Gus (Augustus) Christie, 48, executive chairman and owner of Glyndebourne, is sniffing around the flues at the back of the behemoth boiler in the bowels of the house synonymous with black tie opera and some of the world’s most sumptuous picnics.
“We grew up breathing carbon monoxide, I think. Until these flues were put in,” says Christie, who was born in the house and is as good-looking as he is charming – and inscrutable, preferring to talk about things rather than anything personal.
“I can’t tell you the precise date of the original house because I don’t know it myself, but it was Tudor so the oldest part is roughly 500 years old. And then it was Elizabethanised, then it was Georganised, then it was Victorianised, then it was de-Victorianised, then it was re-Elizabethanised.”
Accompanied by Caesar, his Portuguese Water dog (“President Obama has one too,” says Christie), he leads through Glyndebourne’s chalky underworld, past drying rooms and huge green hot water tanks, until we reach two wine cellars. He unlocks one of them to reveal bottles so elderly that the labels have rotted and sediment accrued. Who knows which generation of Christies was responsible for the ruined wine?
The family bought the house in 1833. Christie’s grandparents, John Christie and his wife, the soprano Audrey Mildmay, founded the opera house 101 years later. They opened with Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and, this season, the old favourite appears in a new production. In another echo from Glyndebourne’s origins, Christie married the 33-year-old soprano superstar Danielle de Niese two and a half years ago. They met while de Niese was performing at the festival, after the dissolution of his marriage to Imogen Lycett Green, with whom he has four sons: 15-year-old twins Jackson and Romulus, 12-year-old Alexander, and 11-year-old Ivor.
When the boys are at Glyndebourne they have to share the house with many others, just as Christie did when he was growing up, although back then the festival was shorter. Now the operatic occupation lasts seven months – including the summer festival and the touring wing – and the company operates throughout the year.
“There are about 30 bedrooms so it makes very good sense to use them. We offer all our directors, designers, conductors, assistants, répétiteurs and all the production team a room in the house while they’re working here. It is a perk. There is one main staircase that is used by everybody and more often than not you’re bumping into people you’ve never seen before,” says Christie as he leads us down the staircase and out to the garden, which spills into views across the Sussex downs.
His grandmother, Mildmay, was a passionate gardener who created the crescent garden now restored to its original colour scheme of, mostly, white. Presumably, I suggest, de Niese cannot follow Mildmay’s tradition given her globe-hopping schedule.
Christie assures me she is involved. “We’re planning the new garden out the front together because it’s going to be her garden as much as mine.”
This new project aims to carve out some private space in the garden which is enjoyed by so many – from the opera company to the audience – that the Christie boys have to be shipped off to a neighbouring garden to kick balls about.
“There’s one bit that’s private – the Wild Garden,” says Christie, referring to a wooded area to one side of the house. “But people can see into it. Privacy is something that is preying on my mind. Since my dad [Sir George] rebuilt the new theatre in the mid-1990s there is a lot more pressure on the garden. It gets to me at times when you just want a night off and you’ve got coaches outside your sitting room and parking in the front drive.”
And so, at the end of this season, the Christies will transform the coach park into their private garden with areas for football, wildflowers and lawn. Coaches will be directed into an adapted Wild Garden.
“The audience will arrive through the gardens rather than walking past the dustbins.”
Christie, who has been trying to persuade Caesar to take less interest in the lambs gambolling beside the ha-ha, is talking with relish about ripping out a lot of the yew. He compares this with his anti-brown campaign inside the house.
“I’ve got rid of a lot of the old mahogany furniture that was here, the old dark furniture, tallboys. My grandfather seemed to have an obsession with Victorian tallboys – there were two in each bedroom. So we’ve had a good clearout and freshened things up.”
In the front hall, a fire has been lit on this chilly May afternoon. Glasses are being polished in preparation for the cast of La Cenerentola, who will soon arrive. This handsome panelled room is so large that a table that can extend to seat 28 looks lost.
The family room leads off the front hall. Beyond that is the kitchen where the family eats and where cupboards are decorated by the late artist and designer Emanuele Luzzati, whose Chagall-like work has appeared at several Glyndebourne productions.
Although this is the private area it leads straight into sitting rooms and kitchens that are used by Glyndebourne production staff. We plunge further into the shared part of the house, to the billiards room, where antlers are draped with fairy lights. A huge chimney place and a beam with pegs for hanging meat are clues that this is probably the original Tudor kitchen.
Nearby, an ancient iron-wheeled cart loiters down a flagged corridor. It is piled high with footballs, frisbees and baseball gloves – for use when the boys are home. It is the same cart that used to be pulled on to the lawns, piled with games, when Christie was a child.
Down another corridor a row of servants’ bells, each marked with the name of room in the house, is a reminder of a time when Glyndebourne depended on hot and cold running servants. Today there is one housekeeper – yet the place still feels like the kind of quintessentially English country house where Bertie Wooster might feel at home.
All the same, Christie is maintaining Glyndebourne’s pioneering spirit. On top of his efforts to make Glyndebourne the first green opera house (see favourite things), he is making Glyndebourne more accessible. He mentions the deal with the UK’s Guardian newspaper to stream Glyndebourne online – and Glyndebourne’s deal with independent cinemas to screen a selection of each year’s operas. He adds that although the swankiest tickets cost £230, the under-30s can buy tickets for £30 – “A lot cheaper than a football match or a pop concert,” says Christie.
“I think for most people opera is a dirty word and smacks of elitism, and so the cinema or their home computer is a lot less intimidating than coming to a theatre and having to dress up and rub shoulders with, in their minds, rather scary opera buffs. They’re not actually – well, some of them are – but a lot of them are perfectly normal.”
Jane Owen is editor of House & Home
Glyndebourne Festival Opera 2012 runs from May 21 to August 28 glyndebourne.com
This caused some debate. Christie named his sons as his favourite things but that was not allowed because they are animate. Caesar? No – for the same reason. Instead he suggests his 66m newly-installed wind turbine which Christie is confident will supply 90 per cent of Glyndebourne’s electricity. He says that the turbine’s total capital cost of £1.5m will be recouped in six to seven years.
“I studied zoology at university and I spent 10 years making wildlife documentaries. I do care passionately about the environment and the natural world,” says Christie, who intends to continue the greening of Glyndebourne possibly by installing wood chip boilers and heat exchange pumps.
But Christie finally settles on the monumental sculpture of a horse’s head, cousin of the six-tonne head at Marble Arch in central London, which stands outside the theatre. Both sculptures are by Christie’s friend Nic Fiddian-Green.