An artist in the Garden: Michael Berkeley - Profile

David Lister on a little-known composer who has become 'incredibly influential' at the Opera House

David Lister
Sunday 29 March 1998 02:02 BST

WHEN Mary Allen resigned as chief executive of the Royal Opera House on Wednesday, journalists wanting explanations were referred to a member of the board named Michael Berkeley. And he didn't disappoint. His honesty and frankness were a startling change from the anodyne statements usually released after a controversial resignation.

Having lamented the defection to the English National Opera of Nicholas Payne, who had run Covent Garden's opera company, Berkeley explained why the Opera House would now change style, moving away from business-style administrators to people with artistic credibility. "You could say that Mary dug her own grave when she forced Payne out. We came to the conclusion then that the ROH should be artistically led. We asked Mary if she could work as chief executive under a superintendent as they do on the Continent, and she said absolutely not. The feeling you get was that this was fairly inevitable."

The most striking signal from that statement is the involvement of Berkeley himself in the change of style and personnel at the ROH. "He has been incredibly influential," says one senior insider.

Michael Berkeley is a man with a mission, or, rather, several missions. Besides restoring the fortunes of the House, there are several day jobs. He is a composer who has 50 orchestral and chamber scores and one opera to his credit, and is now engaged on a piece for this summer's Proms. In June the Nash Ensemble will present a 50th birthday concert for him, with works by Beethoven, Brahms - and Berkeley. He presents Radio 3's Private Passions, the highly successful classical music version of Desert Island Discs. Berkeley also runs the Cheltenham Music Festival, which brings new audiences to new music by mixing classical favourites with world premieres and insisting that every artist plays one new work.

And the Royal Opera House next? Could he take that on too? After a pause that becomes more intriguing as it grows longer, Berkeley rules himself out. "I'm a composer. There have been people like Mahler who have been musical directors, but that's a different thing." Whoever runs it, he says, should be an artistic director who knows about opera and ballet and also "be a bit of a dictator". The structure will now change quickly. "It is arcane. People are working in hermetically sealed groups. They don't talk to each other. There's the wrong ethos and a lot of staff are very unhappy. I'm going to run the opera board and I will find new members who have all had experience of making opera happen, including singers and directors. At the moment, if I have flu, there's no one who has experience of working in an opera house."

The man in this anchor role was not a name associated with the Royal Opera House until a few months ago. Berkeley had actually been appointed to the old, much-criticised board of the great and the good. When that board resigned at the end of last year, the new chairman Sir Colin Southgate and the Culture Secretary Chris Smith wanted only two members to stay on - Vivien Duffield, the chief fundraiser, and Berkeley.

His black curls, blue eyes and ability to convey deeply-felt and intense passions with a relaxed, easy manner explain why he has long had a bit of a female fan club at the BBC. Jealous men say he spends rather too long combing those black curls up to disguise a bald patch, and that he has always been focused in his ambitions; but neither is much of a vice. Male and female colleagues agree that he is utterly driven and a workaholic.

As befits someone who presents a radio programme coaxing memories out of others, Berkeley is articulate, relaxed and forthcoming about himself. We talked in his large blue house near Portobello Road in west London, which serves as a studio for his Radio 3 programmes as well as a home for him, his wife, the prominent literary agent Deborah Rogers, and their 11-year-old daughter Jessica - except when he is composing. Then he retires to the seclusion of his cottage in Wales, spending up to half the year there.

His father was the composer Sir Lennox Berkeley, who was Benjamin Britten's lover before Peter Peers came on the scene. "My father was a part of the Britten, Auden set," he says, "and everybody assumed he would stick to the gay life. But, as an air raid warden, he was on duty at the BBC where he met and later married a secretary 20 years his junior. People were rather astonished that this transformation took place."

His mother, who is still alive, provided "a very warm, expansive, happy childhood on the whole. My father was stuck in his study a lot of the time. He was a very insular, introverted man. I loved his music. I admired its economy and skill and enormous charm. He was a British Faure if you like, but I wanted it to hit me over the head a bit more, and it made me a more extrovert composer. He was a bit under Ben's shadow, but he knew that his real skills were finely-honed miniatures."

Music and musicians, including Britten - who was his godfather - and Sir William Walton, were around the house while Michael grew up. "I always knew from the age of six that I wanted to compose," he said, "but I was a late developer." Well into his twenties, in fact. He went to the Oratory school at Reading, and became a chorister at Westminster Cathedral before attending the Royal Academy of Music. He was a baritone and was bent on singing professionally. More in the mood of the times, however, Berkeley joined a rock group called Seeds of Discord, although it didn't trouble Top of the Pops. "It was a fun time." He also worked in a hospital, perhaps as a prelude to going into medicine. But he went into hospital as a patient instead. "I got renal TB which concentrated my mind. I realised then I would have to buckle down to composing." He went to Richard Rodney Bennett, who was best known for his film music, but he had studied with Pierre Boulez. He soon took Berkeley in hand. "He was very good for me. The first thing he did was make me write a string trio 11 times in 18 months until I could show him how everything was developed."

Between 1974 and 1979 he also worked as a Radio 3 announcer, and the shift system gave him plenty of free time for composing. He and Deborah Rogers were married in 1979. "I met her at a friend's dinner party. The first time I took her out was to Michael Tippett's opera The Ice Break. And it broke the ice," he says triumphantly. Her list of clients - it includes Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Peter Carey and David Malouf - keeps Berkeley in touch with the arts outside music, not that a one-time presenter of the BBC's arts programme Kaleidoscope needs much encouragement to see further than contemporary classical music.

Berkeley describes his own music as having "a strong emotional content which audiences react to". A leading concert promoter calls it beautifully crafted: "His music has intellectual muscle. He hasn't gone down the modernist path. He is in a tonal tradition. It's very immediate music. Sometimes it's got tunes."

Michael Berkeley is a persuasive advocate for contemporary classical music, although he reassures the Royal Opera House audience that he does not intent to impose his tastes on its repertoire. "A year from now I would see Mozart, Verdi, Wagner and at least one new opera every year, and the Royal Ballet able to do far more new choreography."

He hopes that Sir Richard Eyre's committee on the future of opera provision in London will preserve the identities of the three companies, Royal Opera, English National Opera and Royal Ballet, and leave them where they are: "But I can see a scenario where it might be sensible for the ballet to be dancing at the Coliseum, the Royal Opera could put on a Mozart and a small-scale work at the Sadler's Wells, and the ENO could use the Opera House in Covent Garden."

But he does hope to increase the size of the audience for new classical music. Berkeley's last premiere with the London Symphony Orchestra was called The Secret Garden. His Prom for the National Youth Orchestra will be called Garden Of Delights. The imagery is not accidental. "I do find that sometimes we composers are very arrogant with audiences; we don't help them into music. One way to do that is to use narrative and imagery. The problem with contemporary music - and its magic - is that it's as if it came from another planet. Ally it to theatre or a film like Psycho in which the strings are playing on the back of the bow near the bridge, in the music in the shower scene, and you have an audience that would not be willing to listen in a concert hall. If only people could approach music with a completely open mind and allow it to build a landscape in the mind with dramatic and visual images, then it becomes a much more enriching experience.

"There's room for all kinds of music. There had to be a backlash against the single-mindedness of the Sixties." Berkeley cites Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen as epitomising a period which admired innovation for the sake of it. But what if he were interviewing himself to discover his own private passion? "Stravinsky's Rite of Spring," he answers without hesitation. "As a young male it matched the amount of testosterone running your body, and you can translate all those urges into art."

Specifically, Michael Berkeley, the new man of influence in the arts, can now help translate that urge on to the stage at the Royal Opera House.

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