Rodney Milnes: opera critic who delighted in being waspish on the page but who was warm and generous in person

Awarded the OBE in 2002, he accepted it more as an honour for his profession than a sign that he had become a member of the musical establishment he was ever wont to tease

Adrian Hamilton
Wednesday 16 December 2015 19:32
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Witty, sometimes wicked and ever wise, Rodney Milnes, or Rodney Milnes Blumer to give him his full name, was the critic who made opera writing as entertaining as the performance, and, on some dire occasions, even more so. As opera critic for The Spectator, editor of Opera magazine and finally critic for The Times, he sought to make the art form not only endlessly entertaining but also profoundly humane.

Born in 1936 in Stafford, the son of a surgeon, he first sensed his calling at Rugby School, where his house master used to invite pupils to his rooms to listen to opera and classical music. Putting on a disc of Bizet’s Carmen he pronounced in a stutter, “Now Carmen was a very n-n-n-naughty girl”. After all the solemnity of the chapel choir, Rodney knew he was in his element. Embracing Wagner as the higher calling of drama, he never lost a frisson of pleasure at the more melodic and popular.

Coming down from Oxford, where he studied history at Christ Church, he did his National Service as a sergeant in the educational corps. It was a benign experience. Stationed in Germany, he seized the opportunity of a British policy of Anglo-German understanding to persuade the authorities to countenance a programme of troop visits to local opera houses, including East Berlin, as a means of understanding German culture.

It gave him a lifelong knowledge not just of serious German music but of Brecht and cabaret, and helped hone a talent for popularisation through humour to an audience put off by “High Culture”. It was with some difficulty that his friends dissuaded him from signing up for more.

Demobbed, he started work as a publisher with the paperback imprint Four Square Books and then with Hart Davis. It was a profession he took seriously, championing the cause of authors such as Michael Meyer, translator and biographer of Strindberg and Ibsen, but with little appetite for the commercial imperatives of the trade.

He started writing opera reviews under the pen name of Rodney Milnes for Queen magazine, then the trendy chronicler of swinging London under Jocelyn Stevens, before becoming opera critic for The Spectator for two decades from 1970 to 1990, where his views, witty and passionate, soon made his mark. Eric Sams, the distinguished musicologist working for the rival New Statesman, resigned after only two years, explaining: “Rodney Milnes’ excellence as opera critics of The Spectator stood high among the reasons why I gave up.”

In his annual review of the critics as “Will Waspe”, Milnes indulged to the full his taste for the scabrous gossip of 18th century journalism, to the pleasure of those in the know and the fury of the critics notorious for taking themselves seriously. “What he knows of ballet,” he declared of one, “could be written on the back of a pair of tights, and almost certainly has been.” Of another, he remarked, “all the world takes turns to languish at her beautiful feet (only the rich or powerful need aspire higher)”. The libel writs soon followed.

Growing involvement with Harold Rosenthal’s Opera magazine, which he took over as editor and part-owner in 1986, and his appointment as critic at The Times in 1992, led him to develop his more serious side as commentator on and populariser of opera. He revised Leslie Orrey’s Opera, A Concise History for Thames and Hudson, helped Amanda Holden with her tome, The Penguin Opera Guide, for Viking and undertook radio and lectures, including a Radio 3 series on producing Verdi and another revealing one on male friendship in opera. He also translated a number of works for the ENO, most notably (and the one he was most proud of) Dvorak’s Rusalka.

Not that he lost either his trenchancy or his sting, lambasting to the last contemporary productions he thought traduced their music and singers whose eminence seemed to entitle them to sing less than their best. Surtitles he famously and continuously opposed as disturbing the immersion in the music. Trendy young directors like Peter Sellars he dismissed as flavour-of-the-month juveniles and self-advertising “geniuses”. Opera mattered to Milnes, that it should be more widely known and better respected, which was made him such a fine critic. He rejoiced when it was done well, grew angry when it was not.

If he lost his faith in Wagner, it was because he grew disenchanted with his philosophy rather than his music, seeing in Verdi more humanity and better tunes. If he championed the operas of Handel, through the long years when they were hardly performed, and the opera serie of Donizetti and Rossini, it was because they were filled with broad concerns as well as melody. He was early on a proponent of Finnish composers and the Savonlinna Festival, a cause for which he was made Knight of the Order of the White Rose in Finland.

Awarded the OBE in 2002, he accepted it more as an honour for his profession than a sign that he had become a member of the musical establishment he was ever wont to tease. Caustic in print, he was never personally malicious – quite the opposite. Intensely private and correct in manners, cigarette at the ready, half-moon glasses perched on his nose and his long-worn cardigan showing ever larger holes by the year, he gave as generously of himself and his knowledge to those seeking his help as to his closest friends. The artist Patrick Procktor painted a wonderful joint portrait in 1967 of Milnes and the Z-Cars scriptwriter John Muirhead Gould, with whom he shared a house in Greenwich when he started work in London and whose early death caused him terrible grief.

Retiring as editor of Opera magazine in 1999, having lived with friends and their children in south London (“I gather Rodney lives in some frightful garret in Tooting,” said the late Lord Drogheda, chairman of Covent Garden, not realising he was speaking to the house’s owner) and then moving to North London to be near his office, he went to live near his sister Erica Mary and her family in a cottage dubbed the “Hermitage” in Gloucestershire. Devoted to his family – he regularly flew to Western Australia to see his elder brother, Bill – and particularly close to his sister, Milnes was devastated by her death earlier this year. Only weeks later he started to show the symptoms of a cancer that was to kill him.

Rodney Milnes Blumer, music critic and writer: born Stafford 26 July 1936; OBE 2002; died Cheltenham 5 December 2015.

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