Pooling his resources: Peter Moores (above) directs the affairs of Littlewoods. He'd really like to direct opera. So now he does the next best thing. Mark Pappenheim reports

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Amid the apparently philistine protests of the pools companies against the Government's proposed institution of a National Lottery for heritage and the arts, it's worth remembering that Littlewoods at least has long been involved, albeit indirectly, in cultural support. Since 1964 Peter Moores, son of the founder of the Merseyside mail order, chain store and football pools conglomerate, has channelled some pounds 10 m of his personal profits, via the Peter Moores Foundation, into the arts, education and, above all, opera. His personal patronage began, however, even earlier, with a series of back-stage hand-outs to budding young singers of the Fifties - Dame Joan Sutherland and the late Sir Geraint Evans among them.

But this is not just a company director with a big bank balance, a taste for opera and an ear for undiscovered talent. Before joining the family firm in the late 1950s, Moores had made his own bid for operatic stardom.

Reared on his father's collection of old 78s ('mainly Caruso and Farrar,' he recalls, 'and a lot of Galli-Curci - I'm very keen on coloraturas'), he heard his first opera, Gounod's Faust, done in English by the Carl Rosa Company when he was 10. As a schoolboy at Eton, he had to pack his opera-going into his holidays, taking advantage of the regular Sadler's Wells and Carl Rosa seasons in Manchester - 'going to the opera about six times in a week, twice on Saturdays, and walking home afterwards'. After studying languages - Italian and German - at Oxford, and a year behind the scenes at Glyndebourne, he secured a place as a production student at the Vienna Music Academy, as well as a job as an assistant producer at the Staatsoper - thanks to an entree from the late Sir David Webster, then general administrator at Covent Garden. 'It must have been the Liverpool connection,' he explains. 'Didn't you know? Webster used to run Lewis's department store.' From Vienna, he went on to work in Naples, Rome and Geneva.

But at 25 he returned to Britain and to Littlewoods, where he worked his way up from chain store manager (in 1957) to chairman (1977-80). He has also, at various times, been a director of a merchant bank, a Governor of the BBC and Deputy Lieutenant of Lancashire; in 1991 he was awarded a CBE. So where did it all go wrong? 'I think I was misled,' he observes ruefully of his operatic career. 'I think I should have done it for the experience and then I should have gone into being a concert agent. Because that was probably the nearest you could get to being an opera manager at the time. I don't think my career plan was very good . . .' Running Britain's largest private company had its compensations, however: through his Foundation, Moores has been able to carry on his abortive career as operatic impresario by subtler means.

While he is perhaps best known for the major series of recordings he has sponsored of mainstream operas sung in English on the EMI label - the legendary Goodall Ring, the Jonathan Miller Rigoletto, Janet Baker's Mary Stuart, Simon Rattle's The Cunning Little Vixen - Moores is equally committed to a parallel series of recordings, on the independent Opera Rara label, of never-performed Italian bel canto rarities - Donizetti, Mayr, Meyerbeer and so forth - sung in the original Italian.

But Goodall's English National Opera Ring was the catalyst. Before then, Moores admits, he'd never been able to get into Wagner. 'I'd even been to Bayreuth. But I'd always found it rather tedious. Then I heard Goodall's Valkyrie and I thought: Oh, right] Now I like Wagner. But then I heard Horenstein, I think it was, conducting it in German and I thought: Oh, I see] It's Wagner in English I like.' And then he went back to ENO, heard again, but with a different conductor - 'And I thought: No, it isn't even Wagner in English - it's Goodall's Wagner in English]' He decided to get it recorded so that others could enjoy the same revelation.

As he says, it took 'a lot of knocking on doors' to get the project going in the first place; keeping it going has proved almost as hard. He has his own list of works he wants to do, what he calls his 'Carl Rosa repertoire' - the standard popular operas he hopes will touch a wider audience if presented to them in their own language. But, despite his role as banker, he still has to convince EMI that each issue has its own selling point: with the Ring, it was Goodall, with Rigoletto it was Jonathan Miller, with Julius Caesar and Mary Stuart it was Janet Baker. With other operas, the star potential has proved more problematic, given that most have been taken live, or straight to studio, from performances at ENO or Welsh National Opera. Hence Kiri Te Kanawa's presence on his new recording (due out in October) of a Eugene Onegin otherwise built round an existing WNO production. Never mind that Dame Kiri has never been near it on stage - she's there simply to boost sales. But unlike EMI, it's not royalties that Moores is bothered about. 'I'm interested in sales per se - what you might call bums on seats, or ears to loudspeakers.' So far his various recordings have sold over 100,000 sets. If Kiri makes sure that a few thousand more people get to hear Tchaikovsky's masterpiece, then well and good. Moores is currently negotiating a new spate of issues with EMI which, he suggests, may be a bit more back to the basics of his 'Carl Rosa rep' - 'like the ENO Tosca - that has potential. And I need to go and listen to the ENO Carmen.' That's the Pountney staging, set in a Latin-American used-car lot. 'Oh, I don't want to look at it,' he protests. 'If you see me sitting there with my eyes shut, you know I'm making a recording.'

More immediately, he has another pet project in the offing: a series of stage revivals of major 19th-century works that were once a staple of British operatic life but have since disappeared (although remaining in the repertoire abroad). WNO is launching the series in March with Donizetti's La Favorita, Scottish Opera is offering Bellini's Druid liberation opera, Norma, in April and Opera North is following up with Ponchielli's Venetian intrigue, La Gioconda (once famous for its 'Dance of the Hours', better known now as the hippopotamus sequence in Fantasia), in May. All are being sung in Italian and Moores, who is sponsoring the lot to the tune of pounds 800,000, has personally supervised the new performing edition of the Donizetti (involving the restitution of lost bars from the opera's original French-language version, L'Ange de Nisida).

Challenged with inconsistency between his sponsorship of these Italian- language performances and his commitment to opera in English (WNO is even using surtitles at some performances), Moores is unruffled. 'I'm afraid I'm very pragmatic. The Foundation is not set up to do anything in particular at all. The Foundation is set up to do whatever it may be able to do at the time.'

But whatever it does, its support for young singers still plays a key part. Rosalind Plowright (who sings Opera North's Gioconda) and Jane Eaglen (Scottish Opera's Norma) have both been Peter Moores Scholars, as have Joan Rodgers, Amanda Roocroft and Simon Keenlyside. It was Kirsten Flagstad, the great Wagnerian soprano, who inspired him: 'I read somewhere that the reason why she did so well was because she had a rich husband and didn't have to accept every role she was offered, only what she thought suitable.' He has tried ever since to buy his proteges the chance to choose.

As for the National Lottery, he can't speak officially for the pools companies, he insists, 'but I can tell you that, whatever any government ever says, if they can find alternative sources of funding for the arts, they will put less in. Whatever they get from the National Lottery, they will take away elsewhere. And whatever they say, they can't commit the next government, they can't even commit the next minister of the arts - and they seem to change every six months, even when they behave themselves.'

'La Favorita' opens 5 Mar, New Theatre, Cardiff. 'Norma' opens 21 April, Theatre Royal, Glasgow. 'La Gioconda' opens 1 May, Grand Theatre, Leeds. See listings below for box-office details

(Photograph omitted)