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
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
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
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
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
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
H: [laughing] Yes, piece
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
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
BD: What advice do you
have for the up-and-coming opera singers?
H: 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
H: There is a very good book
called The Grand Tradition
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 conductors –
Toscanini, 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?
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
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,
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?
H: 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, France – to 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
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
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
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
© 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.
was slightly re-edited and posted on this
website in September, 2008.
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
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.