Glyndebourne: not just for snobs

Beyond its elite image, country house opera is a source of artistic invention.

Tomorrow evening on BBC2, we will see Gareth Malone - classical music's preppiest and cleanest-shaven champion - face his greatest challenge. He won't be bringing Puccini to Peckham or persuading ASBO teenagers to embrace choral singing, but attempting to convince television viewers that Glyndebourne is not the elitist institution we've been led to believe.

We follow Malone on his latest mission - recruiting and training a chorus of rowdy teenagers for Knight Crew, Glyndebourne's latest educational opera project. The formula is similar to Malone's previous series The Choir, but it's the program's secondary agenda that is most interesting. As Glyndebourne's director, David Pickard, explains:

A lot of people out there know exactly what Glyndebourne is - it does these lovely operas. Everybody has a picnic and they all dress up. Actually it's so much more than that.

In a political environment in which even the Proms face charges of "elitism", country house opera with its black-tie dress code and conspicuous champagne consumption has long been the mad wife in the cultural attic. The glossy image of the big three - Glyndebourne, Garsington and Grange Park - has been both blight and blessing, the cachet ensuring a steady flow of private funding but also allowing these institutions to be dismissed as culturally conservative and nostalgic.

A glance through past seasons' programmes however is revealing: far from sticking to the safe ground of Figaro and La Bohème, the major institutions have deliberately pursued a progressive artistic agenda, "branching out into more esoteric repertoires", as the veteran critic David Nice puts it.

Quietly racking up a disproportionate number of UK premieres and rarely performed productions, these institutions are guaranteed audiences almost regardless of musical content thanks to long-term (and expensive) membership schemes. It allows them an artistic freedom that publicly funded institutions such as the Royal Opera are denied.

Glyndebourne, for example, can choose to champion obscurity or novelty, to program a season such as 2002, which featured Weber's Euryanthe, Gluck's Iphigenie en Aulide and Janacek's Katya Kabanova - a daring (and, as it proved, fairly disastrous) collective line up no government-funded institution would even be able to contemplate. Indeed, one of the first reactions to last year's economic straitening was a Royal Opera House proposal to scrap a new production of Prokofiev rarity The Gambler.

This season alone sees a much-hyped UK premiere of Rossini's Armida at Garsington, and performances of Richard Strauss' Capriccio together with Prokofiev's Love for Three Oranges at Grange Park - two works that have not been staged professionally in England for over ten years.

Yet what of the audience in all of this? Despite extensive outreach programs and reduced-price ticket schemes targeting younger opera-goers, the basic demographic has seen little discernable change. Artistic progressiveness does not, it seems, necessarily promote social mobility. Prohibitive ticket prices - so essential to the survival of these companies - continue to work their narrowing effect

Central to the ethos of country house opera is the idea of opera as a social experience - art embedded into broader human rituals and rhythms. A public genre almost from its inception, it was only in the 20th century that opera became isolated from mainstream culture. Look for an equivalent of Handel's raucous King's Theatre - a place as much for business, socialising and gossip as art - and you'll find its equivalent more readily in the leisured process of Glyndebourne than the efficient formality of the Royal Opera House.

With cuts to public arts funding imminent, and Conservative talk of a move towards a "US-Style culture of philanthropy", it seems a good time to look to at the unique artistic model of country house opera - to try and translate this crucial element of its structure back into the bigger halls and broader audiences of the public sector.

Gareth Malone goes to Glyndebourne is on BBC2, Thursday 17 June, at 9pm

NANCY JO IACOI/GALLERY STOCK
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There are only two rules for an evening drink: it must be bitter, and it must be cold

A Negroni is the aperitif of choice in bars everywhere from London to Palermo - and no wonder.

The aperitif has the odd distinction of being the only alcohol that can always rely on a sober audience: it is the opener, the stimulant, a spur to the appetite for good food and good conversation. This preparatory beverage is considered the height of sophistication, and certainly nobody labouring in field or factory ever required a pep to their evening appetite. Still, to take a drink before one starts drinking is hardly clever behaviour. So why do it?

One reason is surely the wish to separate the working day from the evening’s leisure, an increasingly pressing matter as we lose the ability to switch off. This may change the nature of the aperitif, which was generally supposed to be light, in alcohol and character. Once, one was expected to quaff a pre-dinner drink and go in to dine with faculties and taste buds intact; now, it might be more important for those who want an uninterrupted meal to get preprandially plastered. That way, your colleagues may contact you but they won’t get much sense out of you, and pretty soon they’ll give up and bother someone else.

The nicest thing about the aperitif, and the most dangerous, is that it doesn’t follow rules. It’s meant to be low in alcohol, but nobody ever accused a gin and tonic or a Negroni (Campari, gin and vermouth in equal portions) of that failing; and sherry, which is a fabulous aperitif (not least because you can keep drinking it until the meal or the bottle ends), has more degrees of alcohol than most wines. An aperitif should not be heavily perfumed or flavoured, for fear of spoiling your palate, yet some people love pastis, the French aniseed drink that goes cloudy in water, and that you can practically smell across the Channel. They say the scent actually enhances appetite.

Really only two rules apply. An aperitif should be bitter – or, at any rate, it shouldn’t be sweet, whatever the fans of red vermouth may tell you. And it must be cold. Warm drinks such as Cognac and port are for after dinner. Not for nothing did Édith Piaf warble, in “Mon apéro”, about drowning her amorous disappointments in aperitifs: fail to cool your passions before sharing a table, and you belong with the barbarians.

On the other hand, conversing with your nearest over a small snack and an appropriate beverage, beyond the office and before the courtesies and complications of the dinner table, is the essence of cultured behaviour. If, as is sometimes thought, civilisation has a pinnacle, surely it has a chilled apéro carefully balanced on top.

The received wisdom is that the French and Italians, with their apéritifs and aperitivos, are the experts in these kinds of drinks. Certainly the latter are partial to their Aperol spritzes, and the former to such horrid, wine-based tipples as Lillet and Dubonnet. But the English are good at gin and the Americans invented the Martini. As for Spain, tapas were originally snacks atop a covering that kept the flies out of one’s pre-dinner drink: tapa means lid.

Everywhere, it seems, as evening approaches, people crave a drink that in turn will make them salivate: bitterness, the experts tell us, prepares the mouth to welcome food. The word “bitter” may come from “bite”, in which case the aperitif’s place before dinner is assured.

I like to think that a good one enables the drinker to drown all sour feelings, and go in to dinner cleansed and purified. Fanciful, perhaps. But what better lure to fancy than a beverage that exists only to bring on the evening’s pleasures?

Nina Caplan is the Louis Roederer Pio Cesare Food and Wine Writer of the Year

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times