The son of the festival's founder and Glyndebourne's first Susanna looks forward to a new production of Mozart's great comic opera
The Marriage of Figaro kicked off Glyndebourne's first festival in 1934; 60 years later to the day – 28 May 1994 – it was the work that opened its new opera house. This month it again returns in a new production, directed by Michael Grandage and conducted by Robin Ticciati, who takes over from Vladimir Jurowski as music director of the festival in 2014.
My father, John Christie, who founded the festival, was a passionate Wagnerite. However, under pressure from my mother (Audrey Mildmay, Glyndebourne's first Susanna) and his two artistic directors (Fritz Busch and Carl Ebert), he was persuaded to abandon his plans. Mozart's operas became the exclusive diet at Glyndebourne for the next three years. Over the following years the repertoire has grown and diversified enormously, but Mozart has remained pivotal.
In the 1930s, the performance of Mozart's operas in England was almost totally confined to Don Giovanni, Figaro and The Magic Flute. Così fan tutte was derided. Die Entführung and La Clemenza were largely ignored, and Idomeneo was long dead and buried. So the opportunity to set things to rights was in the offing, and with Busch and Ebert the opportunity was grasped. In one particular and important respect they introduced a dimension to operatic performance that was singularly lacking at the time in this country, namely bringing into balance the dramatic narrative of the opera with the musical content. (Billboards and programmes at Covent Garden and the Carl Rosa made no mention of a stage director. Dramatisation went unheeded.) This, combined with the quality of singers attracted to Glyndebourne by Busch and Ebert, gave the venture a strong tailwind. During the 50s, Ebert teamed up with Oliver Messel in a number of productions, among which Figaro featured with such singers as Sena Jurinac, Joan Sutherland, Mirella Freni, Teresa Berganza, Gabriel Bacquier, Geraint Evans, Montserrat Caballé and Elisabeth Söderström.
Then in 1970, Glyndebourne teamed up with Peter Hall for an extended relationship. Three years later he staged his first Mozart, with Kiri Te Kanawa sharing the role of the Countess with Elizabeth Harwood, Ileana Cotruba as Susanna and Frederica von Stade as Cherubino – dream casting. Hall went on to stage Don Giovanni and Così in subsequent seasons. It was a halcyon period. He brought a depth of dramatic and musical insight to the three Mozart/da Ponte operas. The tension as the second act of Figaro unfolded was almost Hitchcockian.
Vittorio Gui, John Pritchard and Bernard Haitink were more than worthy successors to Busch on the podium between the 50s and 80s – true Mozartians who knew what they wanted and, as if by a direct line to Mozart, knew how to get it. There's nothing more rewarding than singers who feel comfortable with their conductors. When they're all happy, it rubs off on the listeners.
My own first memory of Figaro is of a rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera in 1943. I was eight and restless with boredom, so I was taken to the top of the Empire State Building. Time soon cured the boredom problem. Glyndebourne, during the course of 72 completed seasons, has now given 1,547 performances of Mozart's operas, not counting those we have given on tour in the UK and abroad. This represents over 35% of our total performance output – a remarkable testament to the festival's love affair with Mozart, given the overall breadth and size of Glyndebourne's repertoire. Figaro tots up 353 performances during these 72 seasons, against 311 of the Don, 366 of Così and 214 of the Flute. Mozart is and always has been an inescapable part of Glyndebourne. My father even named his pug dog after Mozart's dog – Bimperl. I'm now off to a rehearsal of the new Grandage-Ticciati production with a cast that is relatively new to Glyndebourne. I am crossing my fingers: they have a rich history to live up to.
• On 17 August The Marriage of Figaro will be live-streamed on guardian.co.uk/glyndebourne. It will be available on demand for a week.
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