Comment: Jail work gets Glyndebourne out of jail

The issue of public benefit has instigated a welcome scrutiny of what charity should mean in everyday terms.

Public schools and arts organisations are, understandably, particularly vulnerable. I wrote a while back about the Aldeburgh Music Festival and its charitable status - demonstrating its public benefit. I am now feeling braver.

I decided to explore the public benefit of that operatic bastion of cultural elitism, Glyndebourne. I was intrigued by current owner Gus Christie's provocative foreword in its annual review: "The popular perceptions of Glyndebourne remain locked in a 1930s caricature ... we are seen as fusty, conservative, dominated by establishment values ...".

But in the eight years since Christie took over from his father, Sir George, he has transformed it into an organisation that noticeably works with local communities and schools. Two initiatives stick out.

The Transitions Project is a neat idea that uses music and performance to give kids confidence and demonstrable skills by moving from soft educational situations to those that are more competitive. Then there is the work with young offenders at nearby Lewes Prison, giving them marketable skills and the confidence that only performance can bring, so they can be more resilient when they get out.

Glyndebourne has been working quietly at the prison since 1950. Christie's grandfather, Sir John, movingly mounted a production of Beethoven's prison opera Fidelio there.

Glyndebourne has much more to do in developing its public benefit work, for instance by developing longer-term sustainable projects targeted at particular needs in the local community - disabled youngsters, people with mental health issues and people in hospitals. But it is going in the right direction. Music, the arts and performance have a great power in enriching lives and creating a sense of wellbeing. We need to rise above elitist stereotypes and celebrate the vast sweep of charitable activity across this country. It comes in many forms. And from unexpected quarters.

John Knight is assistant director, policy and campaigns, at Leonard Cheshire Disability. Email him at

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