Obituary: Bernard Lefort

BERNARD LEFORT had three careers. The first was as a distinguished baritone. In the second he combined musical administration with the flair of a market-minded impresario. And in the third, that of singing teacher, he passed on the techniques learned in the first career in a framework informed by the second.

Having obtained his baccalaureat in philosophy, Lefort was studying politics and law, simultaneously taking classes in voice and solfege at the Paris Conservatoire, when he was interrupted by the Second World War. With the return of peace, he decided to concentrate on music alone, pursuing his vocal studies in Milan, Berlin and Vienna. By then he had already made his debut in a series of wartime recitals in the Salle Gaveau in Paris, presenting in particular French melodies by contemporary composers, such as Les Six, Olivier Messiaen, Andre Jolivet and Henri Dutilleux.

He was also heard in the opera house, making his stage debut (at the Palais Garnier) in Don Giovanni and Verdi's Macbeth. With Germaine Tailleferre, the only woman member of Les Six (the others were Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger, Francis Poulenc, Georges Auric and Louis Durey), Lefort formed a regular duo partnership, touring together from 1949 to 1957. Tailleferre responded to Lefort's musicianship by composing her Concerto for Baritone for him; other composers were to pay him similar honours during the course of his singing career - which was abruptly cut short by serious illness in 1960.

Lefort therefore embarked on his second occupation, the one for which he will be best remembered. He began his life as a musical administrator as second-in-command at the Lausanne Festival, taking over the Marseilles opera in 1965. His three years there were marked by a refreshing openness to new repertoire, both old and new. Lefort looked out old bel canto operas that had long fallen into neglect (Ponchielli's La Gioconda and Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, for example) and put on contemporary works, often for the first time in France, such as Jancek's The Makropulos Affair, Henze's The Prince of Homburg and Britten's The Turn of the Screw.

He then moved up through a series of appointments: head of the autumn festival at Royaumont (1969), artistic advisor at the Theatre de la Ville, Paris (1969-78), temporary head of the Opera de Paris (1971-72, with Daniel Lesur) and director of the festival at Aix-en-Provence (1973-80). It was at Aix that he scored some of his most notable successes, perhaps the best of them his bringing together of Montserrat Caballe and Marilyn Horne in Rossini's Tancredi. He also lightened the atmosphere considerably: to the discomfort of Aix's old guard, jeans replaced evening gowns as standard attire, and the festival came alive.

When Rolf Liebermann left the Paris Opera in 1980, Lefort was called back to succeed him, but his efforts at reform met such systematic opposition from the unions that he resigned halfway through his contract, in July 1982.

This was when career number three began. Lefort taught singing at Mannes College in New York and at the Academy of Vocal Art in Philadelphia; at the Juilliard School in New York he produced a student production of Gounod's Mireille. And in the late 1980s, he founded the cole d'art lyrique in Paris.

Lefort was diplomatically referred to as a "personnage flamboyant" and a "caractere difficile" and earned a reputation for his short temper. He is generally assumed to have been homosexual, although Paris musical gossip talks obscurely of an earlier marriage to a well-off American woman. Whatever the truth of it, he faced old age as poor as he was lonely. He had already attempted suicide on several occasions and a week after moving back to Paris from homes in Lausanne and the Midi, he finally succeeded.

Bernard Lefort, singer, administrator, teacher: born Paris 29 July 1922; died Paris 19 January 1999.

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