Alison Buchanan’s Interview About Pegasus’ Opera Mentoring Programme

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As Glyndebourne festival turns 90, its artistic director has been championing diversity – and pursuing young audiences. Has it worked?

On the grand occasion of a 90th birthday, you may expect a focus on the good days gone by. But as Glyndebourne rolls into its 10th decade, the prestigious operatic institution is planning ahead. “We’re spending a lot of time here thinking about the future,” muses artistic director Stephen Langridge. “Where do we want to be when we’re 100? Where do we want opera to be?”

With a reputation as the poshest and stuffiest of art forms – opera performances tend to be long, in a foreign language and made of music that few of us are brought up consuming – a lot of that distinction in the UK is linked to Glyndebourne. In the summertime, the grounds of the East Sussex manor house play host to hordes of people in fancy evening wear carrying elaborate picnics for the interval. For many, it seems a world away from reality. But when Langridge talks about opera, the musty cliches it has accumulated fall away. “My definition of opera is telling stories through music and action,” he says, never quite staying still as he talks. “And if that’s what opera is, then it exists everywhere, in every culture. It’s a way of reflecting the world around us. But it’s only going to reflect our world if we open it up.”

Over the course of his five-year tenure at Glyndebourne, Langridge and his team have been interrogating who opera is made by and for, and considering the role they can play in its expansion. “We know there’s talent everywhere but there’s not always opportunity,” he says. That was the case for the young Alison Buchanan, who thought she was the only Black opera singer in the world. “Then I got into Glyndebourne,” the renowned soprano remembers, “and the first thing that struck me was that I wasn’t the only one.”

At 16, Buchanan was the youngest performer to ever be part of the Glyndebourne chorus – a title she still holds – for the 1986 production of Porgy and Bess, directed by Trevor Nunn, conducted by Simon Rattle and starring Cynthia Haymon and Willard White in an all-Black cast. “I feel very privileged to have had that as my first opera experience,” Buchanan says. But this was a one-off. “All the singers were employed to do the Black opera,” she says of Porgy and Bess, “and after that there was no opera for them to do. Nobody wanted them.” During the production, Buchanan befriended fellow performer Lloyd Newton who, frustrated at the lack of opportunities available for Black opera singers, decided to create them himself. When he died in 2017, Newton passed his Pegasus Opera Company, an organisation supporting global majority singers, over to Buchanan’s care. In 2021, Buchanan took the company full circle by creating a new partnership with Glyndebourne.

“It all started after George Floyd was murdered,” Buchanan says. Asking the industry to stand with them against racial injustice, Pegasus challenged arts organisations to use more than just words to demonstrate their solidarity against racism. “It was Glyndebourne who really stepped up and wanted to know how we could do something different.” Now, Glyndebourne and Pegasus have cemented a collaboration that provides a programme of coaching and mentoring opportunities for classical singers of African and Asian heritage, including observerships, masterclasses and one-on-one support.

These schemes prevent lack of opportunity from getting in the way of talent. They also help provide gifted musicians with role models they can recognise. “I have memories of when I was younger, never seeing people like me on stage,” says pianist and conductor Avishka Edirisinghe. He got involved in Pegasus by chance when the company needed an accompanist to cover a few rehearsals, and is now working as assistant chorus director at Glyndebourne, including on the upcoming production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare. He talks about the need for companies like Pegasus, where the term “outreach” has a different impact. “It’s a bit harder,” he says, “when you have white people showing you, as people of colour, the ropes of opera.”

Part of the general hesitancy towards opera, Edirisinghe considers, is its cold, grandiose reputation. “It sucks,” he says. “None of the people I work with on a day-to-day basis have that air around them that they are better than everyone else.” Progress is happening, he says, albeit slowly. “More of us are coming through from different backgrounds. As our generation is growing up and becoming the people who become the face of opera, I’m confident it will be an art form that’s much more welcoming to everyone.”

Racism in opera has a long history. As recently as 2022, controversy struck the Italian opera venue Arena di Verona as the lead soprano’s skin was darkened to play Aida in Verdi’s opera, decades after other opera institutions had firmly outlawed blackface. Formed in the 1930s, Glyndebourne has hosted numerous performances that would shock us now, and the company’s inclusion statement specifically condemns presentations of exoticism and orientalism that have taken place in previous operas, stating them as being wrong “now and then”. Today, the company is continually learning how to light, dress and make wigs for different skin tones within their operas’ historical settings, as the diversity of their casts continues to increase. “This work makes us better on a purely musical, theatrical level,” Langridge says with certainty. “But it also means better in terms of communicating with society.”

The other core part of the ongoing, long-term shift at Glyndebourne is how to widen and diversify the audience. The introduction of £30 tickets for under-30s has gone some way to bringing about change, but having been in place since 2006, they are not as known as they should be. “We want to make sure that young people see opera as an available experience that could be potentially transformative,” says Langridge. Word is spreading; this year, 2,500 more young people signed up to the scheme.

What happens when you turn 31? Cheaper standing tickets are available during the summer festival, and the autumn festival provides 14,000 tickets under £50, plus an under-40s membership. However, some of the prices remain sky high. A single ticket could set you back £285, and that won’t be changing. “The government doesn’t subsidise our festival,” Langridge says. “We’ve got to pay for the year-round staff, the artists, everybody. Most of that comes from the box office.” This is even more critical since 2023, when Arts Council funding cuts meant the organisation had to cancel its planned tour; it introduced the autumn festival in its place.

Just as positive change takes time, cuts and limitations take time to show their impact, too. “I got into classical music because when I was younger I was so lucky to be in local orchestras and choirs,” says Edirisinghe. “That is where it has to start. If you’re involved in it from a young age, you’re a part of it, so it must be for you.”

Langridge thinks again to Glyndebourne’s centenary a decade away. There are cuts to contend with and stigmas to break, but he is hopeful and eager to cultivate new audiences, new talent and new interest. “I would like this to be a world where people don’t think opera is too posh for them,” he offers, both sunny and realistic. “Not everyone has to like it, but everyone should have a chance to see it.”

Glyndebourne continues to 25 August