Magazine article The Spectator

A Passion for Music

Magazine article The Spectator

A Passion for Music

Article excerpt

Henrietta Bredin talks to the Earl of Harewood about a life in opera

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 Harewood's 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, a 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 Kobbe'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 Cosi 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. …

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