Obituary: Sir George Christie, Glyndebourne chair

Sir George Christie poses after winning the Lifetime Achievement Award during the International Opera Awards. Picture: PA

Sir George Christie poses after winning the Lifetime Achievement Award during the International Opera Awards. Picture: PA

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BORN: 31 December, 1934, at Glynde, Sussex. Died: 7 May, 2014, in Glynde, aged 79.

GEORGE Christie was born into a family devoted to opera – his father, John Christie, had created the Glyndebourne Festival in his spacious Sussex mansion and his son developed the theatre and the range of operas with a shrewd imagination. George had immense charm and raised £34 million in 1994 to rebuild the theatre – its fresh wooden interior was immediately accorded Grade I listed status. Christie ensured the new House maintained the intimacy and informality for which Glyndebourne was renowned.

Christie’s connections with Scotland go back to the early days of the Edinburgh Festival. Since its inception Glyndebourne opera had provided the opera in the King’s Theatre and one of Christie’s first jobs was in 1953 and 1954 as producer’s assistant for the company’s visit for those two festivals. Edinburgh was graced with historic productions of La Cenerentola under Vittorio Gui and Idomoneo with Sena Jurinac. In 1954 the company brought the famous Carl Ebert production of Cosi fan tutte with a cast led by ­Jurinac, Geraint Evans and ­Richard Lewis.

In fact Christie made his stage debut at the King’s Theatre in 1949 – in the very first opera ever seen at the Festival. Verdi’s Macbeth opened that festival with Christie, aged 12, playing the part of Fleance.

Christie recalled the first night some years later. “After Banquo was killed I had to flee the stage pursued by the assassins: then hang around till the end. The first night at the King’s was attended by the Queen and the two princesses (Elizabeth and Margaret). We all lined up at the end of the performance and then they all went off, my parents and the cast, to dinner at Holyrood. I wasn’t invited and returned to the Caledonian Hotel.”

His photograph appeared in The Scotsman listening intently to Owen Brannigan’s Banquo singing of deadly deeds about to happen.

George William Langham Christie attended Eton, and then read French and German at Trinity College, Cambridge. He worked for the Gulbenkian Foundation, acquiring knowledge of fund-raising which was to prove invaluable.

After his years as producer’s assistant Christie devoted his time to upgrading the opera and improving the theatre. At the age of just 23 Christie succeeded his father, who was not in the best of health, as the chairman of Glyndebourne. Christie’s commitment to the Festival – and Glyndebourne Touring Opera, which he started in 1968 – never flagged.

He was ever present throughout the summer attending performances, hosting dinner parties for potential sponsors and wandering around the bar after the performance having drinks with the cast, agents and the audience. His pride in Glyndebourne was total.

He countered the accusation of elitism by booking young singers for the Touring Company and performing in various theatres cut-price. He promoted the annual visit to the Proms at the Albert Hall, encouraged films being made and live relays into cinemas. Glyndebourne did, however, remain a Christie preserve and he was heard to refer to it as “my opera house”.

The new house with its greatly improved acoustics and public areas retains the image of picnics on the lawn and a black-tie affair. But Christie ensured the repertoire was greatly widened. Wagner, Janacek and new operas have been introduced; thus challenging the conventional repertoire. More controversial was the engagement of avant-garde directors such as Peter Sellars whose production of Cosi fan tutte – a Glyndebourne favourite – on a motorway occasioned the first boos in the theatre.

Christie was a genial and courteous man who ran Glyndebourne as a personal fiefdom. But he was canny enough to engage world-class artists (the director Peter Hall, conductors John Pritchard and Bernard Haitink and many international singers) who made Glyndebourne a magnet for opera lovers throughout the summer. Christie ensured the rehearsal conditions were lengthy and musically exacting.

He also modernised the system for booking tickets and reduced the number only available to patrons – thus making 30 per cent of the seats available for the general public. On retirement in 1999 he handed over to his son, Gus, having ensured that Glyndebourne remains at the cultural heart of the nation. While the standard of opera remains of international standard Christie’s undoubted legacy is the new House which stands as a supreme example of what can be achieved by a man of vision and enthusiasm.

He was knighted in 1984 – the year in which the Queen visited Glyndebourne for the first time in a quarter of a century – and appointed a Companion of Honour in 2002. The 80th season, about to open, will be dedicated to his memory.

George Christie married, in 1958, Mary Nicholson, with whom he had three sons and a daughter.

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