Feature

Richard Farnes | Hold the twilight

- 3 June 2014

Some expected Richard Farnes to hang up his Opera North music director’s hat with this month’s Götterdämmerung, but he has other ideas.

Spreading his wings: Richard Farnes ©  Richard Moran

Spreading his wings: Richard Farnes
© Richard Moran

Opera North’s one-episode-a-year Ring cycle, performed in concert but with real-time film backdrops, costumes and lighting, seemed to be leading to an apt twilight of Richard Farnes’ time in Leeds, with this month’s Götterdämmerung. But reports that Farnes was finishing his contract were exaggerated ‒ although he is moving house, southwards, in the autumn.

Appointed music director in 2003, he has now signed for two more seasons, and next year will be in charge of a Flying Dutchman on similar lines to the Ring performances (other conductors will be in the pit for theatre work). In the spring and summer of 2016 he will conduct a series of complete Ring cycles: they really will be his swansong. His personal mark upon the company’s work has been apparent for ten years already ‒ one distinguished by performances among the best ever from the 35-year-old company.

General director Richard Mantle looks back on the Farnes decade as ‘the finest in the company’s musical life’. He cites choice of repertoire, casting with an international flavour and exciting young singers, and the quality of orchestral playing as factors that have ‘lifted the organisation throughout’.
‘He’s been an excellent colleague, and the best appointment I’ve ever made for Opera North,’ says Mantle.
How does the man himself see it? He points out that he knew the company before he took the job: he had assisted Paul Daniel on the Gloriana of 1994 and previously conducted ten productions for Opera North. ‘But when you’re music director there are many aspects you’re involved in ‒ a feature of this company is the range of work it does, from Monteverdi to 20th-century musicals.
‘We’ve been through financial difficulties, but we’ve managed to keep the company fleet of foot and very inventive. I’ve tried to make sure it’s busy and there’s no room for passengers at all.’

Before his time Opera North had a great reputation for putting relatively unfamiliar works on the map. ‘But I felt we should also develop our ability in mainstream repertoire ‒ Verdi, Puccini, Mozart and Wagner. At the same time we have gone into some areas that we hadn’t before.’ He mentions
I Capuleti e I Montecchi (2008), Norma and Gounod’s Faust (both 2012).

Personal highlights include the in-concert Bluebeard’s Castle, with Sir John Tomlinson (2005), Salome (2006) and Elektra (2008) and Tim Albery’s Don Carlos (revived 2009) and Otello (2012). Plus the recent ‘Festival of Britten’, which saw the much-awarded Peter Grimes of 2006 and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2008) revived and presented with the new Death in Venice. ‘I always felt that Britten should be a kind of house composer for this company.’

‘I’d like to see the Orchestra of Opera North do more in this city’ ‒ Richard Farnes. © Tom Arber

‘I’d like to see the Orchestra of Opera North do more in this city’ ‒ Richard Farnes.
© Tom Arber

Farnes is now spreading his wings on a personal level. ‘While I’ve been here I’ve been quite careful to limit what I do outside, but now I’m branching out with some other groups (he mentions the BBC Philharmonic and BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra), and I’ll be quite happy to be freelance for a while.’
He also wants to continue his love of the outdoor life. He likes to visit the Canaries armed with telescope and camera, and spend his days walking and his nights photographing the night sky. ‘Sometimes I come back here without having slept at all!’

And the future for Opera North? ‘I think it would be terrific for the company to carry on performing operas in-concert, and expanding its repertoire. I’d like to see the Orchestra of Opera North do more in this city ‒ it deserves to. I think we will get back to the Leeds Conductors Competition ‒ and there’s potential for new ideas in educational work, our In Harmony project, and with our children’s choir.’

Who might be his successor? Richard Mantle says: ‘I think we need to let the paint dry slightly. One or two people who we think might be possible have been to us or will be in the next year. Hopefully in 2015 we’ll be able to say.’

Opera North’s Götterdämmerung is at Leeds Town Hall on 14 and 18 June and 12 July, at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, on 21 June, The Sage Gateshead on 28 June, and The Lowry, Salford Quays, on 5 July

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