A banker with a passion: The man behind the Garsington open-air opera festival starting tonight tells Alasdair Stevens why he is a freak

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Leonard Ingrams, 53, has carved out an unusual career as a merchant banker and an adviser to the Saudi Arabian government. But he is probably best known for the open-air opera festivals he holds each summer at Garsington, his elegant Oxfordshire manor house - and for being the younger brother of Richard Ingrams of the Oldie and Private Eye fame.

Educated at Stonyhurst, Munich University and Oxford, he joined Baring Brothers in 1967 on leaving university. In 1973, as its revenues boomed in the wake of the oil crisis, he went to Saudi Arabia to advise its central bank. He became managing director of Baring in 1975 but did not return to the UK until 1979.

However, in 1981 he quit the bank and returned to Saudi to work full-time as chief adviser to the Saudi Arabian monetary agency. On coming back to the UK for good in 1984 he joined the rival merchant bank Robert Fleming, where he is head of capital markets. He and his wife Rosalind have four children, Lucy, Rupert, Elizabeth and Catherine.

IT IS a fair bet that the number of people who can claim to have conducted Handel's Messiah in Riyadh, capital of Saudi Arabia, can be counted on the fingers of one hand. It is a virtual certainty that Leonard Ingrams is the only merchant banker to have done so.

But Mr Ingrams is a very unusual sort of merchant banker. A 'Baring - on the distaff side', as he puts it - he rose to become managing director of Baring Brothers, a rare example of an old-style patrician merchant bank, before moving across to its equally blue-blooded rival, Robert Fleming.

First, though, there was an intervening stint in Saudi Arabia as the chief adviser to the Saudi central bank, as a result of which he can claim one of the grandest titles carried by anyone in the City: 'Greatest of All Advisers'.

Not to mention the dubious accolade of having supplied the Iraqis with invaluable information about bond portfolio management. A book written by him on the topic - 'as you can imagine, one did a lot of bond management for the Saudis,' he points out drily - was one of the more esoteric objects pilfered from the Kuwaiti central bank during the Iraqi occupation. But then, as he observes: 'At pounds 75 it must be one of the most expensive paperbacks in the world to buy.'

His recreational interests are as unconventional as his career. As well as lifting the odd conductor's baton he can sometimes be spotted in the violin section of the Highgate Chamber Orchestra, and is an expert on the obscure Oxyrhynchus Papyri.

And each summer there is the elite opera festival he holds in the gardens of his Jacobean home at Garsington, Oxfordshire - the first of the season starts today. It is elite both for its audience, a choice collection of the good and the great, and its devotion to obscure Haydn operas. He is, he freely admits, 'a Haydn freak'.

Music and finance have shared large chunks of his life. His celebrated brother, Richard, may have opted to be a scourge of the establishment at Private Eye but Leonard followed a more conventional, if scarcely conformist, path.

His great-uncle, Maurice Baring, was a director of Baring and Leonard joined the bank in 1967 after taking a double first (in Greats) at Corpus Christi, Oxford - though only once he had completed a post-graduate dissertation on Greek epigrams.

After a year's secondment to Eurofinance, a research institute in Paris, he became a director of the London Multinational Bank, a banking consortium including Baring, that specialised in medium-term international lending.

Three years later in 1973 as revenues poured into Middle Eastern coffers in the wake of the oil price hike, he was off to Saudi Arabia to advise its central bank on how to invest its new-found wealth.

While there, he acquired his grand Arabic title. 'Oh that,' he says, dismissively. 'It was during the oil crisis in the Seventies. I happened to be working for the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency and their oil reserves rocketed from nothing to billions and billions. It just took some taking care of.'

Without returning full-time to England, he became Baring's managing director in 1975. He did come back briefly, from 1979 to 1981, but eventually quit the bank and returned to the Middle East as the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency's full-time chief adviser.

After nine years in Saudi Arabia, he returned to the UK permanently in 1984 - but not to rejoin Baring. Instead, he went to the rival merchant bank Robert Fleming, where he is head of capital markets - he is also on the bank's credit committee and runs various investment funds, especially those targeted at Eastern Europe.

On the motives behind his switch to Robert Fleming, he also declines to elaborate. 'Been away too long I suppose, to return,' he says quietly. 'Needed a change. So I went to Flemings.'

Music is his great passion. Better than just a promising musician in his youth, he played in the National Youth Orchestra under Malcolm Sargent.

'We all played in the family. All four brothers - Richard played the cello really very well, you know. My mother was our constant inspiration. She was a friend of Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten and Imogen Holst,' he recalls. 'As a child I played in a quartet with Britten playing the viola. We accompanied Peter Pears. I still play, but not in public,' he chortles.

And then there are his studies of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, revealed by his entry in People of Today. 'Oxyrynchus Papyri, ah-ah,' he says. 'Well it's Greek. Oxyrynchus means sharp nose,' he says, as if that explains everything. In fact the papyri are named after a place where they were found, which in turn was named after a fish - with a sharp nose.

But he confesses he hasn't much time to spend on it these days. 'It takes a lot of time. You have to read the texts and edit them. All very time-consuming. We found a new bit of Sappho a few years back. Very exciting.'

Most of his energies go instead into the festival. Now in its sixth year, Garsington virtually usurped Glyndebourne as the open-air opera festival - something re-inforced after Leonard Ingrams decided to purchase the wooden panelling and lighting from the now rebuilt Glyndebourne theatre auditorium and used it to kit out Garsington's Great Barn.

'We serve supper there in the interval and then hold concerts there occasionally throughout the year. Alfred Brendel is playing in the spring,' he says.

The open-air setting is enchanting - the house once belonged to Lady Ottoline Morrell and was briefly the country estate of the Bloomsbury set. But it has its limitations.

'We are restricted by what we can put on stage. The operas are staged on the terrace and the audience is seated in a heated, covered auditorium. A retractable canopy covers the stage in wet weather. But the stage is not large.'

Tickets cost pounds 60- pounds 85. 'We get some sponsorship, but the festival is kept alive by the loyalty of our paying patrons. No, we don't actually lose money. We . . . break even. I have to invest in new facilities for the singers every year. Things can be a little unusual at Garsington.'

He obviously enjoys every minute of it. 'I always have an unknown Haydn opera. This year it's L'Incontro Improvviso,' he says.

'There are 15 surviving Haydn operas,' he explains. 'This will be our fifth and they are catching on with the public. Unknown Haydn is selling well,' he giggles in an avuncular manner.

Sometimes his musical interests and his Saudi ones have coincided. There was, for instance, that concert in Riyadh.

'Ah, now that was quite an evening,' he said. 'It was in Riyadh and I conducted excerpts of the Messiah. There's all those expats out there in embassies and international companies. Many are - or have wives and family who are - excellent musicians. The orchestra and choir were from everywhere: Germans, Filipinos and Australians. And I conducted] They didn't seem to find it strange to be performing a semi-Christian work in the middle of the desert.'

And they seemed to like it. With a craggy grin, Mr Ingrams points out with obvious and understandable pride: 'They stood up at the end and applauded wildly.'

Additional research by Gail Counsell

(Photograph omitted)