Because I’ve spent the last ten years and more snook-cocking on panel shows, politico-baiting on sitcoms and generally goofing about to mildly satirical effect, people seem to find it hard to process the idea that I could possibly be a committed fan of opera. Opera, you may know, is entirely for people who have been not so much born as drawn by Gerald Scarfe; moribund, plastinated and self-congratulatory as the artform they pretend for decency’s sake to adore. The idea that a gently lefty, toff-bothering comedian would inhabit this world seems to make people’s circuits sputter and seize up. And the notion that I should hold an Associate Membership of Glyndebourne… The place is an espresso serving of high-class smuggery, surely? All the clichés and stereotypes desiccated down to Oxo cube strength.
Is it? I’ve never found it so in the nigh on two decades I’ve been going. Glyndebourne was really my way into opera. I’d been briefly introduced to it in my teenage years by my grandmother (Viennese, escaped the Nazis, started life here as a cleaner, loved music) but it never really took. Then in my mid-twenties I was taken to Glyndebourne by my now wife’s equally non-posh, culture vulture family. I didn’t know what to expect, though I’d heard that somehow a picnic was involved, so I had half a notion I might encounter at least one wasp. With that visit, Glyndebourne found a place in my bleeding pinko heart.
Let’s tick off the non-music stuff to begin. It’s very exclusive, apparently – tickets priced so that only people who can have their not-for-best baubles couriered over to Cash4Tiaras could afford to go. Well, not precisely. It’s a special treat, certainly, but you can see opera at Glyndebourne more cheaply than you could U2, or Arsenal, or Michael McIntyre. And according to my 2015 Cultural Meme Yearbook, none of those are listed alongside Henley Regatta and debilitating inbreeding as preserves of the English upper class.
Then there’s the schmutter. Black tie. Uniform of nobs and snobs. You might as well wear a t-shirt that says ‘I Went To Public School And Jolly Pleased About That I Am, Too.’ Give over. For starters, you don’t have to wear black tie. I’ve turned up open-necked in some crumpled number from the back of the wardrobe before now and not found myself hauled before the Lewes bench. What you have to remember is that in spite of assumptions to the contrary, Glyndebourne isn’t a Society weekend, it’s a summer long festival for, essentially, an audience of excited, shambling musos. The black tie thing is dressing up. As in for a laugh, not form’s sake. In intent and atmosphere it’s a fancy dress party: some take the opportunity to dress like they’re going for a part in a Fred Astaire film, others bear the scars of fighting back angry moths before they could get their outfit off the hanger, still others dress in what can only be described as A Series of Interesting Decisions. Besides, there’s that picnic in the 90-minute interval. You can’t be in Britain, the land of irony, and consider yourself as anything other than slightly ludicrous when sat in cocktail get-up, snarfing scotch eggs out of a Sainsbury’s bag.
But that stuff’s all just reflections on the surface; the music’s the thing. That’s why 100,000 people a year make the trip. You could make a strong argument to say that Glyndebourne is the best place in the world to see opera. The auditorium itself is not showy or grand, it’s modern, simple, designed with sound in mind and small enough to be intimate. From above you can also see nicely into the orchestra pit, if that’s your thing. (It’s certainly mine. La Cenerentola a couple of years back was one of the best things I’ve seen there, but you’d have had a superb time simply watching James Gaffigan conducting.)
There’s an energy about the place. Partly, I think, because Glyndebourne seems to pride itself on populating its clever, thoughtful productions with brilliant singers who are on their way up, rather than grand old stars of the scene. Inevitably that transforms the atmosphere. There’s more vim on that stage than your nan keeps under her sink. (One for the teenagers, there.) And partly, it’s the audience. I’ve learned over 20 years of touring that what makes a performer better is an engaged crowd. That Glyndebourne muso audience is excited to be there; they’re in it with the performers and you can feel that.
Glyndebourne is the politest of carnivals outside and a thrilling whirl of incredible musicianship inside. You can’t beat it.
That’s my experience, at any rate. You should go. See what yours is.