Monday, July 30, 2018

The moderate soprano: Audrey Mildmay

Audrey Mildmay. Photo:

John: I ask on behalf of the audience. . .Mozart. Is he any good?
The professionals look amused to each other, but John is ahead of them.
And before you say that's stupid, oh look, I know he's a genius. . .But it's a different matter, isn't it? Genius. It's a different thing. Because, frankly, Goethe's a genius, but I've never read Faust, have you? I can't get through it. And Dante's a genius but I've never read — the Quartos.
Ebert: Cantos.
John: Exactly.
Ebert: That make up the Divine Comedy.
John: Nor wanted to.
John is shaking his head.
I know everyone says that genius sees things other people don't. But geniuses aren't always so bloody brilliant at seeing what other people do. . .What I'm saying: Mozart may be great, but is he any good? That's my question. Because it's by no means the same thing.
—David Hare, The Moderate Soprano, Scene 12
This is one of many wonderful exchanges in Hare's play, but it's not quite true to life. John Christie, who together with his wife, Audrey Mildmay, founded the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, was not as unfamiliar with nor as skeptical of Mozart as Hare makes him appear. While it's true that Christie's greatest operatic passion was for Wagner, he also attended Mozart operas at festivals in Munich and Salzburg. And in the Organ Room at his family's country estate, Glyndebourne, he brought in professional and amateur singers to perform scenes from Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) and Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Abduction from the Harem). [1]

In the Christmastime 1930 performance of scenes from Die Entführung the soprano who sang the part of Blonde was Audrey Mildmay. [2] She had been born in Sussex—in Herstmonceux, just 10 miles east of Glyndebourne—but had grown up in Canada, returning to England in her mid-20s for vocal studies. Ultimately she joined the Carl Rosa Opera Company, which performed operas in English or English translation, and which gave an annual season in London and spent the rest of the year touring throughout the British Isles.

On first hearing Audrey, John was instantly smitten. After a proverbial whirlwind courtship the couple married in early June 1931, just five months after they met. The groom was 48, and the bride was 30; it was the first and only marriage for both. It was apparently Audrey who convinced John to alter his plans for an expansion of the Organ Room into the construction of a full-fledged 300-seat theater, where the Glyndebourne Festival was staged beginning in 1934 and continuing (with a hiatus during World War II) to the present.

In Hare's play it is conductor Fritz Busch, director Carl Ebert, and manager Rudolph Bing, who, with support from Audrey, persuade John to shift the plans for his theater from Wagner to Mozart just eight weeks before the opening of the Festival (that is, around the beginning of April 1934). In fact, with John's encouragement Audrey had begun studying the roles of Susanna (in Le Nozze di Figaro) and Zerlina (in Don Giovanni) in the fall of 1932. She travelled to Vienna to learn the roles in Italian with vocal teacher Jani Strasser (while Zerlina had been in her repertory with Carl Rosa, she had performed it in English). So apparently Mozart operas, in Italian, were being planned for the Festival quite early on.

Audrey Mildmay in costume as Susanna in Act IV of Figaro (?), 1939. Photo: National Portrait Gallery.

As late as November 1933, though, John was still hoping to inaugurate the theater with a performance of Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), the second opera in Wagner's Ring Cycle. But two months later, at the end of January 1934, it was announced that the first season of the Festival would involve 6 performances each of Figaro and Cosi fan tutte. In Glyndebourne: A History of the Festival Opera, Spike Hughes writes that "John Christie's decision to present an all-Mozart festival instead of the mixed Wagner-Mozart affair he had originally planned was the satisfactory result of some concentrated pressure recently exercised on him by Audrey Mildmay and [scenic designer] Hamish Wilson," although it's also implied that Busch had a role. [3] Ebert and his protége Bing seem to have been hired after the repertoire had been chosen.

One of many affecting moments in Hare's play comes later in Scene 12. John has resigned himself to the lack of Wagner in Glyndebourne's first season, but he insists that for the Mozart operas that are now programmed his wife must be cast without auditioning. Audrey herself demurs. As she explains,
Audrey: These men are artists, John. . .They have to do it in a way which has integrity. They can't employ the chatelaine for no other reason but that she's married to the man who owns the chateau. . .the role isn't mine by right. It can't be. I have to prove my suitability like any other singer. Anything else would be unethical.
This moment is grounded in historical fact. Audrey was asked to audition, which she did on February 21. We can question how much freedom Busch, Ebert and Bing felt they had to form any negative judgments about the wife of their host and employer, but Busch's notes from the audition seem genuine: "a delightful voice, well-trained and full of artistry. Italian good. Strongly recommended. Properly used, her talent would have success in Dresden and Berlin."

Audrey Mildmay in costume as Susanna in Act II of Figaro, 1939. Photo: National Portrait Gallery.

Fortunately three of the early Glyndebourne Mozart productions were recorded, so we can hear for ourselves something of what Audrey Mildmay sounded like. The Glyndebourne recordings were the first (nearly) complete recordings of Mozart's operas in Italian, and so are landmarks of recorded music. These versions are of far more than historical interest, though: they capture vivid renditions of the operas. Few allowances need to be made for the age of the recordings, as you can hear for yourself in "Canzonetta sull'aria":

The singers are Aulikki Rautawaara (Countess Almaviva) and Audrey Mildmay (Susanna). The Countess dictates a love note, ostensibly from Susanna to the Count: "'A song on the breeze: A gentle zephyr / This evening will sigh / Beneath the pines in the grove.' The rest he'll understand." Susanna agrees: "Certainly, the rest he'll understand." The Countess intends to dress as Susanna and meet the Count in the garden; in the darkness and with the disguises, though, the plan begins to go awry. . .

Aulikki Rautawaara (Countess Almaviva) and Audrey Mildmay (Susanna) performing "Canzonetta sull'aria." Photo:

I don't fault Hare for not cleaving strictly to the historical truth. Plays must work dramatically, and I can attest that The Moderate Soprano is very effective in the theater. There is one theatrically effective moment, though, that I wish had been staged differently. The final scene of the play (I don't think this is spoiling anything, but if you don't want to know, stop reading here) is the opening night of Figaro on 28 May 1934:
. . .Fritz Busch, wearing tails, walks out in front of the curtain. . .There is an expectant moment. Busch raises his arms, and on the beat, the orchestra is heard to begin Mozart's overture for The Marriage of Figaro. . .The music grows louder and louder till it fills the theatre, sublime.
The overture to Figaro is rousing, and reliably brings the audience to its feet. But I think a more moving finale would be Audrey Mildmay's rendition of Susanna's aria "Deh vieni non tardar" from Act IV—a more fitting tribute to the "moderate soprano":

The words: "At last comes the moment when, without reserve, I can rejoice in my lover's arms: timid scruples, leave my heart, and do not trouble my delight. Oh! I feel this place, the earth and the sky, are responding to love's fire; the night conceals my secret joy. Come, my love, do not delay: love's joy awaits you. The sky is dark and all is hushed. Here the brook murmurs; the breeze plays, whose sighs soothe my beating heart; the flowers smile and the grass is cool; everything invites us to love. Come my beloved, amid these sheltering trees, and I will crown you with roses."

Audrey appeared as Susanna in Figaro in five of the first six seasons of the Glyndebourne Festival. During the war the Festival went on hiatus, and with the Christie children Audrey went to Canada. Her last professional performance took place there in 1943; conductor Sir Thomas Beecham wired John back in England that "Audrey as Susanna has scored a brilliant and special success. . ." But after the war Audrey suffered increasingly ill health and increasingly desperate medical interventions. She died in 1953 without ever performing again in a fully-staged opera. [4]
John: I remember saying to Audrey. . .'The best fun is when you're starting out. That's the best bit.' Of course, you don't know it at the time.
Rudi: No.
John: That's the sad thing.
Rudi: Yes.
John: You're not really aware.
Rudi: No.
John: Not really.
They both stare ahead, not moving.

If only someone could tell you, eh? Wouldn't that be grand?
Rudi: Yes. 
John: If there were someone to tell you.
Rudi: Yes.
John: 'This is the best bit.'

Further reading:

  1. The information in this post is largely taken from two books on Glyndebourne that don't always agree, and from the official Glyndebourne website ( The books are:
    —Spike Hughes, Glyndebourne: A History of the Festival Opera Founded in 1934 by Audrey and John Christie, New edition, David & Charles, 1981 (original edition Methuen 1965).
    —John Joliffe, Glyndebourne: An Operatic Miracle, John Murray, 1999
  2. Hughes reports this as Act I, which is doubtful as there are no arias for Blonde in Act I. It is far more likely to have been Act II.
  3. Hughes, pp. 41-42.
  4. Quoted in Julia Aries, "Glyndebourne's unsung heroine,"