John Owen had a pivotal role at the school from the late 70s to
early 90s administering first the string studies and then the vocal courses until he eventually took on the management of the
entire School. Here he looks back on his tenure at a time when the
school would become an international success.
How did you initially come to be involved with Britten and Pears and when did you start working for the organisation?
Actually I never knew Britten because I arrived in 1978. I was writing to a lot of arts organisations to try and get a job at that time and most people didn’t respond. But William Servaes who was the General Manager asked to meet me and he offered me the opportunity to come and work during the Festival. I was seconded to the Box Office for the Festival period and afterwards he said ‘Well you did very well here John - would you like to stay on and help in the School in the summer’ and I gave my notice to Harrods where I was working temporarily and moved to Aldeburgh - and stayed for 12 years!
That first summer at the School my work mainly consisted of driving people between Snape and Aldeburgh. At that stage there were two Assistants one for Singers and one for Strings. Plus Dr Swinburne who was the Head of the School but I don’t think I ever saw him in my time there. His office was very pristine and empty, there was a secretary, so a staff of four. At the end of the summer Hilary Keenlyside the Strings Assistant moved to the Festival to become the Concerts Manager. So that position was vacant and I took it over, becoming director of strings studies Hugh Maguire’s assistant running the String Courses. When the Singing Courses assistant left, Hugh suggested to Peter that it might be more efficient if the same person organised all the courses.
Peter who now knew me agreed, so I administered both. Moira Bennett was already on board looking after the finances and housekeeping and there was a secretary called Virgina Caldwell. Because I had extra responsibility I had an assistant (first one, then two) so it was still a small staff. When Moira moved to the Festival as Development Director my duties increased. So that’s how my role grew from humble beginnings to running the School.
I was working very closely with Peter Pears until his death. If he was teaching I would collect him from the Red House and drive him to the school. Occasionally I’d take him to therapy sessions because by then he’d had his stroke. So we were very close. After his death Nancy Evans, mezzo soprano and Co-Director of Singing Studies became Director of Singing and I also had a close relationship with her.
What was a typical day like running the strings courses?
When I was running both they worked on similar lines starting with the auditions. We’d advertise the courses and the Directors would select the Guest Teachers. I would invite them and contract them. We’d produce our brochure to advertise the courses and we’d audition. As my role developed the audition process developed too. At one stage we would only audition in London but later in Manchester and then abroad. We had a strong connection with North America. The Canadian Aldeburgh Foundation was very active Françoise and run by Marshall Sutton so we had lots of interest from Canada - we auditioned in Toronto, also New York, LA and Austin Texas..then we started in Europe where we had connections, the Hague in Holland and Cologne in Germany.
In the early days people from abroad just sent in tapes, so people were being judged on audio. When Peter was alive and still active before his stroke he was constantly travelling and meeting people and inviting them to come on courses. But when that was no longer possible I did the travelling. I invested in a video camera and recorded the auditions. In each case a distinguished person would sit with me such as Theodore Uppman (Billy Budd) in New York. I’d take the tapes back and play them to Peter and Nancy or Hugh and the decisions would be made.
Then we would select about 10 people for each course, and a reserve list in case anyone dropped out. Then accommodation would be found. Moira did that originally or Virginia or one of my assistants. For the day to day organisation of the courses I always did a schedule of when everyone would play or sing in a masterclass. I was quite strict with my schedule and would get upset if people messed about with it. Most Guest Teachers were delighted to have everything organised for them. I remember one String Professor saying that he normally had to do it. But there was the occasional person who would want to re-organise it and that used to irritate me. I was doing it everyday so I felt my system worked well. The other things about my role and one of the reasons I went into artist management was that I became a confidante to students. They’d come into my office to talk about their problems. I’d also talk to Professors about repertoire. I’d make a point of driving the Guest Professors myself. I’d pick them up from the airport and it was a useful bonding time with them. They were coming for a limited amount of money so it was important they were looked after. I took them to dinner and did my best to make them feel welcome. After I left the organisation, taxis were arranged instead, which was different to how I had worked. Some came regularly like Suzanne Danco for French Song. I stayed with her many times at her home in Florence. I’m going to see one of her ex-students there next week. The connections are ongoing.
Can you say more about the experience students had - the kind of activities they were undertaking at that time, what were the courses consisting of?
The String and Singing courses worked slightly differently. With the strings we had masterclasses in Violin, Viola, Cello, string quartet and sometimes piano trios. For singing we were concentrating on particular repertoire. When I was first working, the courses tended to be about 7 days. When I was running everything we experimented with the length. Some were 2 weeks but 10 days worked the best. That gave room, a day for the change-over. We had discussions with Peter about this. We felt the longer course would be more beneficial. Having people for longer made it feel like a family. Some people came for more than one course, 2 or 3 if they came from America.
We also had the opera courses which started modestly and then became full productions during the Festival when the staff of four became an opera company. Quite stressful times but with some amazing successes. Onegin in 1979. It was early in my days, I found a picture of me and Mistlav Rostropovich (known as Slava) and John Evans discussing intently about something.
One memorable opera course was Cosi fan tutti with Basil Coleman and Murray Perahia and singers like Gerry (Gerald) Finley, Ivor Bolton was Assistant Conductor (and in the end conducted the final performances). Murray did all the preparation. It was very exciting.
One of the first productions was ‘Turn of the Screw’. Another Basil Coleman production. Lynne Dawson was one of the governesses (now Head of Music at Royal Northern College of Music). That was a very simple set making use of the screens at the Maltings (are they still there?)..these curved screens became part of the set - very effective.
One of the productions I’ll never forget is Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta which Galina Vishnevskaya was involved in and was stressful for me in many ways! Ken Baird was the General Manager and he had the brilliant idea of asking David Tindle to create a set and he painted the beautiful backdrop. The opera is set in a secluded garden and Galina wanted the garden to be completely enclosed. And he designed it that way. During rehearsals she couldn’t get the chorus off effectively through the one small door in the set. And she said to me ‘this has got to change!’ I said we can’t do it without David and he’d already gone home to Leicester. David said it was easy to fix, just do this and this , and I said well I don’t understand - so he said ‘if you can get me there I’ll do it! So I sent a taxi to Leicester and he arrived at 4am had a little sleep, then went to the Maltings and fixed it and Galina arrived at 10am and said ‘Great!’ Everything had been solved but as you can imagine I was tearing my hair out.
And we borrowed the costumes for that from the National Theatre or Royal Ballet... We had two Iolantas, different shapes and sizes but Galina insisted they wore the same dress. Sue Iles was our wardrobe mistress, an extraordinary woman who spent a lot of time with her needle and thread and especially during Iolanta because she had to alter the dress between every performance! But she managed it. I can’t believe how we achieved it when you consider how many people are normally involved in an opera production.
Another production was Owen Wingrave and the set was borrowed from the Royal Opera House and didn’t fit onto the Maltings Stage. Bob Ling spent a lot of time trying to make it work - eventually he did.
What’s your feeling about the organisation in relation to those bigger opera houses? Did the Aldeburgh Festival and operas at the Jubilee Hall make you feel anything could be done?
At that time I was young and I often think today if I knew then what I know now I would have found it more daunting. But I just had a job to do and I got on with it. We were fortunate to have Peter there for many years. And Hugh... I remember going with Hugh to meet Sergiu Celibidache when he was trying to get him to conduct the Britten Pears Orchestra which didn’t work out in the end. We met Pierre Boulez at one stage. These were all people Hugh had a connection with. That was very special. And the people we did invite to teach were always keen to say yes. Very few weren’t interested. Most felt it an honour. Then the special connections with the Rostropoviches. Galina taught nearly every year (Russian Song). Suzanne Danco (French Song). Strings, William Pleeth came every year for chamber or solo. Pierre Fournier, William Primrose. Incredible to think of the roster of people who came.
Do you think there is something special about the family atmosphere, something unique about creating world class performances and teaching that was magical because of that - that still exists today?
That’s right. And the place is magical. The atmosphere of a serious work environment with some sort of nurturing. Nancy Evans had that caring nature. She used to do warm ups with the students and consultations in the afternoon. For singers courses there was usually a class at 11am and another at 5pm. At 2pm Nancy would give private consultations to discuss technical and other issues. This meant time wouldn’t be wasted in Masterclasses.
Nancy had a famous little book and I wonder where it is... I’m sure there are interesting things in it . She would makes notes during the class so she could then discuss issues with students in the afternoon.
A well organised (light touch) but caring organisation means a great deal to artists. Your role must have had a real impact on students.
Well I think partly because I was there so long. I was working at the School for 12 years. I don’t think anyone else has been there that long since me. I don’t know how many came through that period but I’m still in touch with a lot today. That family. In fact I went to Princeton University last week and I saw a former School student now a Voice Professor - Barbara Rearick who I’ve stayed friends with for 35 years. She came over to sing Lucretia when Simon Keenlyside was Tarquinius. That’s another performance that stands out in the memory.
Image: John Owen (left) with Director of String Studies, Hugh Maguire
I can’t believe how we achieved it when you consider how many people are normally involved in an opera production.
Do you mind talking about your memories of Peter Pears?
I remember the first time I was aware of Peter at Aldeburgh. I saw him perform in London. But I remember going to a Hesse Student party at the Red House in the Library and I saw Peter from a distance and was quite excited. I don’t think I spoke to him then but little did I know how close we would become. Particularly after his stroke, when he was not travelling. But my role had become more defined so we spent a lot of time together. When he died I felt I had lost someone very dear. Rita Thompson asked me if I like to come and see the body and I said no initially. But she said I think you should come as I think it will help. And I did go. And I realised it was just a shell. An empty shell and it did help. Rita was absolutely right. I felt a big loss at that time. Well we all did and the School had to go on. We were in the middle of a course and we just carried on and it was a Bach course. Nancy took the reins. It’s a time I
remember clearly. He gave his last masterclass - I think it was on the Evangelist and I drove him back and he said to me ‘so what do you think about the School? Is it in good shape? Anyone we should be thinking of inviting? We threw a few ideas about… And he died that night.
So the school was very much in his thoughts up to the last minute.
Your experience of seeing the transition from the founder era to afterwards - what are your feelings about that time?
Nancy was the perfect transition really. She had the tradition going back as well. People still came because of Peter’s name. So not much changed apart from Peter not being there. But he was there in spirit.
I remember a few days after he died there was a Masterclass in the recital room and a ray of sunlight came in through the window and Nancy said ‘Oh Peter’s with us’. For many years afterwards I felt Peter was with us.
Let’s talk more about your career - what happened when you left the organisation?
I learnt my craft. I learnt a lot about singing from some of the legends of our time. And because I was a bit of a mentor for some of the students, the idea of (artist) management was raised. Because I was there for so long it felt it was time to do something different. It wasn’t an easy decision because I loved that job. I was autonomous but under the umbrella of the Aldeburgh Foundation as it was then.
Then someone said have you thought about management. I spent a day with one of the big agencies but realised that I didn’t want to be given a list of artists to sell. The Brindisi Quartet led by Jacqueline Shave was formed at the School. Their career was starting to move forward and they needed administrative help. I suggested to my friend Trudy White who was at home with a young family - that she become their unofficial manager. We then discussed becoming managers ourselves. We knew nothing and rather foolishly set up our own artists management and that was 30 years ago so we did something right - we earned no money in the early days.
I took on another role as Artistic Planner for Halle Orchestra. I was introduced to the new Music Director, Kent Nagano by Hilary Keenlyside. He wanted someone with musical knowledge. Hilary suggested I might fill the gap until they found the right person. It was a six month contact to earn some money but Kent Nagano wanted me to stay on. But I was setting up the agency. So they found a way for me to do both. I did four days and the other three on the agency. Trudy holding the fort in London. I did that for four years. Commuting between London and Manchester - it’s what you do when you’re young. 35. Then I had to make a decision between the two and I decided to concentrate on the agency which is still going today. One of our first artists was Mary Plazas who had been at the School and she’s still with me now. The Aldeburgh connection continues…
My final question was about Britten’s music which you must have become very well acquainted with - is their a piece that resonates with you or you saw students perform?
The work that sticks in my mind is ‘Death in Venice’. When I was working in the box office I saw the performance three times with Peter singing Aschenbach. Then I saw him perform it at the Royal Opera House which was an extraordinary experience. He got the most thrilling ovation. So for that reason that’s the piece that resonates with me.
John Owen Artist Management http://www.owenwhitemanagement.com