Obituary: Diana Mulgan

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FOR MORE than quarter of a century Diana Mulgan sought, nurtured and developed talented singers, presenting them to increasingly eager audiences both in Britain and abroad. Among her charges were such household names as the soprano Karita Mattila, the mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and the baritone Olaf Bar.

But it was also in the politics of the classical music world that Diana Mulgan became a force to be reckoned with. In 1980, at the age of 32 she, along with her colleague Robert Rattray, bought the classical musicians' agency they were working for, Lies Askonas Ltd.

Twelve years later she stunned both Rattray and the entire musical profession by jumping ship - together with her partner Tom Graham, who was then a singers' manager at the Harrison Parrott agency - to join the big multi- national entertainers' management company, International Management Group (IMG). The couple took with them more than 100 singers, leaving their respective former agencies to almost start all over again. As the journalist Norman Lebrecht noted in his 1996 book on the destiny of the classical music profession, When the Music Stops, "between them, the pair managed some of the sweetest voices in Europe".

But that one extraordinary professional move aside - which six years later remains a highly sensitive subject in the industry - Diana Mulgan is remembered for her enormous energy, her ability to sniff out talent and her great attention to artists' needs.

Born in 1948, to a father who was a professional oboist and conductor, Mulgan played the violin with the highly regarded Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra and was an accomplished pianist. She studied German at Nottingham University, although to hear her speak the language in the office was hilarious as, while nevertheless getting her point across, she destroyed just about every rule of grammar that the Teutonic race had ever devised.

Mulgan began her career in 1972 as a general dogsbody and factotum for a matriarchal musicians' manager called Lies Askonas. A Vienna-born fencing mistress who had served on General Eisenhower's staff during the Normandy landings, Askonas had since 1953 built up a high-profile roster of singers and conductors including Birgit Nilsson, Hans Hotter, Zubin Mehta and Claudio Abbado from little more than a broom cupboard, opposite a Soho brothel. But within a matter of months Mulgan was unceremoniously fired from her administration duties due to the frequency with which correspondence turned up in the wrong files.

This oft-related demotion gave Mulgan the opportunity to develop relationships with the firm's artists. While the agency's representation of such great names might sometimes have only been for the maestro's annual token appearance in Britain, the doors such friendships opened were very important. Throughout her career Mulgan was never slow to capitalise on her musical contacts across the world.

Askonas took the pretty, vivacious and ambitious Diana Mulgan under her wing, ensuring the young protegee witnessed at first hand conductors such as Istvan Kertesz or Carlo Maria Giulini with the Philharmonia and legendary singers such as Teresa Berganza and Nicolai Cyedda. The older woman also took an interest in Mulgan's personal welfare, lending Diana her home in Minorca from time to time.

Askonas, who died in 1996, sold the company to Mulgan and Robert Rattray in 1980. In that pre-fax, pre-desktop-computer age the pair of them devoted huge amounts of energy to making it a highly respected international force in an industry which then at least was as much paternal as managerial. Her devotion to duty saw Mulgan spend many Saturdays catching up on the book-keeping and on more than one occasion she prepared a lavish feast for singers and conductors from a poky little cloakroom at the back of the office.

Although Mulgan could lay her hands on any piece of paper that was needed, her desk remained a complete mystery to those who worked with her; but for her the real work was out on the road spotting talent, encouraging performers and witnessing live concerts.

To the dismay of her colleagues Mulgan returned from the first Walther Gruner Lieder Competition in London salivating over the vocal talents of the winner, a 23-year-old baritone from Dresden - then a city behind the Iron Curtain - who would require much looking after and for whom visas and travel documents would be a constant and expensive nightmare. But that singer, Olaf Bar, is today one of the most sought-after vocalists of his generation and within two years of his competition success had contracts with the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, La Scala in Milan, and EMI records.

Mulgan wouldn't just spend time with the big names. No matter how much or how little income an artist produced for the agency, if Mulgan believed in a performer she would welcome the musician at the airport, proffer some ego-massaging before the performance, and celebrate a hard-won ovation with her clients late into the night.

She also had a respected intellectual capacity and came to realise that audiences, particularly on such hallowed turf as the Wigmore Hall in London, demanded more than merely to hear and see a traditional recital. And so, with the help and backing of the hall's director William Lyne, Mulgan developed the Insight Series, a string of concerts where audiences were first taught about the poetry within Lieder before hearing the Lieder itself.

The early 1990s saw enormous changes in the way classical musicians were managed in the United Kingdom. While one high-profile company went into liquidation, others amalgamated or altered the way they operated. IMG, famous for the high fees and total management packages it commanded for its clients, and already prominent in New York, took the opportunity to launch into the European classical music market from its established sports offices in London. Big-name artists and bigger-name managers defected - with Mulgan and Tom Graham being among the most prominent of the latter.

As the dust settled on the ensuing uproar, Mulgan continued to put enormous energy into the business, rounding off a full day at the office with a concert or opera performance followed by a reception or party before the whole cycle began again just a few hours later.

In what little free time she enjoyed, Diana Mulgan loved the great outdoors and in 1980 completed the coast-to-coast footpath from Bees Head in Cumbria to Ravenscar in North Yorkshire.

She was diagnosed with cancer in 1995 and almost immediately after that devastating news she and her long-term partner Tom Graham were married.

Diana Marion Mulgan, classical musicians' manager: born 6 April 1948; married 1995 Tom Graham; died London 18 December 1998.