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

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Don’t worry, Old Etonian Damian Lewis calls claims of privilege in acting “nonsense!”

The actor says over-representation of the privately educated at the top of acting is nothing to worry about – and his many, many privately educated peers agree.

In the last few years, fears have grown over the lack of working class British actors. “People like me wouldn’t have been able to go to college today,” said Dame Julie Walters. “I could because I got a full grant. I don’t know how you get into it now.”

Last year, a report revealed that half of Britain’s most successful actors were privately educated. The Sutton Trust found that 42 per cent of Bafta winners over all time were educated independently. 67 per cent of British winners in the best leading actor, actress and director categories at the Oscars attended fee-paying schools – and just seven per cent of British Oscar winners were state educated.

“That’s a frightening world to live in,” said James McAvoy, “because as soon as you get one tiny pocket of society creating all the arts, or culture starts to become representative not of everybody but of one tiny part. That’s not fair to begin with, but it’s also damaging for society.”

But have no fear! Old Etonian Damian Lewis is here to reassure us. Comfortingly, the privately-educated successful actor sees no problem with the proliferation of privately-educated successful actors. Speaking to the Evening Standard in February, he said that one thing that really makes him angry is “the flaring up recently of this idea that it was unfair that people from private schools were getting acting jobs.” Such concerns are, simply, “a nonsense!”

He elaborated in April, during a Guardian web chat. "As an actor educated at Eton, I'm still always in a minority," he wrote. "What is true and always rewarding about the acting profession is that everyone has a similar story about them being in a minority."

Lewis’s fellow alumni actors include Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne – a happy coincidence, then, and nothing to do with the fact that Etonians have drama facilities including a designer, carpenter, manager, and wardrobe mistress. It is equally serendipitous that Laurie, Hiddleston and Tom Hollander – all stars of last year’s The Night Manager – attended the same posh prep school, The Dragon School in Oxford, alongside Emma Watson, Jack Davenport, Hugh Dancy, Dom Joly and Jack Whitehall. “Old Dragons (ODs) are absolutely everywhere,” said one former pupil, “and there’s a great sense of ‘looking after our own’." Tom Hollander said the Dragon School, which has a focus on creativity, is the reason for his love of acting, but that’s neither here nor there.

Damian Lewis’s wife, fellow actor Helen McCrory, first studied at her local state school before switching to the independent boarding school Queenswood Girls’ School in Hertfordshire (“I’m just as happy to eat foie gras as a baked potato,” the Telegraph quote her as saying on the subject). But she says she didn’t develop an interest in acting until she moved schools, thanks to her drama teacher, former actor Thane Bettany (father of Paul). Of course, private school has had literally no impact on her career either.

In fact, it could have had an adverse affect – as Benedict Cumberbatch’s old drama teacher at Harrow, Martin Tyrell, has explained: “I feel that [Cumberbatch and co] are being limited [from playing certain parts] by critics and audiences as a result of what their parents did for them at the age of 13. And that seems to me very unfair.”

He added: “I don’t think anyone ever bought an education at Harrow in order for their son to become an actor. Going to a major independent school is of no importance or value or help at all.” That clears that up.

The words of Michael Gambon should also put fears to rest. “The more Old Etonians the better, I think!” he said. “The two or three who are playing at the moment are geniuses, aren’t they? The more geniuses you get, the better. It’s to do with being actors and wanting to do it; it’s nothing to do with where they come from.”

So we should rejoice, and not feel worried when we read a list of privately educated Bafta and Oscar winners as long as this: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dulwich College), Emilia Clarke (St Edward’s), Carey Mulligan (Woldingham School), Kate Winslet (Redroofs Theatre School), Daniel Day-Lewis (Sevenoaks School, Bedales), Jeremy Irons (Sherborne School), Rosamund Pike (Badminton), Tom Hardy (Reed), Kate Beckinsale (Godolphin and Latymer), Matthew Goode (Exeter), Rebecca Hall (Roedean), Emily Blunt (Hurtwood House) and Dan Stevens (Tonbridge).

Life is a meritocracy, and these guys were simply always the best. I guess the working classes just aren’t as talented.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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