Farnes conducts the new ‘Turn of the
Screw’ at Opera North this month
Golden eras are usually talked about in the past tense. They are harder to identify in the present, but the ‘golden’ quality of Opera North’s work today seems unmistakable. The Leeds-based company has been on an upward curve for some years: its confidence, the breadth of its support and the consistency of its work now recognizably outstrip the other British regional companies. Indeed, some of its recent productions—Peter Grimes, Don Carlos, Werther, to name just three—would flatter a metropolitan stage. There are many reasons for this, but the central thread is the musical leadership of Richard Farnes, a conductor who defies the narcissistic stereotype of the baton-wielder.
There are conductors who crave attention. There are conductors who can’t escape attention. And there is Farnes. Opera North’s unassuming music director belongs to that rare breed—the inspirational conductor who prefers to stay in one place rather than seek the limelight. In that respect he is a throwback to the days when, instead of jetting off in search of fame and fortune, conductors provided day-to-day leadership of a stable ensemble. They coached and rehearsed. They planned repertoire and set standards. They built an atmosphere of trust—with audiences as much as with colleagues. They mastered a wide range of styles while demonstrating that, in the core repertoire of Wa gner, Strauss, Verdi and Puccini, they could match the best.
‘I’ve never wanted to charge round the world conducting lots of people I’d never meet again,’ says Farnes, referring to the short-term engagements on which most jobbing conductors depend. ‘I would rather stay in one place, get to know the people there and gain their trust. When I was appointed music director by Opera North [in 2004] I felt it was important to get involved in the artistic running and planning of the company. Otherwise, why have a music director? There’s no point having someone who only conducts: the company might as well bring in loads of guests.’
Opera North does employ guest conductors—Farnes says he enjoys learning from colleagues—and the recent redevelopment of its Leeds headquarters has given it more pulling power. In the Howard Assembly Room the orchestra now has a proper rehearsal space. Educational work has become better focused. It is typical of Farnes that he should interpret these improvements in terms of family atmosphere.
‘One of the attractions of Opera North is that orchestra and chorus are fantastically friendly to visiting artists. I’ve never seen the amount of interaction you get here—
Opera, October 2010 they’re so open and welcoming. It creates a very special feeling, which I noticed long before I became music director. But it has been a big psychological boost to be able to do everything under one roof.’
The artistic foundations he has done so much to consolidate in Leeds find a mirror in his home life: with two sons, both under five, by his marriage to the cellist Juliet Welchman, Farnes, 46, is in no mood to take on additional responsibilities elsewhere. But it is time his qualities were appreciated further afield. AFarnes performance has the rhythmic élan that marks out the finest Verdi interpreters. His Britten is full of harmonic and dramatic tensions—the phrasing eloquently shaped, the orchestral detail revealed in all its shades, the singing well schooled. Equally noticeable, at least in Werther, was Farnes’s sensitivity to the softer type of instrumental colouring and his instinctive pacing of dramatic climaxes. He has proved just as adept in modern opera, lending his authority and keen ear to David Sawer’s Skin Deep. Above all, Farnes communicates a sense of theatre—the sign of a born opera conductor.
So it comes as a surprise, when I prise him away from a rehearsal at Leeds’s Grand Theatre, to learn that he never set out to conduct opera. Farnes’s musical upbringing took place in that least operatic of academies—King’s College, Cambridge. He imbibed the English choral tradition as a boy treble at the choir school, working between the ages of seven and 13 under such luminaries as David Willcocks and Philip Ledger. ‘I learned a lot of musical discipline there,’ he says. ‘At that age you’re just a musical sponge.’
He returned to King’s as a Cambridge University undergraduate after a five-year interlude at Eton. You would hardly recognize the Old Etonian in Farnes: by his own admission he comes from a modest background, and it was only a music scholarship that enabled him to attend the most exclusive of Britain’s fee-paying schools. But Eton was just as influential as King’s in shaping his musical development. His piano teacher, Peter Smith, introduced him to Bartók’s string quartets, and the school organist, Alastair Sampson, had an enormous record collection that Farnes was encouraged to explore. Farnes also made full use of the five organs in the school’s possession, and it was as an organ scholar that he returned to King’s.
■ Musical beginnings: (l.) first steps at the piano, aged 4; (r.) at the organ of Cologne Cathedral, on tour with King’s College Choir, 1984
Opera, October 2010