Rupert Christiansen Whitworth-Jones is General Director of Garsington Opera, which moves into its new home this month
Over the last 30 years Anthony Whitworth-Jones has ranked as one of the most creative and adventurous administrators of opera in Britain. Having qualified as a chartered accountant, he is a practical man with a keen understanding of balance sheets, but he is no mere bean-counter. What distinguishes him is his passion for music—and in particular his missionary enthusiasm for new work—combined with a breadth of sensibility and a personal charm which allows him to get his own way through the subtlest of means.
Over two decades he was closely associated with Glyndebourne, where he steered the triumphant rebuilding project and was the impresario for many landmark productions. Since 2005, following the sudden death of its founder Leonard Ingrams, he has been artistic director of Garsington Opera, where, on a smaller scale than Glyndebourne’s, he may be about to repeat the trick; after several excellent seasons at the organization’s home in the grounds of an Elizabethan manor near Oxford, he is now supervising its transfer to Wormsley, an estate near Princes Risborough owned by a member of the Getty family. Here a bespoke pavilion will be unveiled this month, opening up new possibilities for Garsington Opera.
Whitworth-Jones’s businessman father was a jazz enthusiast but his was not a musical childhood. ‘Though there is one distinguished musician in my family tree—Henry Jones Whitworth, my great-grandfather, was a leading bass at Drury Lane in 1848, the season that Berlioz conducted. I know this because I have a copy of the programme book, in which I was amused to discover a plea by Monsieur Jullien, the French impresario who was presenting the operas, for state support of the arts in England, as existed on the Continent.’
At school at Wellington, Whitworth-Jones sang in choirs but never learnt an instrument, and his discovery of music came more through friends and following his own ears than from anything in a classroom. ‘I had a friend who played a lot of Dave Brubeck, and it was an easy step from that sort of jazz to Stravinsky and Debussy. Anyway, by the time I left school in 1963, when the Beatles emerged, I knew that I didn’t particularly like pop music and that my tastes were moving in another direction. I began going to concerts at the Royal Festival Hall, and through my years training for accountancy’—which included a stint at Edinburgh University—‘I came to realize that
Opera, June 2011 music was going to be so important to me that somehow I had to devote my working life to it.’
A trail of chance encounters allowed him to fulfil his dream. ‘I attended evening classes at Morley College where I met Celia Toynbee, who was married to Jeremy Caulton. We all became close friends.’ Working alongside Caulton at the music publisher Schott was the flamboyant and maverick figure of Michael Vyner, who in 1972 moved on to run the London Sinfonietta. Whitworth-Jones followed him there. ‘There had been a big bust-up when Michael appeared, and I was brought in as part of the reorganization on the finance and admin side. I was thrilled: I had no ambition to be a mover or shaker, I just wanted to do something to help the cause of music. The first few months working closely with Michael were a nightmare—our backgrounds and personalities were so different. But we got through it, and became enormous friends, and he adored my wife Camilla, whom I married in 1974.’
These were heady days for the Sinfonietta: Boulez and Messiaen were at the height of their influence on the English scene, and Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies were rising stars. Whitworth-Jones was captivated by it all, and somehow the fact that the halls were far from full didn’t seem to matter very much. ‘It was the music that was important, and there was a certainty in those days that this direction for new music was the right one, an outlook which was set to change dramatically at the end of the ’70s.
‘I enjoyed a lot of opera too, often in the company of Jeremy Caulton, who went to work at the Coliseum. Goodall’s Ring was a transcendent highlight of those early years but, to be honest, opera has never been what grabs me above all else: it is a love of music that drives me. Of course, there’s a lot of opera that I like enormously, but there’s plenty that doesn’t do anything for me. I’m not greatly taken with French opera other than
■ Garsington Opera’s new pavilion at Wormsley in Buckinghamshire