A Passion for Music

Lord Harewood looks back at the way in which opera performance and production has changed and developed

The Spectator, 12 March 2011

In his memoir, The Tongs and the Bones, the Earl of Harewood ruefully quotes his uncle, the Duke of Windsor, remarking 'It's very odd about George and music. You know, his parents were quite normal - liked horses and dogs and the country.' As it happens, George Harewood also likes horses and dogs and the country - and football and cricket and fishing - but in addition he has had, from an early age, an abiding passion for music.

At the start of the Second World War, while he was still at school, he notched up as many performances by Sadler's Wells Opera as he could and tuned into static-ridden radio broadcasts of operas from Italy, Germany and Hungary. Once he'd joined the army, at the age of 18, he still managed to catch a performance of Werther in Algiers, amass a collection of rare French vocal recordings and, when posted to Naples, become a regular at the San Carlo Opera House, all before eventually being wounded and taken prisoner in an attack on Monte Corneo, near Perugia.

From 1972 to 1985 he was Managing Director of English National Opera. During that time he was responsible for the appointment of Mark Elder as music director, who brought David Pountney to join him as director of productions; he tackled the difficulties of taking opera productions on tour that had been designed to fit the enormous stage of the London Coliseum by overseeing the creation of English National Opera North (soon to become simply Opera North); he nurtured the careers of numerous singers, conductors, directors and designers.

What ENO was fortunate enough to benefit from was his astonishingly deep and informed knowledge of operatic repertory, his unrivalled powers of recollection, his eclectic tastes and lack of any trace of musical insularity or snobbery and a deep-rooted kindness, sensitivity towards and understanding of artists' sensibilities.

By the time he came to run ENO he had attended and heard (as an avid listener to recordings and radio broadcasts) more operas than many people hear in a lifetime; he had, in 1949, founded Opera magazine; he had edited, revised and made substantial additions to the invaluable Kobbé's Complete Opera Book; been a member of the staff of the Royal Opera House (he was eventually given the title of Controller of Opera Planning but was at first told, with delightful vagueness in these days of cumbersome job descriptions, to 'come in a general kind of capacity and find your own level'); he had been artistic director of both the Leeds Festival and the Edinburgh Festival, where he championed Russian, Czech and Hungarian music, Indian dance and Portuguese fados.

All this and much more was to inform his time at ENO, a period during which the repertory presented ranged from huge undertakings such as Prokofiev's War and Peace and Verdi's Don Carlos to smaller but no less demanding pieces such as Cosí fan tutte and The Turn of the Screw. How does he feel that the approach to planning an opera company's repertory and assembling creative teams has changed between then and now?

'There has definitely been a shift in emphasis. Back then, the composer, represented by the conductor, always came first and any artistic decisions were led, first and foremost, by the music. One then chose a director by considering who would be in sympathy with the opera in question. Any subsequent interpretation would come from that basic premise. I think that now there is more of a tendency to find a director who has a concept to propose. Of course, The Marriage of Figaro for example can accommodate many different interpretations but to impose a rigid concept on it runs a considerable risk of giving a highly one-sided and unsatisfactory version of the opera. That seems to me the essential difference in attitude.

'Decisions about casting were founded in that essential sympathy with the music and the composer's intentions. In the early days of working with Mark Elder and David Pountney I remember being concerned that they saw me as old-fashioned, that there was a danger of a divided, 'us and them' situation developing. I can't now remember which of them said 'But it's natural it should be that way - you're a member of one generation and we're members of another.' That was quite revealing; and I didn't agree. I'm glad to say we overcame that problem and worked very well together. Young conductors learn from older conductors, and of course casting singers for an opera involves people of widely different ages and they all learn from each other.'

The discussions were always passionate and informed by personal taste. Harewood loved Massenet; Elder did not: 'Although I'm delighted to say his tastes have expanded since.' Artistic disagreements behind the scenes were resolved in a way that produced a richly broad range of repertory and meant that work of widely different directing styles could be experienced and appreciated by the public. David Freeman presented a version of Monteverdi's Orfeo pared back to the barest essentials of intensely vivid story-telling; Jonathan Miller packed the stage with the most minutely observed detail of 1950s New York for his 'mafioso' Rigoletto; David Pountney revealed unforgettable and unsuspected psychological depths in Dvorak's Rusalka; Nicholas Hytner played up the bombast and frightening power of Wagner's early opera Rienzi with a fascistic gymnastic display taking the place of a formal ballet.

'It's important to recognize that some operas are almost impossible to present well in a theatre as large as the Coliseum,' Harewood points out. 'A clever director like Graham Vick got round that with his production of The Rape of Lucretia by enclosing the action within a confined space and bringing everything forward to the very front of the stage. The Two Widows, of Smetana, which I like very much, was one I thought was unsuited to the scale of the theatre. But Handel operas, such as the Julius Caesar we did in 1979, can work surprisingly well.'

There was, in the 1970s and '80s, more of an established company of English National Opera singers than there is today. It meant that, remarkably, it was possible to double-cast the entire Ring cycle. 'Apart from Siegfried,' Harewood concedes. 'One understudy took us all by surprise. A session on the The Valkyrie was being played for by the ballet rehearsal pianist, Judith Turner. Someone heard her singing a phrase and realized that she had just as good a voice as some of the principals. She went on to cover the role of Brünnhilde and even sang a couple of performances.' Audiences could follow the development of particular singers as they made their way up through the ranks: John Tomlinson, Anne Evans, Valerie Masterson, Josephine Barstow, Gwynne Howell, Philip Langridge and many others. 'Singers need to feel confident that they have been cast in the right role, that they are musically prepared and ready to deal with any demands that a director might make on them. When we did Jonathan Miller's production of The Marriage of Figaro, Valerie Masterson was singing the Countess for the first time - she'd always sung Susanna before. I went to see her in her dressing room after the dress rehearsal and found her in tears. When I asked her what was wrong she said 'Nothing. It's the best thing I've ever been in but the rehearsals have been so exciting and revealing and now it's all over.'

Lord Harewood's unique and extensive collection of recordings has been donated by him to the Borthwick Institute at the University of York. Restored and remastered selections are available online via Music Preserved at www.musicpreserved.org.uk