Interview with David Pickard, General Director of Glyndebourne Opera, by Margarida Mota-Bull
1 March, 2013
Glyndebourne Opera House, in the heart of the Sussex Downs, is synonymous for many people with picnics and entertainment for the rich and wealthy but, in fact, this wonderful opera house in the middle of a unique countryside setting is now much more than just that. Of course, they still organise the Festival every summer, which does contain opportunities for the famous picnics, and naturally, going to it can be rather expensive, but what sets Glyndebourne apart is not only the lovely gardens surrounding it and the old house where it all began. These days, they have a series of impressive and important educational and community initiatives. They organise special school matinees; they have a great scheme for the under-thirties (under which a high number of tickets are available at only £30), they create and stage large scale community operas (this year will see a new one: Imago, which will open on March 7th); they currently have a project running where they are working with people suffering from dementia, and the list of worthy initiatives goes on and on.
Glyndebourne is an opera house that looks to the future rather than the past, a fact that explains its enterprising spirit as well as their motto: ‘Exceptional opera for everyone!’ So, in line with this and to expand further their commitment to make opera available to people from all social backgrounds, they are carrying out a variety of digital activities, alongside the summer festival. It will broadcast all six Glyndebourne Festival operas into cinemas and online through a combination of live and recorded-live performances. They continue their partnership with The Guardian and so six operas will be streamed free online via guardian.co.uk and Glyndebourne.com. Additionally, they are making their own-label CD collection available for digital download and they are committed to the environment, having launched their own wind turbine in January 2012.
For MusicWeb International Seen and Heard, 2013 is also a special year: It sees the site’s “debut” at Glyndebourne. We will be reviewing the Festival for the first time as well as some of their other performances. To mark the beginning of this relationship, I had the pleasure of visiting Glyndebourne to meet and interview their general director, David Pickard. I arrived on Friday afternoon, on what was a rather cold, grey day and was greeted very warmly by media manager Vicky Kington. A young woman, enthusiastic and passionate about Glyndebourne and its work, and a sign of the House’s commitment to make opera available for all and enrich people’s lives. Ms Kington took me on a guided visit, which encompassed the beautiful grounds, back stage at the auditorium, as well as a brief glimpse into their new community opera, Imago, which was rehearsing at the time. After this fascinating introduction, I was taken to meet Mr Pickard, Glyndebourne’s general director since 2001.
David Pickard is an eloquent, intelligent dialogue partner, with an interesting background and career path: He has a degree in music, yet professionally he has embraced management and, in his own words: “…audiences are grateful for it…”. I found him energetic, committed and passionate about Glyndebourne, its initiatives and what the place represents. Whether describing himself good-humouredly or speaking about the choices for Festival 2013, Glyndebourne’s digital enterprises and community initiatives or praising Vladimir Jurowski (in his final year as Glyndebourne’s music director), Mr Pickard manages to captivate one’s interest. His enthusiasm for what Glyndebourne undertakes is contagious and he does not shy away from communicating his personal pride in the place and the core values of the company. You can read the full interview below, in his lively, communicative style and I must say that I for one can hardly wait for this year’s Festival to begin!
Full Transcript of the interview with David Pickard by Margarida Mota-Bull
MMB: Mr Pickard, I would like to start by finding out a little about you. What is your background? I read your biography…
DP: All right! Oh! God! What’s in there? [He smiles]
MMB: Well, one of the things that I found really interesting is that you worked for the Royal Opera House and you also managed the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Could you elaborate a little bit on those experiences?
DP: Of course, I can. The Royal Opera House…Actually, I don’t think my biography contains the most important thing about the Royal Opera House! When I was 17 and about to go to university, I had a very lucky break when I wrote them, applying for a job and they gave me one putting up the music for the chorus and delivering pens and pencils around the opera house [he smiles good humouredly]. Actually, although my official CV starts after I graduated in music, I had a wonderful toe in the door, which meant that, when I wrote to them after finishing my music degree, they vaguely remembered me! So, I was very lucky. I had the most fantastic job in the arts, which is working as company manager and that is the absolute hub of any opera company: It’s where the schedules are drawn out, where the artists are brought, you know, it’s the day-to-day running of the organisation. I did have a wonderful five years there and then, as you probably know, I worked for a theatre company; I worked in a couple of festivals as well, and in 1993 I went to the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment to be their manager. I suppose that’s when my first connection with Glyndebourne happened. Of course, the orchestra used to perform regularly here at Glyndebourne and still do as one of our associate orchestras. So that was when I first got to know this place properly from the inside. I had been to performances here but my first professional experience of Glyndebourne was while I was running that orchestra.
MMB: I hope you don’t mind me asking but you have a degree in music, so how come you end up in management?
DP: Oh! Well [he laughs]! The first thing is that a degree in music is very different from going to a music college to study an instrument. Actually, it’s very, very clear to me why I ended up in management. My degree in music was because I loved and adored music but when I went to Cambridge I met with lots of fantastic musicians. It was really good for me to see that I was absolutely not of the quality as a performer to succeed in music but I always thought it would be lovely still to be involved with music. I think that one of the great things about my career that I enjoy is that I have music and the arts all around me without actually having to get up on stage and perform, which audiences are grateful for too! [He laughs].
MMB: 2013 is the final year of Vladimir Jurowski as Glyndebourne’s Music Director – a very talented, charismatic conductor. In your opinion, what has Mr Jurowski done for Glyndebourne? What do you think is his legacy?
DP: Oh! Wow! That’s so hard to say. I was very, very fortunate that the appointment of Vladimir Jurowski was made by my predecessor, Nicholas Snowman, before I came here but his [Jurowski’s] reputation as one of those really exciting conductors already came before him. I mean it was a huge coup for Glyndebourne – and I can take no credit for it – to get Vladimir to be our music director. I think that what I have benefited from is the most fantastic partnership over the last twelve, thirteen years with him. What Vladimir has done is: He has assimilated what Glyndebourne is about. There has been the most marvellous fit between his own personality and what Glyndebourne represents. Vladimir is all about the quality of the work that he does. It’s not about the fame, it’s not about the power, it’s not about egos, it’s about producing really fantastic quality work and that is what Glyndebourne is about as well. I think what Vladimir has done in his time here is really to reinforce the core values that Glyndebourne has. I’m saying to a lot of people that there’s a really fine summing up of this, which is the last performance that Vladimir does at Glyndebourne, as music director: He will be conducting the members of the chorus in a new work by our young composer in residence, in a little studio that seats 120 people here at Glyndebourne. I think that ticks every box for him and for us. It’s about experimentation, it’s about working with young singers, it’s about doing things in a very different setting. He could have gone out with fireworks and a big production on the main stage but actually what he’s doing – and that’s absolutely his choice – is to do something which is about the spirit of the place.
MMB: Very interesting! By the way, do you already know who his successor is going to be?
DP: Yes, we do. Robin Ticciati will be the music director from 2014, which is also very exciting for us.
MMB: Let’s now talk about this year’s Festival. 2013 celebrates the birth of three major composers: Verdi, Wagner – both born in 1813 – and Britten born in 1913. In your introductory note to this year’s festival brochure, you state and I quote:
DP: Oh! Dear![He smiles].
MMB: “Festival 2013 celebrates anniversaries of composers who are intrinsically linked with Glyndebourne’s history.” Would you please explain why Verdi, Wagner and Britten are so closely linked with Glyndebourne?
DP: Well, I suppose, in a way, if you go back a little bit in Glyndebourne’s history…Well, let’s take Verdi, for example. One of the things that Glyndebourne has done is not only that we premiered very important operas but I think we brought back into the frame certain pieces that had fallen slightly into neglect; probably, the most famous one that people think of is Mozart’s Così fan tutte, which Glyndebourne Festival presented right at the beginning of its history. At that time, it was not a well-loved or -known Mozart opera; of course it’s now one of the best known! Going back to Verdi, his Macbeth was another similar opera that Glyndebourne put on quite early in its history. At the time, Macbeth was not a valued piece in quite the same way as it is now. That was the start of a number of Verdi productions at Glyndebourne, including various productions of Falstaff, La Traviata, Simon Boccanegra and Otello. So, there has been a running theme of Verdi at Glyndebourne since that first Macbeth. The date of it I can’t really remember but it was a very important moment. Britten, again, came right early on in the Festival’s history because this is the house that gave the first performances of both Albert Herring and The Rape of Lucretia. So, there was a strong relationship between Britten and this house. It should be said that Britten had a bit of a falling out with Glyndebourne or particularly with John Christie after those performances. It’s interesting and quite a well-documented fact that Benjamin Britten and John Christie did not see eye to eye. But then there’s been this rather nice revival of Britten here post Britten’s death and post John Christie’s death, I suppose, with Peter Hall’s wonderful productions of Midsummer Night’s Dream, another production of Albert Herring and, more recently of course, productions of Billy Budd and The Turn of the Screw. So they [Verdi and Britten] have both been composers with a regular history of performance at Glyndebourne.
MMB: Still in your introductory note you say that Glyndebourne is celebrating Mr Jurowski’s body of work in a variety of ways and therefore that it is fitting that he will be opening the festival conducting the new production of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. Now why is it fitting?
DP: I think in a way that it sums up what has been the eclecticism of his music directorship, which is one of the most remarkable things about Vladimir. If you think about previous music directors: Bernard Haitink or Andrew Davis or John Pritchard, who were all fantastic music directors, but the range of work that they did was quite contained in terms of their interest. If you think that Vladimir has done operas by Janáček, Verdi, Mozart…He has done everything! Strauss again is something new. He has never ever conducted a Strauss opera on stage before, so, it’s rather nice now…even at the end that he’s not doing something he’s done before, he’s stretching himself as well as us.
MMB: The second new production of this year’s festival is Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie. Two questions: Why has Rameau never been staged at Glyndebourne before? I believe that’s the case?
DP: Yes, it’s true.
MMB: And why this particular opera?
DP: Well, why this particular opera? There are so many wonderful operas by Rameau and it was hard for me to pick which one to do. Ultimately, I think that you have to make a choice: Do you pick one that is very, very serious and dramatically very strong, like Hippolyte or Castor and Polux or do you do Platée or Les indes galantes, which are much more festive and frothy and overly entertaining? I have a theory that, while everyone thinks that Glyndebourne is a place for picnics and comedies and jolly entertainment, the thing that most affects people here are invariably the pieces that are the most serious ones. The things that people remember best from the past are Theodora, Billy Budd, Rusalka, Janáček’s and other very serious operas; so, I thought it was important that we go with one of the serious tragedies because I think it has the potential really, really to move and engage audiences in quite a profound way. As to why no Rameau at Glyndebourne before…Well, there’s hardly any Rameau in the UK now. I personally think that Rameau could have come to Glyndebourne ten, fifteen years ago but I suppose we have been exploring Handel, Monteverdi and Purcell instead in the Baroque field but…better late than never, I suppose… [He laughs].
MMB: To celebrate Britten’s 100th birthday, Glyndebourne will stage a revival of the 2010 festival production of Billy Budd; and to celebrate Verdi’s 200th birthday, a revival of the 2009 festival production of Falstaff. While, to me, Billy Budd is an obvious choice – I probably would have chosen it too – about Verdi, I don’t think I would have chosen Falstaff. So, may I ask why?
DP: Oh! Well! [He smiles]. Hum! Perhaps I should ask you a question! What would you have chosen instead?
MMB: Don Carlo.
DP: Ah! Well, okay, then, I find it easier to answer that! [He smiles again]. Don Carlo…Hum! Well, let’s not talk about what we’re not doing. Many people love Don Carlo. I love Don Carlo. It is, I suppose, my favourite Verdi opera; it also requires five of the best singers in the world, which we probably can’t get on the fees that we pay but that’s a longer story. Why Falstaff is perhaps more important! I think the interesting thing for me about this revival of Falstaff is that we’re giving it a slight twist in that it’s being played by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. So, it’s being played on period instruments. In thinking what we were going to do to celebrate Verdi this year, I was keen that Glyndebourne would do something that isn’t quite what everybody else is doing. There isn’t anybody else in the UK that is celebrating Verdi on old instruments so for me it’s a really nice way of doing these things.
MMB: It is. It’s a really nice touch!
DP: [He nods in agreement and smiles]. And I think it’s also a piece that has all these incredible orchestral colours, which will sound really fascinating on period instruments so that for me…it’s what did it but…look, [he smiles again] I love all Verdi, people love Verdi, so whichever work we would choose would not necessarily be the right one.
MMB: The other two productions in this year’s festival are again revivals: Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. Why these two? Is it due to popularity, for example, or because they’re comedies?
DP: Well, yes, it’s funny! This is where one has to be a little honest! You know, when we compile a season, we think about different periods of operas; we think about some operas that are popular and some operas that are less popular; we think about a chorus allocation across the season – we can’t have too many big chorus pieces – and crucially, as the way that we’re funded means that we need to sell 95% capacity of our seats, I will be completely honest and say that Figaro and Pasquale are popular operas; so, from a commercial point of view it’s important to have these things in. Having said that, I don’t think that anyone ever complains about The Marriage of Figaro being played at Glyndebourne; so, I don’t think we need to make any excuses for that [he pauses and smiles]. As for Don Pasquale, it offered a fantastic opportunity for Danielle de Niese to make her debut in the role of Norina here. Of course, she isn’t the first Mrs Christie to have sung this role; there’s Audrey Mildmay, who once lived in that house over there [he points at a building that can be seen from the window of his office] who sang it years before, which is a rather neat symmetry.
MMB: I’m going to review Don Pasquale and I’m quite interested in your choice of tenor: Alek Shrader. How did you come about him?
DP: Well, my colleagues had heard him in New York and thought he was a very interesting tenor that we should try and get and, of course, he was here last year in Ravel.
MMB: Yes, I was surprised that he sang Ravel, I must say. I didn’t think it would suit his voice.
DP: Perhaps not, but he looks great for the role…and in a way, it is a nice piece of casting and, you know, he’s a young and up-and-coming tenor, which, of course, is what we’re always looking for: Up-and-coming singers.
MMB: This year’s festival is almost like a journey through the world of opera. We have the Baroque period with Rameau, the Classical period with Mozart, bel canto of the first half of the 19th Century with Donizetti, then late romantic with Verdi and Strauss, and finally the 20th Century with Britten. Was this “journey” intentional or it happened by chance?
DP: I’d love to tell you it was intentional but no, it was not. Ideally, the whole season should just expand in that way. Sometimes, it is simply a question of what are the productions that we have, what we think we can revive, how many new productions we feel we can do but…when we can get a season that gives people a bit of everything, then…Well, I mean, I think it would be a very boring world if people came here and just saw operas by one composer, done in the same style, night after night by the same conductor! I love the fact that not only will we be producing different periods but also very different styles of productions; so, for example, we’ll be seeing a production by Richard Jones which will be very different from one that might be done by Michael Grandage. So, you know, variety is important.
MMB: One thing that struck me while I was going through all the materials was that Britten’s and Verdi’s anniversaries are being celebrated with live performances. Wagner’s with a DVD/blu-ray release of David McVicar’s production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, staged in Glyndebourne in 2011. Why not also a live performance for Wagner’s 200th birthday?
DP: Hum! Well… [He hesitates slightly]. It would be lovely to have done a live performance but we only have two productions that we could do – not having done a new production! One is the Tristan, which we’ve done three times now and we may do again but we felt, you know, that this time we should give it a rest, and we had already scheduled the Meistersinger to come back in a few years’ time, so, it was simply a scheduling matter that we just didn’t have the space to do Wagner. It would have been lovely to have ticked that box as well but we just didn’t have the practical possibility.
MMB: I know that Glyndebourne carries out a variety of educational initiatives and schemes to attract younger audiences to opera. I think you do more than most opera houses. Would you care to talk a little about these and why do you think they are so important?
DP: Well, I don’t necessarily think that we do more than most opera houses but I think we do things in a slightly different way from other opera houses. And starting with the big and going back to the small what you’re hearing now [he refers to the rehearsal of Imago which was going on, as we spoke in his office] is what we can do that other opera houses cannot…
MMB: The community operas?
DP: Yes, and we can put them on the main stage. We’re not putting them in the village hall, not putting them in a rehearsal room, we’re putting them in the theatre where all these great stars sing. We are very lucky to have that luxury to allow those people to take over the theatre for four weeks. So that’s what makes our educational work particularly individual, I think, and also the amount of investment that we’re prepared to put into a piece like that. But I think it’s also important for us for two reasons: I believe we all need to be thinking about the next generation of opera goers to come and hear opera. And hopefully, somewhere along the line, someone who has been to a schools’ matinee might become a paying member of our audience later on but also we need to respect the fact that we have a range of skills here. Skills that can help people’s lives in a broader way. We’re doing a project with people with dementia, which is incredibly rewarding, and we’ve done work with young offenders in the prison here in Lewes. Those groups are not going to be our audience in the future but we can use the skills we have to give them something creative and rather beautiful in their lives.
MMB: Indeed. I’d like to talk about something else now. Glyndebourne has a composer in residence. Julian Philips?
DP: No, Julian Philips has left. We actually have a new one now: Luke Styles.
MMB: Oh! All right! So, how do you choose the composer in residence? Do they submit pieces?
DP: Well, yes. This time round we advertised for young composers, within a certain age range, to submit an application and then, we asked some to produce some compositions to back up their work and then, we interviewed some and we chose one. So, it was an open application for composers of a certain age.
MMB: Why do you think that’s important, to have a composer in residence?
DP: Well, I think that’s important for the composers themselves because composing opera is an incredibly difficult thing…it’s not like composing a symphony; there’s a whole range of things that you have to bring into play in composing opera. The experience that composers get from simply sitting in a rehearsal room and being a part of the process, even if it’s not a new opera, teaches them a huge amount about how to write. That’s the benefit for the composer but it’s also a great benefit for us. It enables us to have a great contemporary strand going through all our work. We’ve got talent on tap! Luke has written a piece for one of our youth groups; he’s writing a piece for our chorus this year; he’s going to be doing a big studio commission for us in two or three years’ time; so, that’s great for us: To have a strand of contemporary music.
MMB: My next question is about the statement that I read in the press release that Glyndebourne is a digital pioneer and is reinforcing its reputation as such. Now, I could be wrong here but it appears to me that although you’re doing a lot in the digital world, I would not necessarily look at Glyndebourne as a pioneer. Thinking about what the New York Metropolitan Opera has been broadcasting for years, meaning most of their productions worldwide in the excellent series “The Met Live in HD”, and what the Berliner Philharmoniker does with what they call the “Digital Concert Hall”, I must say that I find those initiatives perhaps more pioneering than what you are doing.
DP: Hum! Well, you can debate over the term. I think they are bigger and broader than what we’re doing but I’m not aware that either of those organisations is streaming any performances free via a national or international newspaper. So, there are little things that we can point to in our history where we have been first. For instance, we were the first opera company in the UK to broadcast in cinemas and I think that the relationship we have with The Guardian is quite unique; I mean, this summer, everybody will be able to see every opera in this festival for free on their computer at home. So, look, pioneering is a word that is used loosely but I think that we are genuinely doing things that other people are not doing.
MMB: Glyndebourne has its own label. Is it an important part of the various initiatives? And why do you think it is meaningful to make the CD collection available for digital download?
DP: Okay, well, the first thing is that there are many reasons why we record and broadcast our operas. One is just that we would like to reach a broader audience…I think, we are very aware of the fact that coming to the Festival is not a cheap thing to do and we also have a small theatre and we sell very well; so, a lot of people would love to come to Glyndebourne but cannot afford it and don’t see our work. So, it is a way of making our work available at a more accessible price. I have to say that I’m also incredibly proud of what we put on here; so, I don’t want it to be seen by just ten thousand people. I love the idea that our wonderful production of The Turn of the Screw, which has just come out on DVD, can be seen by so many more people. So, there’s an element of personal pride in it. In terms of the CD label and you’re talking particularly about the download, I think simply that we are acknowledging that not everybody wants to go and buy, you know, the CD of Billy Budd or others…Many people just want, as I do, to download music from i-tunes or similar. So, in a way, we’re giving people the choice: You can either go and have that old fashioned, beautiful… – I hope! – beautifully presented booklet that can sit on your shelf or you can have a different version, which you’re able to just download.
MMB: Finally, to end the interview, I would like to ask you two questions: Which is your favourite opera and/or composer in the Festival 2013 and why? And what is your vision for the future of Glyndebourne?
DP: Gosh! Right!
MMB: Sorry! Is it too much?
DP: No but it’s hard to talk about favourite operas. I think that in this festival I’m really excited about the Rameau just because I think it symbolises everything that is great about Glyndebourne. We have a fantastic cast for it. It’s a piece that’s not really known in this country and I think we have the opportunity, in a small theatre, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, William Christie and a brilliant production team, to do something very special. I’m talking more about the event than the piece but I think it’s a wonderful piece as well and I think people should hear it and get to love it. [He pauses and smiles]. Hum! The vision for the future…Well, I think that so much about Glyndebourne is just about continuing those standards. We set the bench mark very, very high. We’re a very self-critical organisation, which is good, so when things aren’t quite right…even if people love them, but if we think they’re not quite right, we still want them to be better. And, for me personally, I suppose, it’s more of what we have been doing in the past, which is to open up this place to as many people as possible.
MMB: Great! Thank you very much for your time, Mr Pickard. I look forward to the productions of this year’s festival.