Organiser of Covent Garden Friends
Monday 01 May 2006
William Kensington Davison, barrister, pilot and administrator: born London 25 November 1914; called to the Bar, Inner Temple 1939; DFC 1942; DSO 1945; Administrator, Friends of Covent Garden 1962-88; succeeded 1995 as third Baron Broughshane; died London 24 March 2006.
Ken Davison, as he was called before he inherited the title of Lord Broughshane from his elder brother in 1995, was a passionate lover of opera and ballet. He was also extremely knowledgeable about both arts, so it seemed a particularly good idea when, in 1962, Sir David Webster, then General Administratior of the Covent Garden Opera Company - now the Royal Opera - asked him to set up and run the Friends of Covent Garden.
Such organisations, now common, were rare in those days. From the beginning the enterprise was a great success. Davison knew everyone in the field of opera and ballet, and everyone was only too happy to oblige him by giving lectures, holding symposia, or appearing in unlikely roles at the Friends' Christmas parties.
Many of the lectures were instructional, but none the less enjoyable for that. Dame Eva Turner talked about Puccini's Turandot in the theatre where she had sung the title role so memorably in the Thirties. Elsa Mayer-Lismann gave a lecture on Richard Strauss on 11 June 1964, the exact day of the centenary of the composer's birth, when nowhere else in the UK was marking the event. In a symposium on Moses and Aaron just before the British premiere of Schoenberg's opera at Covent Garden, Peter Hall, the director, gave an explanation of that difficult work that was quite exemplary in its clarity. In a lighter vein, at the 1964 Christmas party the bass-baritone Geraint Evans conducted the orchestra on stage in a riotous performance of Il maestro di cappella, Cimarosa's one-man comic opera.
Kensington Davison was born in 1914, the second son of William Davison, the first Lord Broughshane, who was Mayor of the borough of Kensington and a long-serving Conservative MP for Kensington South (hence his son's name).
His life, like that of many of his contemporaries, was divided into three parts - before, during and after the Second World War. Before the war he was educated at Shrewsbury School and Magdalen College, Oxford. He read Law and was called to the Bar in 1939, practising for a short time as a barrister. During the war he was called up, and having joined the University Air Squadron while at Oxford, served as a Mosquito pilot with Bomber Command. One of his tasks was to jam the enemy radar installations, so the British bombers could reach their targets with greater accuracy and safety. Davison won the DFC in 1942 and the DSO in 1945.
After the war in Europe was over Davison, now a wing commander, who spoke fluent German, interviewed Luftwaffe pilots and other personnel, gleaning much useful information. On demobilisation he had a variety of jobs, none of which brought him much satisfaction. When I first knew him in the late 1950s, he was working for a commercial airline. During his lunch-hour he used to visit Heywood Hill, the bookshop in Mayfair where I worked at that time. We also saw each other frequently at Covent Garden and other places where opera and ballet were performed.
When the Friends of Covent Garden was inaugurated, I immediately became a member. As well as going to all the special events, Friends were able to obtain tickets for rehearsals; until then it was only friends of the singers and orchestral players who qualified.
In 1965 I was asked by Harold Rosenthal, then editor of Opera magazine, to write a piece "On Being a Friend". I was very complimentary about the organisation, and in return Ken Davison published an article of mine in About the House, the Friends' magazine, which he edited. It was about Mario, the great 19th-century tenor who was the first Covent Garden Riccardo in Un ballo in maschera.
A long collaboration between us ensued. I contributed articles on a wide variety of subjects, often suggested by Davison. They included pieces on Queen Victoria as music critic; the private opera performances given by King Ludwig II of Bavaria; Oscar Hammerstein - not the librettist of Oklahoma and South Pacific, but his grandfather, who built the Manhattan Opera House; and an illustrated guide to the houses in which the great composers stayed when visiting London.
Ken Davison remained as Secretary of the Friends until July 1988. His commitment to Covent Garden was as strong and his enjoyment of the daily life of the Opera House was as fresh as they had been 24 years before. His tall, upright figure, usually dressed in an old-fashioned frock coat and wing collar, was to be seen during intervals in the Crush Bar for several more years, until he grew too infirm to attend performances.
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