My opera debut: Sir George Christie

John Christie (left) with his daughter, Rosamund, and son, George (Glyndebourne John Christie (left) with his daughter, Rosamund, and son, George (Glyndebourne Archive)

Aged 78, my dad, George Christie is still a little cracker. Yet for the first few minutes of my conversation with him, we delved fruitlessly into the past. He chewed resolutely on a Nicorette, while Fred, the latest rather glamorous blonde pug dog, snuffled and seemed to have a lot more to say than either of us. Dad began to list the post-war operas at Glyndebourne and after a while, a twinkle glowed in his eye and he stopped. ‘Of course, I opened the Edinburgh Festival. The very, very first performance of the Edinburgh Festival with Macbeth’. He’d landed the non-singing role of Fleance, son of Banquo. With no audition, I asked? ‘No, it was privilege...’, he grinned.

It was 1947, my Dad was 13, and Glyndebourne had agreed to take responsibility of the artistic affairs for the first Edinburgh Festival. After the dark war years in which Glyndebourne had been a home for evacuee children, John Christie, my grandfather, had doggedly set about reclaiming Glyndebourne’s indisputable place on the operatic map. A patch in Edinburgh would spare the pressure on his pocket, since before the war, from 1934 to 1940 John Christie had alone sponsored his enterprise. So it was that ‘the Glyndebourne’ as it was known by the Scottish press duly arrived at the King’s Theatre for rehearsals of Macbeth and Figaro

In 1938 Verdi’s Macbeth was given its UK premiere at Glyndebourne and was revived in 1939. The coup in 1939 was casting the Tasmanian soprano Margherita Grandi, who could, count them on your left hand, actually sing Lady Macbeth. She was also booked for Edinburgh. ‘A fantastic Lady Macbeth, I mean the tops. She did one particular performance of Lady Macbeth that was hailed as truly great.’ The production was by Carl Ebert, the artistic director, and George Szell should have conducted both Macbeth and Figaro.

During the rehearsal period at Glyndebourne, Szell had stayed in the house. ‘He was given a morning call in his bedroom, and the bed was empty. He’d done a bunk. Rudi Bing, the general manager, was absolutely furious and we had to search very quickly for two other conductors. Rudi Bing engaged George Szell at the Met 20 years later thinking he would let bygones be bygones, and within the first two weeks George Szell upped and left. It was on that occasion that a press conference was called and one of the journalists stood up and said to Rudi Bing, "George Szell must be his own worst enemy", and Rudi Bing said "not whilst I’m alive".'

When my dad made his debut as Fleance, the role of Banquo was shared by Italo Tajo and Owen Brannigan. Was his heart beating a little faster? ‘There are no stage nerves. One’s curiously unaffected by all of that when one’s that age. I was solo. There was absolutely nobody else on the stage except Banquo. I came on with him, then just stared "adoringly" at him while he sang his one and only aria thinking what the hell’s he talking about? Along came the assassins [he hums the music] and then I had to begin to look alert – like something odd’s happening around here. Banquo looks a bit bemused thinking he’s probably going to be cornered. He’s then killed and I make a dash, ducking and weaving, and disappear off stage with an assassin or two chasing me.’ 

So it’s toodle-pip to Banquo and Fleance in Act 2, not even an hour into a two-hour-40-minute opera and bearing this in mind wee George didn’t, as a rule, take a curtain call. But ‘I do remember at the end of the first performance, when the Queen attended with Princess Margaret Rose and Princess Elizabeth. We all lined up at the end of the performance and I had this little royal retinue lining up to shake me by the hand. Then they all went off, my parents and the cast, to dinner at Holyrood, leaving me behind. I wasn’t invited. I went back to the Caledonian Hotel with Pidge, my sister.’

That was my dad’s first – if you don’t count being in his mother Audrey Mildmay’s tummy (who sung Susanna in Figaro at the opening night of Glyndebourne in 1934) – and last foray onto the operatic stage, as a performer. Although in 1978 he did understudy the front of house manager Geoffrey Gilbertson who played a waiter in the Café Momus scene in La bohème, he never got a look in. More recently he was wooed by Richard Jones who directed Macbeth at Glyndebourne in 2007 for the role of King Duncan but Dad declined having seen the set. ‘I didn’t want to die in a lean-to’. Macbeth was a childhood favourite of my Dad’s, and always will be.

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