However, eyes are not on the Elizabethan stately home in the background but on the diva in the foreground. On the steps to the house, its 37-year-old chatelaine, Danielle de Niese, internationally acclaimed soprano, who plays the leading lady Rosina in Glyndebourne’s new production of The Barber of Seville - streamed live on the Telegraph website this Tuesday - languishes in folds of scarlet Vivienne Westwood, her feet teetering in Louboutins.
Her mahogany hair is long and tousled, her skin darker than that of almost everybody around her. She is of Sri Lankan Burgher descent and spent her first 10 years in Melbourne, Australia, a Commonwealth combination that, she later says, means she feels at home with English mores.
This despite the fact that she sounds very LA, where she spent her adolescence. Her eyes, painted in black kohl, are like brown saucers (she is almost never unmade-up); her figure, zipped up in the Westwood corset, is healthily rounded.
If Glyndebourne is changing – or trying to change – bringing in newer, younger audiences with fresh, exciting productions, then its star is on her own journey: motherhood, a maturer voice and more complex roles.
When de Niese made her Glyndebourne debut as Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare, 11 years ago, one of the critics commented that, as well as having the voice, ‘She put the sex into Sussex.’
One can imagine the reaction of the Glyndebourne panel when she arrived, a year before, late for her audition, picking her way across the Sussex Downs in her Alexander McQueen culottes.
In 2005 she was called upon unexpectedly to sing Cleopatra after the original soprano dropped out. She hired a cottage nearby, and ‘roamed around, seeing everything, getting to know everything… like how to use an Aga’. She was romantically attached then, and never for a second dreamed she would soon marry Gus Christie, Glyndebourne’s divorced executive chairman, and become the lady of the house.
‘I didn’t know who he was,’ recalls de Niese. ‘I just thought he was a really lovely man.’ It was only a year later, in 2006, after the Glyndebourne season had ended and by which time de Niese was single, that Christie (52 now), with four children from his marriage to Imogen Lycett Green, ‘threw his hat in the ring’ as de Niese puts it, and courted her while she was performing in Amsterdam. Did it take much? She smiles.
‘No.’ Within three years, they were married. Their union has the ring of a fairy tale to it, and in fact it was history repeating itself. Christie’s grandfather, John Christie, had fallen in love with the Sussex-born Canadian soprano Audrey Mildmay and married her.
It was for her that he created the original Glyndebourne theatre, a 300-seat auditorium and orchestra pit, replaced in 1994 with a £34 million four-level building.
Along with Audrey and the other Christie family portraits, there is now a full-length painting of de Niese, perched on a chair in a floor-length rose-pink corseted Vivienne Westwood couture gown, holding a fan – both star and lady of the manor. There are several coincidences.
They married, unbeknown to them, on Audrey’s birthday and their one-year-old son, Bacchus, was born on June 4, the date Audrey and John got married in 1931. De Niese admits that her parents, to whom she is exceptionally close and who are now based in New Jersey, are asked all the time if they regard their daughter’s life as a fantasy come true.
They had dedicated their lives to her talent, moving from Melbourne to LA when she was 10, where she began attending a performing-arts school; they filmed every rehearsal so they could go over her singing with her and they attended every concert, and now go to every premiere wherever in the world it may be.
‘I cry when I see footage of myself as a young girl,’ de Niese says, ‘because I remember all the work that went into it, the sacrifices, how my parents helped me.
I think of myself as an Olympian in my field because I started so young.’ Opera (unlike film) is not a world in which performers can rise without substantial talent, however much stage presence and sex appeal they possess.
By the age of eight, de Niese knew she wanted to be an opera singer. At 16, she won an Emmy for presenting a teen programme, LA Kids. As a teenager in Los Angeles, she was courted by record producers to become a pop star. ‘But I’ve wanted to be an opera star since I was eight,’ she says, ‘so it was always a case of, “Wouldn’t it be cool to be this classical singer who also puts out a pop record.”’
By 18, she was in New York studying classical music, after being spotted on Broadway in Les Misérables. At 19, she was the youngest ever to be accepted on to the young-artists programme at the Metropolitan Opera – she made her debut that year in The Marriage of Figaro as Barbarina.
She had learnt three languages by the age of 21 (French in Paris, Italian in Sienna and German in Vienna, studied over the summers to help her sing the various libretti).
While in New York, she was scouted to become a soap star. ‘My classical agent said, “Danni, you’re so young. You could do a soap for five years and still have a classical career.”’ (She didn’t; her opera career took off.) Perhaps because of all that early experience, de Niese is lauded for the whole package of her performance, not just her voice.
‘I don’t see the two as separate,’ she says of singing and acting. ‘I am determined to bring a lot of things to the table.’ As if to prove the point, de Niese is currently involved in projects that could well turn her into a film star over the coming years.
She has already starred in the television programme Diva Diaries, which tracked her through a production at the Met, as Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, and there’s another BBC documentary in the pipeline ‘lifting the lid’ on the making of The Barber of Seville, which has not been performed at Glyndebourne since 1982.
De Niese’s manner is relaxed, unbuttoned and un-grand – ‘I see myself as a Californian girl,’ she says – except, that is, when it comes to her appearance because she doesn’t do ‘casual’.
These days, it’s mostly va-va-voom body-con dresses, sometimes with borrowed Van Cleef & Arpels million-dollar diamonds (complete with bodyguard) or a dressing gown (and not the towelling kind from M&S) when she needs a break.
Later, when she shows me her dressing room, it’s as thrilling as being a child in a sweet shop: masses of Westwood (who likes watching her perform), Donna Karan, sequins, sparkles. There are dresses and shoes everywhere – designers love her wearing their clothes – and a dressing table framed with proper dressing-room bulb lights.
Gus had the room built especially for her, turfing out old brooms and Glyndebourne junk so she had somewhere to put her suitcases when she returned home from performances, bringing with her mountains of outfits.
Outside the house as the lawns fill up, the Glyndebourne picnic-ers – they really can’t be called punters, dressed as they are – male and female, are trying and failing not to stare. Who can blame them?
De Niese misses her family. When she performs in New York, she still stays in New Jersey with her parents. On the day we meet, she is visibly saddened by the fact that her brother (who lives in Beverly Hills) is leaving for the airport. Her parents flew home a day or so ago. All three came over for the opening night of Barber at Glyndebourne.
‘When we are together, that’s like home. When we all go back to where we live, it feels like a separation,’ de Niese says. ‘But I knew Gus was tied to Glyndebourne [from the beginning]. His whole life’s work and family’s life work is here. I would never have expected him to move anywhere else. And he also knew that he couldn’t expect me to quit singing and just do the “Mrs Glyndebourne stuff”.’ To de Niese, the house is simply where her husband lives and belongs.
During the summer season the place is full of performers. De Niese and Christie give their own opening party for 120 people, and every staying guest gets a pack with details on how to be kind to the house, including such details as the no-smoking policy and how to avoid the picture alarms.
Glyndebourne relies heavily on philanthropy, which, in turn, requires lavish hospitality. For the most part, de Niese loves it. They live in a private apartment, grand in scale and in furnishings – but connected to the house by a wide, central, very public staircase (‘At first I couldn’t get used to it, running into people who I admired on the stairs when my hair was still wet’).
But now she sees it as the meeting of two worlds, helped by her son’s nanny and the housekeeper. ‘A lot of the people at Glyndebourne are my dear friends [from my own career]. I know them all and I love them all. It’s not a strain for me. And Gus is wonderful about not putting pressure on me. He knows when I need to rest between performances or when everybody wants a piece of me. I know how to police myself now.’
Sometimes, on a down day, she’ll not venture much beyond her bedroom. For five years following the couple’s marriage (an entirely glamorous affair in London for which she wore Donna Karan with white feathers), she continued to travel for most of the year, returning to Glyndebourne for the season and building upon her reputation as one of the most sought-after sopranos in the world.
Two years ago, she says, she started to notice subtle changes in her voice, a shifting – ‘and it’s always a good feeling. It makes things feel easier, wider, like you are working with a richer, thicker instrument.’ Sopranos’ voices are thought to mature, to get into their stride around the mid-30s mark, and the changes de Niese noticed boded well.
But they also coincided with her becoming pregnant. The pregnancy obviously threw up more questions, such as how would she fit a baby into her already full schedule? (She is a patron/ambassador for many charities.) And also, there was the niggling concern that she would simply be written off by the opera community.
‘People know who I’m married to,’ she says, ‘It wouldn’t have been past people to think, “Oh, she’s pregnant! So she’s going to go away for five years and have a couple of kids.” I was very determined for them not to think that way. So, after the birth, I was absolutely determined to prove, “I’m [present] and I’m back! I’m not stopping what I love.”’
De Niese had already worked out that she would travel with her son and a nanny to all her engagements abroad (she’s off to Strasbourg in September, for example, where she will hire a house). ‘I asked other singers and they said, “The baby is happiest with its parents.” I’ve got five years until Bacchus goes to school and then I lose everything! I’ll be the one away.’
She performed until she was seven months pregnant. Three weeks before she gave birth, she lost her speaking voice. Her vocal chords were checked by her ENT specialist and given the all clear. The voice loss was deemed a product of her hormones.
A week or so after the birth, she tried to sing to her newborn and her voice petered out. ‘I was panicking, crying, “I can’t even sing to Bacchus.”’ One week before rehearsals for a Ravel double bill started, her voice returned. Then, during a rehearsal, she jumped from a height as per stage direction and landed badly on both ankles.
‘I was rehearsing, breastfeeding at lunch with my ankles on ice, eating lunch, more breastfeeding, putting my socks back on and going back to rehearsals on crutches and doing all this dressed as a little boy!’
As the opening night approached, she began to experience the same positive sensation that she had back in 2014, where everything felt ‘lighter’ or, as she puts it, gesturing to her mouth, ‘like I have more space in there’.
She gave a tour-de-force performance, both in acting and singing. Her voice is continuing to change. ‘The voice does evolve,’ she says. ‘It grows and settles. I’m really enjoying getting to know my voice all over again.’ As a result, de Niese’s repertoire is changing.
She’s moving away from familiar classical and baroque roles (Susanna, Cleopatra, Semele in Handel’s opera) and new ones await: she’ll be singing Elvira in Don Giovanni in October, The Merry Widow next season and Musetta from La Bohème the following year. ‘It’s a time of emergence for me,’ she says. ‘Like I’m shedding the box that some people might want to keep me in. It’s exciting. A rebirth in a way.’