(From my memoir ‘To Paris for lunch’)
Spring was in the air when I arrived at Lewes by train in May 1988. Everything smelled fresh and sweet. I was so excited. Glyndebourne’s minibus was already parked outside in the station car park with its doors wide open, waiting for me to jump in with my little suitcase.
I don’t know if you have ever made this journey to Glyndebourne, but in May, when all the bluebells are blossoming and the hills are green and full of sheep with newborn lambs enjoying their newly discovered legs, it is breathtakingly beautiful.
The bus drove slowly up the winding road through the hills and then suddenly took a sharp left turn into the car park of the old Manor House. Who would have thought that somebody would decide in 1934 to turn his home, in the middle of nowhere, into an Opera house. It has now been running successfully for many decades and has grown into a big institution with lots of different departments. It was John Christie’s love of music that made him hold regular amateur opera evenings in the organ room, which he had built and furnished with one of the largest organs outside a cathedral in the country.
He met his future wife at one of those evenings; she was a soprano and professionally engaged with the Carl Rosa Opera Company. On their honeymoon they visited the Salzburg and Bayreuth festivals and that’s when they got the idea of setting up a professional opera house here at Glyndebourne.
I arrived at Glyndebourne in the middle of ‘Traviata’ and a couple of weeks into the job, I was asked by Jean Hunnisett, head of costumes, to take one of the Traviata dresses to the principal’s dressing room. Made in a light green jacquard silk, it was beautiful. I knew the dressing rooms were a floor beneath the wardrobe department, as we could often hear the singers rehearse whilst they were getting ready, which was another bonus.
I carefully carried it through the narrow staircase to the backstage and then into the dark hall, where all the dressing rooms were located. I found the principal’s door and knocked. Her dresser opened and let me in. As soon as the singer saw me with the dress, she got up from where she was sitting in front of her make up table and mirror and screamed.
‘I am not going to wear this dress! No way!’
I was startled.
She was furious, pacing up and down in her tiny dressing room.
‘I told her green is not my colour! I told the designer green is not my colour! I will not go on stage until I have another dress!’
She threw it back at me and pushed me out of the room.
Wow! That was some performance. I was shaking. I ran up the stairs to Jean’s room and told her what had happened. The instant transformation of this little gentle lady, with her blond, nearly white short hair and pale complexion into a red faced determined force was incredible.
‘Right!’, she said taking the dress from my hands. ‘We will see about that!’
And with that I watched her disappear down the stairs and heard her shout.
‘Yes, coming.’ I replied, running after her.
She was already in the principal’s dressing room by the time I had arrived.
‘Now you listen to me!’ She held her finger up as if she was telling off a little girl. ‘You are going to wear this dress! This is what we discussed with the designer and the director and you agreed when we fitted it. Do you remember? There is no other dress for you to wear!’
Jean’s face became the colour of a beetroot! And with that, she turned, gave me back the dress and signalled for me to stay.
I looked at the two ladies with their mouth open. To my absolute surprise the principal did not answer back or shout or scream. She sat down and started to cry. Oh my god, what is going on here?
The dresser took the dress out of my hands and slowly pushed me out of the room and closed the door behind me. I walked back upstairs wondering what had happened. Then Jean called me to her room. Her face was now the colour of a rose and nearly back to normal.
‘First night nerves, that’s all!’ she told me.