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La Traviata at the Soho Theatre

Il Divo

Glyndebourne's presiding spirit George Christie dies aged 79

12 May 2014, Lewes, UK

George and Mary Christie during construction of the new Glyndebourne opera house that opened in 1994
George and Mary Christie during construction of the new Glyndebourne opera house that opened in 1994(Photo: Gus Christie)

Some children of privilege are said to be born with a silver spoon in their mouth: in the case of Sir George Christie, who died on 7 May, it was an entire opera house that dictated his destiny, even before he was born. Sir George experienced the joys of opera at an unconscionably early age: his mother, the soprano Audrey Mildmay, sang Susanna in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro while pregnant with him, during the first ever Glyndebourne Festival in 1934, which she and her husband, John Christie, had just founded.

Sir George’s death has robbed Glyndebourne of its guiding hand and its presiding spirit. His long tenure in the ‘family firm’ proved him to be a shrewd businessman and an innovator. Early on, he attracted major directors such as John Cox and Peter Hall to establish a new dramatic identity for Glyndebourne productions. He tolerated the contemporary, even if he didn’t especially like it, commissioning world premieres from the likes of Michael Tippett, Oliver Knussen, John Osborne, Harrison Birtwistle and Jonathan Dove. Even after handing over the running of the Festival to his son Gus, he continued to take a keen interest in artistic matters.

Over four decades, from inheriting the Festival from his parents 1958 to his retirement in 1999, Sir George turned a piece of English summer musical eccentricity into an acclaimed international artistic tour de force, nurturing operatic stars in the early days of their careers (Margaret Price and Kiri Te Kanawa, to name but two) and staging iconic productions, some of which (including The Rake’s Progress in 1975, designed by David Hockney) remain classics to this day. Perhaps his most enduring legacy will be the new opera house which he commissioned, with breath-taking daring, from Michael and Patty Hopkins.

Sir George’s death comes in the very month that the Festival will be marking its 80th anniversary. The show will go on, just as he would have wanted, but his loss will be deeply felt.

George William Langham Christie, opera festival director, born 31 December 1934; died 7 May 2014


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