Glyndebourne in the pandemic proves that opera doesn't need stuffy rituals

Watching The Magic Flute, I was unprepared for the emotion that would hit me at the curtain call.

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Attending the annual opera festival at Glyndebourne usually consists of a strict ritual. Before you leave the house, there’s some variation in routine. I, for example, frantically tear out everything in my wardrobe to find a formal enough dress before shoving on some eyeliner and stabbing through some earrings. Most of the powdered, perfumed attendees, by contrast, probably have a whole separate storage system for their evening-wear. But after that, a Glyndebourne-goer is a Glyndebourne-goer. Lunchtime train to Lewes. Chilled beverages of choice. Two-course picnic. The attendees are not hard to spot at London’s Victoria station: they’re wearing black tie and clutching enormous wicker baskets.

This year, though, things have been a little different. The usual string of opera productions, which take place in the afternoon and early evening in the state of the art opera house on the Glyndebourne estate, always with a long 90-minute interval, were thwarted by Covid-19. Instead, Glyndebourne has admirably pulled together socially-distanced, semi-staged performances of Offenbach’s In The Market For Love and an abbreviated version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. What was supposed to be a ten-performance run of the latter has turned into just two after months of preparation: its opening night on Sunday fell 24 hours after Boris Johnson announced that England would enter a new national lockdown on 5 November. The run will be over almost as soon as it began: Tuesday night’s performance (3 November) will be the last.

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For many reasons, then, Sunday was an entirely different experience from my previous forays into the Glyndebourne world (which were, admittedly, on £10 student standing tickets, and revolved largely around lounging on the grass next to the ha-ha, surrounded by bags for life and drinking what, for legal reasons, can only be described as “sparkling wine”). The usual free shuttle bus from Lewes train station to the festival site isn’t running at present, so we arrived in a grotty rented car. There’s no outdoor picnicking, both because it’s winter and because allowing punters to roam freely in the grounds of the estate makes it impossible to guarantee they won’t accidentally touch each other. Instead, we were guided through a warren of marquees to a room where we were served a pre-booked-and-paid afternoon tea. Our temperatures were taken on entry.

It’s curious how much all this changes the fundamental experience of attending Glyndebourne, which, lest we forget, is ostensibly about opera. During the the pandemic I’ve found it possible to maintain a semblance of normality in the case of most activities. Going to the pub, for example, isn’t particularly affected by anti-Covid measures. You’re probably a bit chilly, and you’ve downloaded 15 bureaucratic apps to order a drink – but after that, you’re just at the pub. Glyndebourne, and its traditions and rules, is profoundly altered.

Though many of Glyndebourne’s (often retired, and, with some tickets costing £200, necessarily wealthy) audience are genuine opera devotees, in the past it has seemed incidental to the whole charming experience. (If you give posh people a 90-minute interval after one act of an opera – with access not only to a bar but the contents of their own wine cellars transported from home in wicker basket – chances are that the second act will take on a slightly different hue.) But on Sunday, with the audience trudging through cold drizzle to reach the auditorium and having barely digested the news of a second national lockdown, opera was the clear focus. There was no interval. The dress code was reduced to smart-casual. The bar was closed. And, though everyone is always jolly glad to be at Glyndebourne, the mood was more solemn. The very existence of the production had been heartening in a culture industry ravaged by the pandemic: now, it would be curtailed again. The foregrounding of the music was bittersweet: all that work for nothing.

It wasn’t for nothing, though: the performance was excellent. You can’t go far wrong with the witty, sparkling Magic Flute, and it was delivered with the sort of professionalism that makes you assume opera singing is easy. The young Nazan Fikret was a particularly stunning, ferocious Queen of Night; Huw Montague Rendall a lovable, captivating Papageno. Despite the lack of staging there was some glitz in sparkly pom-poms and confetti cannons, which made it appropriately camp. The chamber orchestra sat at the back of the stage; you easily could have missed that they – along with the cast – were socially distanced.

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The socially distanced seating in the auditorium meant the audience was diminished, and masks were worn at all times. But when the lights went down, I was immediately soothed by this musical fantasy world, the first cultural event I've attended since February. Yes, you can turn the living room lights off to watch a film, but you’re still in your own flat, your own mind, your own life. I had forgotten what it was like to be taken somewhere else altogether; to be positively forbidden from thinking about anything more than what’s in front of you for a full 90 minutes. In the story of The Magic Flute, relief and redemption come in the finale when “the banner of sunlight is unfurled”, ending evil in a kingdom of darkness. This moment had a powerful irony when the bright stage lighting revealed the real world of masked faces and a half-empty auditorium.

I was entirely unprepared for the wave of emotion that hit me at the curtain call. During the applause, I realised I hadn’t allowed myself to think too much about what we’ve all been missing – crowds, music, collective experience. As we made our way back to the car park, a tearful woman thanked a steward: “I just feel so lucky to see it,” she said. “It’s such a shame – all that effort.”

The cancellation of the rest of the run, after tonight, is profoundly disappointing – for the audience members who’ll miss out and, mainly, for the hardworking musicians and crew. But Glyndebourne in the pandemic has also served as a reminder that the pomp surrounding opera is not always necessary: the picnic, the stuffy dress code. “Opera has the reputation of being a lavish art form, and sometimes it is,” writes Glyndebourne’s artistic director Stephen Langridge in the programme of the pared-back production, “but it is amazing how little one needs to tell a story through music and theatre”. Maybe this less elaborate format is worth leaning into in the future to allow more people to hear this music – to escape not just into ceremony and excess, but into art.

Emily Bootle is the New Statesman’s editorial assistant.

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