Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Death of George Earl of Harewood

With much sadness I learned today of the death of George, Earl of Harewood, the only member of the Royal family I have ever met and had a slight acquaintance. Although I did not know him that well he always treated me as a close friend and his letters to me which I treasure on the 'strange' behavior of our mutual friend Benjamin Britten, the composer were frank and astute. He was not afraid of discussing the foibles of Britten's complex and enigmatic character.

My first introduction to the Earl was the above photograph. In post war Britain there was little joy and children like me collected pictures of Royal Weddings to brighten up our lives. This wedding was for some reason a particular favorite of mine.

The second was that I was assigned his office at The Royal Opera House Covent Garden as my dressing room! Lack of space meant that this was usually used as the conductor's dressing room and the Earl had to vacate it every evening and leave it tidy.  In 1957 as the first two children allowed in the Royal Ballet's 'Petrushka' we were given this honour. I have been working my way down ever since!

The first occcasion I actually got to meet the Earl was at The Aldeburgh Festival in 1958 where to my surprise and horror I was chosen to sing the solo in Wagner's birthday tribute to his wife Cosima. I was to be accompanied by Benjamin Britten and the item was to be introduced by the Earl.

This supposedly glorious  opportunity for me was in fact a nightmare as I was given just twenty minutes rehearsal and no complete run through. The first time I heard the piece in its entirety was when I was standing on center stage with Britten at the piano and the Earl giving a five minute explanation of how the piece was written. I have never felt so alone.

Britten had told me that the introduction was rather long and he would nod and I was to come in four bars later. Some ask as I was a ballet dancer and only 15. The whole of the musical and social Establishment was in the audience. I was terrified.

But I did 'come in' and I got through it to be met with an ovation of applause. I remember curtseying  in a true Fonteyn manner and telling myself I should never, never do anything like this again with no rehearsal when to my horror the Earl said "Well that went rather well! I think we should do it again" and I had to return to the piano and sing the wretched thing once more. I remember Michael Crawford who had for once had not been invited saying ironically 'The audience certainly seem to like her!'

I could tell at that moment that I had impressed Britten. At some time during those few moments he must have realized that this performance was close to disaster as he really had no idea of how I would perform. It was a sort of arranged marriage but for us it worked. Britten enjoyed the experience and so did I. Performing together in public under stress makes a sort of 'bond'. One has to have complete trust in one's partner and from that moment I became a Britten 'favorite' although being a girl and an 'outsider'. My presence in Aldebugh was never noticed. I am never mentioned. I was not 'seen' but I was around for four years and I got to know a 'Britten' that was completely 'different' from the Britten I read about today in books, plays and articles .

So much of a favorite that three years later when I was singing 'Flora'  in 'The Turn of the Screw' at the 1961 Festival I found Britten's behavior to me 'unusual'. Britten behaved as a young student on his first date. I was 19 at the time. I found this behavior 'strange' but put it down to a 'one off.

Years later I wrote to the Earl about what I had experienced and was it my 'imagination'? I felt that somehow my strange experience should be put on record for posterity. Someone should know. To my surprise the Earl wrote back a very frank letter which I still have. The Earl said he understood completely what I had experienced and he was not surprised in the least. He added that it was fortunate that I was so sensible and had not 'ended in tears!

My last meeting with the Earl was at the first night of Aida at the ENO when he was holding forth rather loudly on a certain opera singer looking 'like the back of a bus'!

So he did remember me our one night stand on a windy night in Aldeburgh.  It was a 'night to remember'. It was!

Sleep well sweet prince! I shall miss you.

The Earl of Harewood with Britten at the preview of  the
Associated Rediffusion's 'Turn of the Screw' directed by
Peter Morley. 

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