George Hall: Glyndebourne losing Sebastian Schwarz is a pity – replacing him will not be easy
When Sebastian F Schwarz was announced as the successor to David Pickard as Glyndebourne‘s general director in November 2015, all looked set for an adventurous new period in the festival’s long history.
At 41, Schwarz came with a solid and varied track record. Growing up as a boy in East Germany, he had initially trained as a professional singer – something brought to an end by that common complaint among vocal artists, acid reflux – and then decided instead upon a future in operatic administration.
Having begun with studies in vocal performance and musicology in Berlin, he moved to Venice to take a course in theatre administration, then worked in a series of increasingly important positions, starting at the Wexford Festival and the Hamburg State Opera before landing a position with the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, whose programming and international profile he did much to raise. Glyndebourne was a natural next step for this Anglophile European.
With his friendly and outgoing personality, knowledge, experience and enthusiasm, Schwarz certainly seemed an ideal choice to take on England’s prime opera festival – the model for all other so-called ‘country-house’ operas, yet undeniably in a higher league than the rest.
The season due to start in May 2018 will be the first in which his own programming dominates, and with the first full-scale professional UK production of Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, a new staging of Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande by the much sought-after Norwegian director Stefan Herheim, plus the first-ever production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at the festival itself (Annilese Miskimmon’s staging has thus far been seen only on the autumn tour), his ideas looked strong.
In addition, Schwarz quickly set up a high-profile new singing competition, the Glyndebourne Opera Cup, which was already attracting a lot of attention, including from broadcast partner Sky Arts, which will televise it. The initial competition in March will go ahead, with Schwarz chairing the jury.
With these promising projects all about to come to fruition, why is he now leaving? There have been no tales of rows, fallings-out, or difficult behaviour – quite the opposite: this nattily dressed, urbane individual seems well liked in Sussex and indeed everywhere else.
The answer is surely contained in his comments and those of Glyndebourne’s chairman Gus Christie announcing his departure. On the continent, Schwarz would have been able to get on with his programming without the need to go out to locate private money to put it on – something that would have pertained, too, at Covent Garden, English National Opera, or one of the other subsidised UK companies.
Glyndebourne receives no public money for its main season, meaning someone has to spend time keeping patrons and sponsors happy
Glyndebourne, on the other hand, like the other English country-house ventures, receives no public money for its main season; only the annual autumn tour and its educational work benefit from state subventions.
This means that someone – and apparently this meant Schwarz – had to spend much of his time finding and keeping happy patrons, donors and sponsors whose substantial financial input, together with the box-office receipts, provides the income necessary to keep the whole enterprise afloat; and for whatever reason Schwarz seems to have decided that this task was not for him.
It is an enormous pity. No one doubts his personal and professional qualifications for one of the top jobs in British opera: couldn’t the task of raising cash have been devolved elsewhere? While Christie will take over the running of the enterprise until a replacement is found, finding the right person to move the festival forward is not going to be easy.