Can David Hare’s The Moderate Soprano bring Glyndebourne back to the masses?

The Marriage of Figaro at Glyndebourne. Picture: Glyndebourne Archives

The Marriage of Figaro at Glyndebourne. Picture: Glyndebourne Archives - Credit: Archant

David Hare’s new play reveals the bastion of privilege was forged in a blaze of passion with the help of a trio of Germans ousted from Nazi Germany, writes Bridget Galton

Aah Glyndebourne; music snobs in black tie paying stratospheric ticket prices to swill champagne on a manicured Sussex lawn.

But as a new play recounts, this bastion of upper class English privilege – the genesis of our thriving country house opera circuit – was founded on high ideals by an eccentric Englishman and three brilliant refugees from Nazi Germany.

The Moderate Soprano, the latest work by Hampstead playwright David Hare, explores the unlikely but fruitful collaboration between wealthy Wagner-loving John Christie, Jewish opera impresario Rudolf Bing, director Carl Ebert and conductor Fritz Busch, who became music director of Glyndebourne’s first five seasons.

Their joint commitment to the highest quality in the arts was a heroic aim that didn’t come cheap, argues the play, whose timeframe moves fluidly between 1932 and 1962 as Christie’s English stubbornness and vision combine with the German’s skill and professionalism to revolutionise Britain’s substandard opera scene.

Nancy Carroll, plays Christie’s wife Audrey Mildmay, the soprano of the title, who took the lead in Glyndebourne’s first production:

“Glyndebourne was totally led by Christie’s passion and ideal about the standard of opera production in this country. It set new standards for the quality of singing. The time they have to rehearse is still longer than anywhere else, but audiences know they are going to watch the best. He suffered massive losses and he took them because he was so passionate about it.

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“It’s about creating something from scratch, about people who are driven to create art and the lengths to which they go, seeing the energy, passion and expertise focus in on an ideal.”

Before Glyndebourne, Mozart was considered frivolous and unsubtle but Ebert, who presided over hugely successful productions in Berlin, helped repopularise the composer. Indeed Goebbels eager to keep him in Germany for the sake of opera-loving Hitler, tried to bribe both Ebert and Busch to turn their backs on their Jewish musicians.

Quoting Falstaff Busch concludes: ‘you either have honour or you don’t’.

“Busch and Ebert weren’t Jewish but became unpopular because they employed Jews and wouldn’t implement the racial laws,” says Carroll.

“They were offered prizes for staying, but turned them down because it dishonoured their art. Christie offered them a place to honour their art and work together. They took it on as a labour of love.”

The play is also a love story between Mildmay and Christie, who wooed her with Fortnums hampers in a three month onslaught.

“She tried to not marry him because she knew she couldn’t be the singer she wanted to be and be a wife and mother,” says Carroll.

“Christie was bombastic uncompromising and charged about like a bull in a china shop but she channelled him and they adored each other.”

Mildmay suffered from chronic painful illnesses. When she died aged 52 his heart was no longer in the festival.

“The last few years she was in such pain from migraines, itching and blood pressure that she became impossible. For people of a certain class and era one’s public face is so much part of the private identity how does someone like that fall apart? It’s all about trying to be normal and struggling to keep face, it’s fascinating.”

As for the thorny issue of the elitism of venues like The Royal Opera House and Glyndebourne, whose very environs are hugely off-putting to all but the privileged tribe of regulars, Carroll concedes that £400 tickets are crazy, but adds the ROH also offers £10 tickets.

“In the play Christie says: ‘I want them to use their savings and have to take the train to come here because that’s how much energy and effort we have put in. He wanted them to feel as passionately about watching it as he did about making it.

“People are trying to make it non elitist. Opera belongs to the people – when Mozart was writing it was popular culture. Football tickets can cost more than opera tickets and no-one comments because sport belongs to the people. But theatre isn’t seen in the same way.”

Ultimately Carroll believes the arts are a necessary part of life, not a luxury. “If you give access to people who don’t think it should be on their radar, once you put it there, the impact of an art form on anybody who is open to it is as strong whether you come from a privileged or a disadvantaged background.”