Great conductors come in many guises – tyrant, seducer, maniac, mystic – and their art is unfathomable. The composer-conductor Pierre Boulez says it boils down to the sound they extract, and puts the man on the podium in the middle of a chain: composer, work, conductor, orchestra, audience, each link needing to be in sync with the others. Nobody is yet calling 34-year-old Edward Gardner "great", but, after his naming as Conductor of the Year by the Royal Philharmonic Society (RPS) in 2008, critics now pay respectful attention to his sound. In addition, Gardner has come to stand for more than just musical excellence: some see him as the symbol of the most brilliant operatic turnaround in recent history; others credit him with bringing that recovery about.
When Gardner was appointed music director at the English National Opera (ENO) three years ago, morale at the Coliseum was at rock-bottom. After the sudden ousting of the general-director, then the chairman, a music director was hired, but resigned before he'd time to pick up his baton. Redundancies had removed great chunks of the workforce, the chorus had gone on strike, and Arts Council support (on which the whole enterprise depended) was looking shaky.
Into this morass stepped a nattily dressed young man with a stardust aura, who set about repairing the shattered Boulezian chain. As music director of Glyndebourne on Tour, Gardner had won hearts with his galvanising charm; he had also wowed the Edinburgh Festival with a gut-wrenching production of John Adams' essay on terrorism, The Death of Klinghoffer. At ENO, he hit the ground running: Britten's Death in Venice, Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito and a succession of other works showed how effortlessly he could breathe life into contrasting musical worlds.
Since his arrival, the company has gone from strength to strength, winning an RPS award this year for its "distinctive artistic identity" and its pioneering collaboration with the Young Vic. Next season's programme is adventurous by any standards, with Gardner conducting six of its new productions; meanwhile, he's conducting a rather original Prom, putting out records with trumpeter Alison Balsom and soprano Kate Royal, and, if all this weren't enough, guest-conducting abroad when his contract permits.
I catch Gardner between rehearsals for Kaija Saariaho's L'amour de Loin ("Love at a Distance"), whose circus-style production opens on 3 July. He is, he says, "incredibly excited" by this show: "When I first heard it, its sound-world took me over completely. It's great modern music, which speaks to everyone – a modern Tristan und Isolde, with the same ardour in the singing and story-telling." His eyes glitter as he speaks: he himself exudes ardour, as he breathlessly extols his singers, his chorus, his orchestra, his backstage advisers, and the shows in the pipeline.
Gardner's love affair with opera began at 13, when he saw his predecessor and mentor Mark Elder conduct a pantomimic production of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; his first experience of Wagner was when Covent Garden ripped out its stalls and welcomed in a youthful clientele at £4 a head. He went to choir school, won a music scholarship to Eton, conducted at Cambridge, studied at the Royal Academy, and accidentally launched himself when a pianist fell ill during rehearsals of Berg's Lulu at the Salzburg Festival. Not knowing the complex score, he volunteered to spend all night learning it and, terrified, somehow got through playing it the next day. "That led to everything else. Every day there were incredible people rehearsing with the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics, and I soaked it up. I got my breaks young, and I want the same for my singers."
What does he want for ENO? "To make it an indispensable part of London culture – it's not called the People's Opera for nothing. We're affordable, and we do things nobody else in London could do." Instancing Penny Woolcock's brilliant staging of John Adams' Doctor Atomic, and David Alden's explosive retake on Britten's Peter Grimes, he rams that point home. "And our audience is quite unlike that of Covent Garden – it's more like a West End theatre audience."
He's currently trying to grow this audience: attracting the film crowd with a Minghella revival, drawing in the dance fans with a Bluebeard/Rite of Spring double bill in November, and adding a new component with his studio shows at the Young Vic. Deborah Warner's forthcoming Messiah will have a community dimension – he won't specify what – and he is to offer free tickets to secondary-school teachers. "How else will 12-year-olds find out about opera, when not even the BBC broadcasts it?" New works are in gestation – the cupboard was bare when he arrived – but the first won't appear until 2013. Opera grinds slow.
Does he reckon that he and the other two members of ENO's new triumvirate – chief executive Loretta Tomasi and artistic director John Berry – have cracked the problems which so nearly sank the company? A wary look: "Trust in management takes time to rebuild." How worried are they by the economic forecast? "It's unknowable – you just
push on." He's uneasy about rumoured Tory plans to centralise control of selected institutions, but adds brightly that politicians now realise the importance of culture: "James Purnell's been in, and Andy Burnham is due in soon!" (This interview took place the day before Purnell resigned from the Cabinet: ENO had better soften up UKIP, quick.)
What's striking is how canny Gardner is: he operates like a clever catalyst. Has he inherited this ability from his psychiatrist father? A laugh: "He's one of the calmest people I know – which is something I'm not." Remembering his make-or-break gamble with Lulu, and considering his bold leap into the breach (with a score he'd never heard) when conductor Richard Hickox died four days before curtain-up on Vaughan Williams' Riders to the Sea, would he describe himself as a risk-taker? "I think so. You might even say taking this job was a risk, but I never thought it, as everyone was turning it into a poisoned chalice. That meant there were no expectations. But I knew what it could be."
His private life is quietly conventional. Holidays mean winter sun in the mountains with his girlfriend; relaxing means a bottle of wine with friends – and no music. "It's funny, but a lot of my life I live in silence. I don't put music on when I go back to my flat. Silence has become very precious." When I observe that he seems to have had a charmed life, he looks wary again. "Do I? I don't know how to take that. But I do feel I've been very lucky."
Moreover, despite the backbiting world in which he moves, he seems to have made no enemies; the worst I've heard said of him is that he's too fond of his own image – which, given it's pretty decent, is no damning indictment. Killing time in the Coliseum foyer, I ask a veteran house manager what she thinks of her musical boss. "A super person," she beams. "Came at just the right time!" Such people really do know the score.
'L'amour de Loin', London Coliseum, WC2, (0871 911 0200, www.eno.org), on 3, 7, 9 and 11 July
From the top: How Edward Gardner got his big break
Professor Colin Metters, who supervised Edward Gardner's studies at the Royal Academy, remembers him vividly: "Ed was in every sense an exemplary student. Though he had a natural flair for communication with an orchestra, he soon realised how hard he would have to work, to increase his understanding of his craft. When he first applied to the Academy on leaving Cambridge, he was not offered a place. This was both a major disappointment for him, and also something of a shock. He took himself off into the real world for a year, grew a little, came back the following year, and got in. What immediately struck me was his self motivation. He exuded self-confidence – which some people wrongly interpreted as arrogance. On those occasions when the work was not going as well as he wanted, he could get almost visibly angry with himself.
"By the time he came to leave, he had developed a new security in his technique and in his capacity to control his music-making. At that time the Hallé Orchestra was auditioning for an assistant conductor. Realising that the job was still open, and that Ed had not applied, I spoke to Mark Elder, music director of the Hallé, and the upshot was that Ed got an audition; the rest, as they say, is history." MC