So not only is Danielle one of the opera world’s finest talents, when it comes to glamour she would render a young Jacqueline Kennedy about as magnetic as the late and much lamented Mrs Merton. Following her recent lead role in the The Barber of Seville, even the starchy old Daily Telegraph struggled to contain itself, declaring her “the diva who put the sex into Sussex” (a headline to already appear in this rather more sprightly organ, but we shall let that side note drift on in the summer breeze).
Truly, Glyndebourne is changing. On our first trip, the average age of opera buffs and picnic goers – or perhaps that should be picnic goers and opera buffs – must have been north of 70. Apparently, some of the audience even knew about opera, though they could sometimes seem keener to talk about property prices and villas in St Barts. Now it is a cooler affair. The new artistic director has caused coronaries in more traditional circles by declaring that the audience can forgo black tie for blue jeans. Yes, jeans. And now guests have Danielle de Niese to swoon over. Well, if it encourages a new generation of opera enthusiasts to sashay down to Sussex and spend the kind of money on a ticket which would probably buy you a decent starter home up north, why not?
Dani’s Glyndebourne odyssey could so easily be an opera in itself. Of Sri Lankan origin, she grew up in Australia and America before standing in for a soprano at the celebrated Sussex opera venue in 2005. After hiring a nearby draughty cottage, she “roamed around, seeing everything, getting to know everything… like how to use an Aga.” One can almost hear the operatic cries rising in passion as she slammed Aga doors, trying to find where the blasted English contraption had hidden supper. In the bedroom department she was already spoken for while Gus Christie, Glyndebourne’s executive chairman, had four children by Imogen Lycett Green. It wasn’t until the following year that Christie, as she delicately puts it, “threw his hat in the ring”.
I think of myself as Olympian in my field because I started so youngMarrying the staff is frowned upon in smart |circles, but that probably doesn’t apply when the family business is opera. After all, Christie’s grandfather, John, married Sussex-born Canadian soprano Audrey Mildmay, and built the theatre for her, which in the romantic gesture-stakes probably beats buying the wife a few cookery books.
Now 37, she is not only regarded as a celebrated diva, she is most decidedly the chatelaine, her full-length portrait featuring her in pink gown with fan sits pride of place in the house. She has also given Christie a son, Bacchus. But those delicate, high-heeled feet remain sufficiently on the ground to remember the sacrifices her parents made, moving round the world to advance her training and filming her every rehearsal to study with her how her singing could be improved: “I think of myself as an Olympian in my field because I started so young.” Far from leaving her folks behind, mama and papa still travel the world to watch her and come to Sussex frequently, despite living in New Jersey.
And in the tricky modern world where high culture makes its awkward accommodation with low culture, she has trodden her path carefully. Growing up in LA, she presented a teen TV series, but when her agent tried to nudge her towards a soap career, she refused. And rightly so: do not let her looks distract you from her talent. Aged 19, she was the youngest ever to gain a place on the New York Metropolitan Opera’s young-artists programme, and by 21 was fluent in three other languages.
As well as singing, she has always put as much into the acting side of her performance. This has seen her star in Diva Diaries, while her Barber of Seville, at Glyndebourne, is to be the subject of a BBC documentary; if past behind the scene footage of opera productions are any guide, this threatens to be less fly on the wall as blood on the carpet.
The couple live in a grand flat off the central staircase, which causes occasional difficulty when she flits across from her changing room in a state of, well, not quite ready for public viewing. They have to entertain extensively and generously to keep the philanthropists writing those Coutts cheques. And despite missing her family, she takes being chatelaine remarkably casually – perhaps as only one can who was brought up far away from the stuffy expectations of the English country house set.
“I knew Gus was tied to Glyndebourne,” she says. “His whole life’s work and family’s life work is here. I would never have expected him to move. And he also knew that he couldn’t expect me to quit singing and just do the ‘Mrs Glyndebourne stuff’.”
But she juggles better than most. She confesses there are days when she retreats to her bedroom and does little but recover from performance. Yet she toured the world singing until seven-months pregnant, and will continue to tread boards abroad, Bacchus in the wings.
It is not a conventional marriage, which probably helps explain why it is hard to beat for glamour or romance. Now all it needs is a sufficient talent to pen the score.