Glyndebourne’s Stephen Langridge, interview: ‘I like tradition – if you separate it from habit’

Stephen Langridge, the new artistic director at Glyndebourne
Stephen Langridge, the new artistic director at Glyndebourne Credit: Christopher Pledger for the Telegraph

Glyndebourne’s new artistic director tells Ben Lawrence about making it the very model of a modern major opera house

There’s a new man at the top of Glyndebourne. Stephen Langridge is now the artistic director of the Sussex opera house and his appointment comes in the wake of Sebastian Schwarz’s startlingly brief tenure. However, the roles were different. Schwarz was, in fact, the general director – ultimately responsible for both artistic and business decisions – while Langridge will split his responsibilities with managing director (and Glyndebourne old timer) Sarah Hopwood, who has been in post, awaiting her artistic counterpart, since shortly after Schwarz’s departure.

For the 55-year-old Langridge – previously ensconced at Gothenburg where he was director of opera and theatre – it is all very new. “We are forming our relationship at the moment,” he says, carefully.

It seems likely that Schwarz simply had too much on his plate, and the new leadership structure is at least in part a result of Glyndebourne’s success over the past 20 years. It is the third largest opera house in the UK in terms of revenue (after Covent Garden and ENO), and expansion has been dramatic recently, with turnover more than doubling over the past 20 years (it’s around 30 million annually now) and staffing increasing by 50 per cent over the same period.

For Langridge, boyish yet vaguely pedagogic, there is a sense of coming home. His first visit to Glyndebourne resulted in getting the screaming habdabs when he saw the witches – swathed in green paint – in their dressing room before a production of Verdi’s Macbeth (he was a year old). His father, you see, was Philip Langridge (who died in 2010), one of the great English tenors of his generation and present in his son’s wide and airy new office in the form of a – yet to be hung – performance photograph from Harrison Birtwistle’s The Second Mrs Kong (Glyndebourne, 1994) with Langridge senior looking rather like James Dean had he reached middle age. “Tenor without a cause,” quips Langridge.

Cendrillon, performed here at Glyndebourne in 2018, will be revived this summer Credit: Alastair Muir

Langridge has the pedigree, then, to stay sensitive to the peculiarly English form of opera-making that Glyndebourne invented, where talent is brought together in an isolated, bucolic setting. A great deal of his professional life, however, has been dedicated to making the art form accessible (and indeed he has directed two youth operas at Glyndebourne). Does he feel there’s a conflict between reaching new audiences and working for a luxury brand steeped in tradition. “I like tradition,” he says. “As long as you separate tradition from habit.”

Nothing at Glyndebourne is more traditional than the formal dress code, which Schwarz distanced himself from, suggesting visitors could even wear fancy dress should they wish. From his experience at Gothenburg (where he has lived for six years with his wife and two teenage daughters), Langridge discovered that young audience members loved dressing up for events such as the Twelfth Night ball. I thus assume his stance is rather different.

“I enjoy it because I feel like James Bond,” he says. “It’s nice to make an effort with your friends or partner because it’s fun and gives a different energy. I don’t think it’s off-putting.”

So is he all for maintaining a strict code? “No,” he smiles. “You should dress as you wish.” Langridge’s aim at Glyndebourne, he says, is to “focus on luxury and accessibility at the same time. To make the best work and open it up to the broadest possible audience, but not making work specifically to appeal to a broad audience.” Langridge refuses to believe that opera in itself poses a problem.

Glyndebourne operates a tour which visits five British cities every year. “If we want to bring in people to Milton Keynes or wherever it is who have never experienced opera before, we have to ask why they haven’t. Is it to do with how they will be perceived when they go in, or because they don’t know where to hang their coat, or because they don’t want to take their boyfriend or girlfriend when they might be 
sitting next to someone who looks like their auntie? Or is it the music? Probably not.”

Langridge has, in the past, taken culture to what he describes as “some pretty wild places”. There were productions of Julius Caesar and West Side Story featuring 60 inmates at HMPs Bullingdon and Wandsworth, and the time he took the Berlin Philharmonic to play Bach’s Cello Suites to a group of prisoners “who had never experienced anything like that before. But they understood it was great art.”

Il barbiere di Siviglia, here performed at Glyndebourne in 2018, will also be revived this summer Credit: Bill Cooper

This may sound like middle-class evangelism, but Langridge is no proselytiser. He is very wary when I ask about opera “making a difference”.

“There are a few traps there,” he says. “Because then we start to look at opera as a tool for sorting things out. Did somebody re-offend? Was there a social or therapeutic purpose? But for me that’s not the purpose.”

Then what is the purpose? “It’s simple. Telling a story through singing fulfils a basic human urge.”

Ever since he was a drama student at Exeter, Langridge has been busy trying to persuade people that opera isn’t a bourgeois concern. It’s inevitable to think that this stems from his childhood, where music in all its forms was appreciated. His father was known for his wide repertoire, while his mother was a violin teacher and Langridge’s sisters became musicians, too. In fact, the young Langridge was rather the black sheep. Although proficient at the horn, he was not in the same league as his sisters and switched his interest to theatre.

Philip Langridge was a great advocate of the English repertoire and it’s something that his son hopes to see more of at Glyndebourne, as well as new work in general, which he describes working on as akin to “changing the world. It’s midwifery.” He is surprised when I mention that only one contemporary composer (Philip Glass) is in the list of the 100 most regularly performed operas, because he believes that great work will endure. “When you see something like Harry’s [Harrison Birtwistle] Minotaur, you know that that will still be produced in 100 years’ time.”

Langridge is enthusiastic about the forthcoming season, and says there is much excitement surrounding Richard Jones’s production of Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust, and Barbe and Doucet’s radical Die Zauberflöte. His wider artistic intent is, however, unclear. He talks about the possibility of sustaining themes between seasons and is also scratching his head about how operagoers consume the form.

“I hate the word ‘consume’,” he says. “You consume pork pies. But there is so much discussion now about how people approach cultural consumption, and the Netflix phenomenon shows that it isn’t all bite-sized chunks. There were discussions a few years ago saying you had to watch opera in 20-minute segments because nobody can concentrate any more. But we know that’s not true because people spend the whole weekend watching Fleabag.”

'People come here to see something extraordinary': Stephen Langridge at Glyndebourne in Sussex Credit: Christopher Pledger for the Telegraph

There are also more serious issues to address. When I suggest that Glyndebourne needs to be risk-averse to shore up finances – to programme Madama Butterflys and La Traviatas ad nauseam, rather than taking a punt on more musically outré ventures – Langridge looks horrified.

“That would be shooting yourself in the foot. People come here to see something extraordinary, and to do that you must walk on a tightrope. Being careful with money is one thing but being risk-averse is quite another. Why would you bother to come?”

There is also the question of bullying, rumoured to exist in several opera houses within the UK. Langridge says that “we should be beyond the age of dictators. It should have died out and it hasn’t. Screaming and shouting is not all right, and I am happy to deal with it.”

So is he going to operate a zero-tolerance approach? “My personal opinion is that people can have a temperament, but bullying is unacceptable.” I can imagine Langridge quashing any would-be tyrants. Clearly he’s come a long way since he screamed in terror at those witches.

Glyndebourne Festival is from May 18 to Aug 25; glyndebourne.com