: the various subsections are clustered around an atrium, which serves as a gathering place. High, sunlit rooms, lots of wood and lots of glass are the hallmarks of the centre, which also houses an additional rehearsal space, among other things. The planned canteen will be suspended on a gallery over the atrium – offering a spectacular view of “hills, smiling, and the vales below”.