Conversation Piece:
The Earl of Harewood

By Bruce Duffie


It's not often that one gets to have a chat with a member of the British Royal Family, and the conversation you are about to read is just that. 
Captain George Henry Hubert Lascelles succeeded to the title of 7th Earl of Harewood on 23 May 1947.  Lord Harewood [pronounced HAHR-wood] is the grandson of King George V and is first cousin to Queen Elizabeth.  His various titles and honors are listed in the biography at the end of this interview.

My reason for requesting the audience was our mutual passion for opera.  He has been, among other things, editor of Opera Magazine and the famous Kobbé's Complete Opera Book, Director of the Royal Opera Covent Garden and the English National Opera, as well as several festivals and the BBC.  He has boundless enthusiasm for opera in general and Verdi in particular
– equating his music with Shakespeare's plays.  But just being there, in the theater, seems to set him off into flights of glorious fancy, and that is a compelling trait for the manager of an opera company.

Through the generosity of a mutual friend, I was able to speak with Lord Harewood on the phone while he was in New York in 1987.  He seemed pleased to converse with me and related stories and opinions as though we were old pals.  The English accent was well-suited to his deep, sonorous voice and reminded me of several famous movie actors. 

Here is much of what we discussed at that time . . . . .

Bruce Duffie
You’ve held many positions in the world of music in general and the world of opera in particular, so let’s start out with a very easy question – where is opera going today?

Harewood:  That’s not an easy one, is it?  I think it’s changed in the last years – say since the war.  In a funny way, immediately after the war everything started out again – even in Europe which had been cut up – as if nothing had happened, and everything was going to be rebuilt.  People wrote new operas and people went to see new operas and old operas just as they had before.  That went, I guess, well into the 1960’s and in the ‘70’s it started to change.  People wrote inaccessible music.  The practitioners of opera, the writers of opera, were less and less prolific.  They wrote operas every ten years instead of every two or three, and the notion of the excitement of the new opera started to go.  About eight or ten years ago I was very pessimistic about it.  It seemed to me that new operas weren’t being written and something new had to be said.  There are now two areas in which they are being written.  One involves works by someone like Sondheim, or even Andrew Lloyd Webber, but particularly Sondheim, who, to my mind write operas, and the other is that is seems to me that composers have started to use opera not as a regular medium, but as a kind of summing-up medium where they attempt to write a masterpiece.  Messaien wrote his first and only opera about five years ago.  Harrison Birtwistle, who I reckon is a major composer, certainly a leading composer in England, wrote a kind of Parsifal, a major work, a summation of ten or fifteen years of his work.  I believe that is a good sign.

BD:  Is this something that composers would have come to on their own, or is it a reaction to public taste?

H:  I think it’s both, don’t you?  I think that composers have recognized that their idiom is awkward and takes quite a bit of getting used to, and that you therefore can’t write a new work every two years because people won’t listen.  But you can attempt a masterpiece, which is not what Rossini was aiming at, but what Verdi was in Otello and Falstaff, and what Wagner was always aiming at.  You can attempt to do that by adopting rather a different attitude toward the medium, toward the drama-through-music.

BD:  Is it wrong on the part of the public to expect every new work to be a masterpiece?


H:  Do you think they do?  I think what they expect it to be is a tremendous entertainment, or a tremendously seizing experience.  Nobody goes to Parsifal for diversion; you go there as a great experience.  It is a different point of view.  You go to Figaro as both.  It’s both a great masterpiece and a highly diverting experience.

BD:  Where, then, should be the balance between art and entertainment?

H:  There is a balance.  I think composers find it and audiences help them to find it.  Tastes change over time, and taste is on both sides of the footlights.

BD:  OK, what advice do you have for audiences going to either new operas or old operas?

H:  [laughing] With new ones, persevere.  If at first you don’t succeed, have another bash.  And with old ones, it depends on who’s doing it and how they’re doing it.  I think opera is the most wonderful medium for every kind of thing.  It’s a wonderful purveyor of drama, but so often people treat it as a framework for singing.  Opera is one of the great dramatic discoveries of the human mind.  That’s a very pompous phrase, but you know what I mean.  Like “Greek Tragedy” was a wonderful discovery of the Greeks, I think opera is a wonderful art form on many levels, and that’s not so common.  You can have easily accessible pieces as well as those which resist the first encounter, but suggest that more will come later.  It can be so many things to so many people.

BD:  So you are back to being optimistic about the future of opera?

H:  Yes.  I’ve gone back to that.  Aren’t you?

BD:  I think so.  There are so many divergent tracks coming along in opera as well as concert music.  Let me turn the question again – do you feel music is going too many directions at once?

H:  Perhaps it is.  Perhaps it’s marginally lost.  It’s very interesting that some of the same composers who were strict serialists in the 50’s and 60’s and who started to wander in the 70’s, have reacted against the element of austerity that that implies.  That of course means, as you say, going in different directions.  It’s not quite a retreat, but it certainly isn’t going on what looked to be a straight path at one time.  I think that may be good.

BD:  Do you feel that composers who are writing operas should perhaps take a few voice lessons along the way?

H:  Yes, I sometimes think that.  Of course people even said that of Verdi.  Verdi’s very exacting but we wouldn’t call him un-vocal.  They certainly said it of Wagner.  Oddly enough, I remember that John McCormick claimed he was going to found an anti-Beethoven society because he was the cruelest to the voice.  And he’s not wrong – the last sections of Fidelio and the 9th Symphony are not vocal.

BD:  Yes, then you get a song like “Adelaide” which is so wonderful.

H:  [laughing] Yes, piece of cake!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  You’ve worked as both administrator and as critic.  Do these two positions ever come into great conflict?

H:  I don’t think so.  I’m not a performer, but I always wanted to be on the performer’s side of the fence.

BD:  Are you a performer’s advocate, then?

H:  Yes.  I like the performer.  I always feel a little sorry for the performer, when things are a little awkward.  I love the beginner who’s starting to make it, particularly in opera.  That’s a great moment when you see the promise blooming to become something more.

BD:  What advice do you have for the up-and-coming opera singers?

with SutherlandH:  It depends on the person and everyone is so different.  Some are fully-fledged at 21, and others come into their own in their late 30’s.  I suppose one bit of advice would be if you’ve got a heavy kind of voice, don’t start doing big things too early, but that’s very simple to give as advice.  The temptations are so great, and that’s the fault of the manager, of whom I have been, and indeed still am one.

BD:  So being aware of this, you are more careful of your charges?

H:  Yes, but people accuse one of not being just as often!  Every administrator thinks they’re being careful.

BD:  In your management position, are there ever times when economic considerations overrule artistic decisions?

H:  If other things are equal and there is a choice, you can sometimes come down on the box-office side, and that can be an unattractive choice.  On the other hand, you can’t have an organization limping toward bankruptcy.  That doesn’t make for good artistic achievement, either.  But you sometimes have to make a choice that you wish hadn’t been forced on you by that kind of consideration.  You try not to, but to say otherwise would be silly.

BD:  Should opera ever be made to pay its own way?

H:  Not opera as we know it in the twentieth century, and as they knew it in the latter part of the nineteenth century.  I know that the Metropolitan used to be managed by a profit-making manager, but not for the last decade.

BD:  Well, who should support it?

H:  I think it’s a wonderful art form, and I think it shouldn’t be skimped.  The backup should always be from the state, as indeed it is everywhere, including the United States.  It’s public money that people give to the opera companies because they get it off their tax.  You always pay a proportion from box-office.  It would be wrong not to have that as one of the factors because it’s inhibiting to have life too easy, but I think that you want it to be correct.  You want to feel that you’ve got it right, that you’ve not skimped.  In a production that I planned for the English National Opera, but which was done by the subsequent administration (with whom I’m very friendly, by the way), there were some very complicated scenic effects, all of which worked well on the first night.  But in a later performance something went wrong and the effect was spoiled.  I asked if the problem couldn’t have been foreseen and was told that it had been, but by not taking care of it earlier they had saved a great deal of money.  That was a gamble for purely economic reasons.  To save that bit of money was valuable, and that’s a pity.  Nobody said they’d got it all wrong of they did a hideous spectacle or they’d misinterpreted the work.  What they said was an accident has marred the evening, and they wasted those people’s expectations.

BD:  How long were you with the ENO?

H:  I was there 13 years.

BD:  There were some recordings made….

H:  We recorded the whole Ring and I’m not certain any other company has ever done that.  They’ve always been either from the studio or Bayreuth.  The Met is in process of doing it now.  It’s not common.  We also did Handel’s Julius Caesar, also Rigoletto and Traviata.  All of these were in English, of course.

BD:  Since we're into the subject, tell me your feelings about opera in translation.

H:  I’m an advocate of it.  I believe opera is an immediate thing.  I believe that composers wanted people to experience it immediately as drama – not as a study affair
and that’s how it should be.  That’s not to say that festivals and such should never do operas in the original language regardless of the audience.  But I think in the end you do it for the audience rather than for tremendous linguists or for a rather bogus spirit of purism.  I remember performances where the singers’ pronunciation of the “original” ranged from pretty good to an absolute travesty.  So that wasn’t really in the “original” was it? 

BD:  OK, how do you get a major singer who jets all over the world to learn the roles yet again in another language?

H:  You stack the odds! [laughter] I don’t make them jet around, nor does the composer.  Have you ever met a composer who didn’t want his opera in the language of the audience?  I haven’t.  They all want it in the language of the audience.  That’s a bit of evidence.  And I don’t go very far with people who say they don’t understand it anyway.

BD:  Have you seen this new gimmick of putting the titles in the theater?

H:  I’m afraid I have.  I would rather the audiences have an immediate enjoyment and concentrate on the performers.  For the poor performers to be doing their best on the stage and have people looking up over the top is full of misery and a terrible contradiction I find.

BD:  Do you feel that opera works well on television?

H:  I don’t think it does, but it can.  I’ve enjoyed it very much at times, but there is a contradiction between the size of the screen and the vast size of most opera houses – even the relatively small houses of Europe which is where most of the works were written for.  The Met is a wonderful acoustic, but a kind of monstrosity in size.  Almost any of the great opera houses in the United States are too big.  But one of the marvelous things about opera is this one single human voice, not only dominating this huge building and perhaps 2,500 members of an audience, but an orchestra of 100 playing flat out with them.  That has a certain actual physical thrill, and there I’m going with the non-purist approach to opera.  It’s the kind of thing you get from very good games-players.  You assume they can do something that for the rest of us is nearly impossible, and that is denied to us on the TV no mater how well it’s simulated.  If you can relate it to a real-life experience, then you can have a wonderful time, partly because you can be more comfortable; you can get up and have a drink if you want to, which you can’t very well do in the opera house – which you could, though, in the 18th century.  And you can space it out more to your liking.  The Ring can be done one act per night, and that’s pretty good.  My ideal performance still remains in the theater, but I’m not against it on the box.  There are things I’m absolutely grateful to the screen or the box – for instance the Carmen which had Domingo, who was very good, but Miss Migenes was out of this world, and she could never do that in the theater.

BD:  At what point, then, does that presentation become a fraud?

H:  That’s what is known as a good question which I can’t answer.  There was nothing fraudulent in what we saw of her Carmen, but I guess she thought it was just too low for her to sustain in real life.

BD:  Let me pursue the television one more step.  What about the subtitles on the screen?

H:  That’s absolutely all right.  You hardly move your eye.  To look down at them, you’ve still got your eye almost on the centre of the screen.  You might be doing it anyhow, but in the theater you’ve got to move your angle of vision 15 or 20 degrees if you’re sitting downstairs.  It’s a little bit better if you’re up higher.

BD:  I’m in perhaps the ideal place in Chicago – the first row of the top balcony.

H:  Yes, like a lizard flicking its eyelids!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  You’ve been observing opera for going on 50 years.  How have singers’ voices changed in that time?

H:  There are always wonderful voices but there are never quite as many as we think there are.  It’s noticeable there aren’t as many Siegfrieds now as before and after the war.  There aren’t quite as many ready to sing Otello, but there were never more than one or two who were absolutely pre-eminent at these very difficult roles.  Sometimes people are very good, but they come and go and don’t sustain it for very many years.  Those exceptions, peculiar voices, have always been rare.

BD:  Well, thinking of the more standard repertoire, are the great voices today as good as the great voices before?

HarewoodH:  There is a very good book called The Grand Tradition written by J.B. Steane.  If you remember, the thesis was that the gramophone provided three convenient periods of about 25 years each – roughly up to the end of the first war, then to the onset of LP’s (about 1950), and the following 25 years
not at all an inaccurate division.  Well, he said that the first period had wonderful voices and beautifully expressive techniques, the middle period had expressive people but rotten techniques and a lot of rotten singing (there were exceptions of course), and the recent period had a rise in the standard again.  This had to do with audience expectation and demands from conductorsToscanini, for instance, demanding a “brutal” kind of expression that hadn’t been asked for earlier, and that presumably he himself had not required.

BD:  Do you yourself subscribe to this theory?

H:  I found it rather intriguing and it was very persuasive as an argument.  He seemed to have total recall over all the records.  I had most of the records he discussed and had heard many others he hadn’t mentioned, but I thought the thesis was well sustained.  Now that’s not the common view.  The one that’s generally accepted is that things are always better in the previous generation.  My father, who would be well over 100 now, used to say that Caruso was a wonderful singer, but that Jean De Reszke had a little bit more.  George Bernard Shaw said that De Reszke was one of the best baritones of his generation, but was a much less good tenor.  [laughs]  So there you are.

BD:  You’ve heard many of these voices in the theater and on records.  Are they the same live and on disc?

H:  Yes.  Not always now because you splice and add all kinds of spurious resonance, which is the thing I most dislike on modern recordings, but I think that it was truer in the past.  If you bought a record in 1939, they were much more likely to sound just like that than they are now.  Some of the old singers who sang with the legendary ones often said, when hearing those discs, that it sounded like them but didn’t convey the size of the voice.  That may be so on the recording.  It may suggest it; nobody would think that Melchoir had a small voice when listening to him on record.  But there are voices that impress by their sheer, vast size, and that is difficult to suggest unless you really knew them.

BD:  So the recording preserves timbre, but not size?

H:  Yes.

BD:  Opera being such a dramatic art form, do you feel it works well on the purely aural medium of the record?

H:  I think it works well if you know the pieces and the performers.  And it can be a great convenience to hear pieces that you may never otherwise have a chance of hearing.  I think the more experience of opera in real life you’ve got, the more you enjoy the recordings.  You can get a rather good idea of them particular if you’re paying attention and using your imagination.

BD:  You talk of hearing more and varied works.  Should we try to encourage managements to expand the repertoire?

H:  One of the paradoxical results of contemporary music being rather less accessible than it once was is that the novelty is very often a thing from the past, so the style may be familiar, or close to one you’re familiar with.  If you hear an opera by Montemezzi, the style will not be totally unlike the other Italian composers of the period.  That’s rather fun.  What I think is less interesting is when you get rather blander styles of the distant past exhumed, and perhaps done with less that total conviction.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  What’s the role of the critic?

H:  I’m very clear on the role of the critic.  The major one is to make things more interesting and more accessible to audiences, and to involve the listener.  The interesting critic is the enthusiast, not the captious critic.  Of course, when you’re going to your 187th performance of Bohème, you can’t rhapsodize.  I don’t expect that.  But I do think the actual function of the critic is first and foremost to make things more accessible to the audience, and I suppose that one must say the second is to be, up to a point, a guardian of standards.  The best bit of criticism was by Schumann when he said of Chopin, “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius.”

BD:  If the critic can’t rhapsodize over the umpteenth Bohème, should the public?

H:  When we were asked by the singers why we had to do 19 performances of it in the course of 12 months, we used to say that there were lots of people in the audience hearing it for the first time.  That was certainly true with us.  I don’t know if it would be true at the Met or in Chicago.

BD:  Do you feel at all that opera is an elitist art form?

HarewoodH:  I don’t, and I would cite one or two rather obvious items to back that up.  First, it was always meant by its early practitioners
at least in the 19th century in Italy, Germany, Franceto be the thing that the masses flocked to and that hit them solidly in the midriff.  It was an emotional, highly agreeable experience, and that’s what the composers wrote for.  They all wrote for the box office – except for Wagner, and perhaps Beethoven.  Before that, it was an aristocratic art, but one would hardly say that Mozart’s operas were exclusively elitist.  It’s a lot like Shakespeare.  He wrote for people who were illiterate.  They couldn’t read or write, but that didn’t mean that they were stupid.  They were highly intelligent.  He wrote to cause enthusiasm, and that was certainly not elitist.  I believe the image of the opera being elitist is the kind of stuffed-shirt image of men in white ties and funny-shaped hats, and ladies in too-expensive dresses with a lot of jewelry on their head, but I don’t think that’s at all an essential part of opera.  There is something else that one often forgets – it’s fairly rare that you put on a Beethoven symphony for ten performances in three weeks; it’s very rare that you don’t put on Bohème for ten performances in three or four weeks.  It’s a tiny statistic, but nobody would call Beethoven an elitist.  Opera tickets are expensive and a lot people went for the wrong reasons, and they dressed up too much, and in some way it was made to be thought of as being for them and not for us.

BD:  OK, why should people go to the opera?

H:  First of all because it’s one of the most exciting theatrical forms that exists.  The theater is wonderful, the music is wonderful, and the combination of the two – given skill and luck – is even better.  It packs an absolutely incredible punch.

BD:  Do you feel the producer is getting too much power in the opera house these days?

H:  Yes, but I think that they can do wonderful things, too.  I’m an advocate of producers, but it can become tiresome when you have to put everything into another time, place, and atmosphere.  And it’s very awkward when you see something for the first time and you can’t make head or tail of the story or the drift of the emphasis of the composer or librettist.  It’s interpreted to such a degree that you need a glossary.  That’s very tough on audiences, but it can be illuminating.

BD:  So you feel there is never only one way of looking at any opera.

H:  Certainly not.  It very much depends on that kind of piece.  We all accept that there are many ways of looking at Wagner, and provided they’re logical and well-organized, they’re all valid.  It isn’t ridiculous to have Wotan in a frock coat and looking like a great pillar of the industrial revolution.  It’s like doing Hamlet in modern dress.  When it was first done that way in the 30’s, they said what an abhorrent thing to do; then they came to see it and thought it wonderful.  The Ring will take almost anything – it’s very often asked to.  It is full of symbolism.  Almost all music- theater is full of symbolism.  There are different kinds.  For instance, the Ring is one kind and Figaro is another.  I don’t think you can help Figaro much by doing things that aren’t suggested pretty straight-forwardly in the libretto.  Changing its period probably wouldn’t matter, although things would jar.  But in a way, nothing need jar in the Ring provided you’re logical.  You must follow Wagner’s logic or you don’t get anywhere.  If you contradict the appearance of motives, you make nonsense.  You can always make nonsense.

BD:  Is that an indication of its being a masterwork – that it can “take” different kinds of interpretation?

H:  I think that’s probably true.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Is overseeing a festival very different from running an opera house?

Festivals have a particular kind of challenge, and provide a particular kind of opportunity.  It’s like devising a week of television and knowing that people are actually going to watch it!  Your audience is captive, but the festival has brought them in and they’re more inclined to buy a ticket and go.  And you concentrate everything.  They can actually discover things about themselves.

BD:  You are first cousin to the Queen.  Has your involvement and interest in the arts engendered more interest on her part?

H:  I don’t think she would put it down first in her list of hobbies if she were asked to write in Who’s Who.  The one member of the family who likes it a lot and is very involved is Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales.  He likes music a lot, but he is the first person for a generation who has.

BD:  Permit me to ask one question, and you may dodge it if you like.  Will he make a good king?

H:  [matter of factly]  Oh yes.  I think he’s a marvelous man.  He has so many qualities and so many experiences and he’s so judicious about how he estimates them and how he goes about them.  I think he’ll be extraordinary.


George Lascelles, 7th Earl of Harewood (born 7 February 1923) is the elder son of Henry Lascelles, 6th Earl of Harewood (1882-1947), and Mary, Princess Royal, the only daughter of King George V of the United Kingdom and Queen Mary. A first cousin of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, he was known by the courtesy title of Viscount Lascelles until he succeeded to his father's earldom on 24 May 1947.

The Rt. Honourable Sir George Henry Hubert Lascelles, KBE, 7th Earl of Harewood, Viscount Lascelles and Baron Harewood, was born at Harewood House, the Lascelles' family's manor in Yorkshire. His grandparents, King George V and Queen Mary, stood as sponsors at his christening. He served as a page of honour at the coronation of his uncle, King George VI, in May 1937. He was educated at Eton College and King's College, Cambridge, after which he was commissioned into the Grenadier Guards. He rose to the rank of captain. During World War II, he fought in Italy. The Germans captured and held him as a prisoner of war at Colditz castle from 1944 to May 1945. In 1944-46, he served as aide-de-camp to his great uncle, the Earl of Athlone, who was then Governor-General of Canada. The Earl of Harewood served as a Counsellor of State in 1947, 1953-54, and 1956.

A music enthusiast, the Earl of Harewood has devoted most of his career to opera. He served as editor of Opera magazine from 1950 to 1953 and served as director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden from 1951 to 1953 and again from 1969 to 1972. He served as chairman of the board of the English National Opera (ENO) from 1986 to 1995; musical director of the ENO from 1972 to 1985; artistic director of the Edinburgh, Leeds, Adelaide Festivals; musical director of the English National Opera-North from 1978 to 1981. The Earl of Harewood served as a governor of the British Broadcasting Corporation from 1985 to 1987 and as the president of the Board of Film Classification from 1985 to 1996. He is the author or editor of three books, Kobbé's Complete Opera Book (ed. 1953), The Tongs and the Bones (an autobiography, 1981), and Kobbé's Illustrated Opera Book (ed. 1989). His other interests include football (soccer): he served as president of the English Football Association from 1963 to 1972 and of Leads United Football Club in 1983.

On 29 September 1949, the Earl of Harwood married Maria Donata (Marion) Stein (born 18 October 1926), a concert pianist and the daughter of the Viennese music publisher Edwin Stein. Their marriage produced three sons:
David, Viscount Lascelles (born 21 October 1950)
The Honourable James Lascelles (born 5 October 1953)
The Honourable Jeremy Lascelles (born 14 February 1955)

This marriage ended in divorce in 1967, considered a scandal at the time. Marion went on to marry politician Jeremy Thorpe. The Earl was married a second time on 31 July 1967 to Patricia Tuckwell (born 24 November 1926), a violinist. They have one son:
Mark Lascelles (born 4 July 1965)

Since Mark Lascelles was born out of wedlock, he and his descendants are not in the line of succession to the British throne or in remainder to the earldom of Harewood.

The Earl of Harewood served as chancellor of the University of York from 1962 to 1967. Queen Elizabeth II created him a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) in 1986. He received the Australian Order of Merit in 1959.

© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on May 6, 1987.  The transcription was made in 1988 and published in The Opera Journal that March.  It was slightly re-edited and posted on this website in September, 2008. 

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.