Operatic Philanthropy Hits a High Note with Rosenblatt Recitals

Aria sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin: City lawyer Ian Rosenblatt has been bringing the most mellifluous voices to London for a decade now only don’t call it philanthropy. By Josh Spero

Aria sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin: City lawyer Ian Rosenblatt has been bringing the most mellifluous voices to London for a decade now — only don’t call it philanthropy. By Josh Spero

  

IAN ROSENBLATT'S LARGE, elegant office in a building which points its nose at Goldman Sachs’ Fleet Street fortress, seems to speak more of his role as a patron of opera than as senior partner of a successful corporate law firm: a floral Persian carpet, raggedly stacked piles of auction catalogues, some semi-glazed ceramic vases on a tasteful sideboard. Along the sideboard from the vases, however, is a trophy marked ‘Eddie’s Evil Brew — merry Christmas from Iron Maiden’. A client, Rosenblatt later says. It seems to mark out the gap between art and life rather well. 

Rosenblatt has been funding the Rosenblatt Recitals, where singers on the cusp of great careers deliver solo programmes of arias, song cycles and concert pieces, since 2000, first in St John’s Smith Square in Westminster and now at the home of the recital in London, Wigmore Hall.

His support is philanthropic, even if he refuses the label (‘I’m suspicious of the motives of people who describe themselves as a philanthropist’): the series costs him £400,000 a year, after ticket sales.

 

Opera on TV

Back in October, the young American tenor Lawrence Brownlee sang song cycles by Verdi, Poulenc and Ben Moore, before thrilling the 500 listeners with the agility demanded by Rossini’s arias, his voice tearing up and down scales with swiftness and beauty.

If Brownlee put in an extra-special performance that night, it made sense: cameras and microphones were recording the recital for broadcast this autumn on Sky Arts. Conscious that recitals may seem better suited to radio, Rosenblatt says that Sky has done a good job, intercutting the songs with interviews and using star classical music presenter Suzy Klein.

Watch above: Lawrence Brownlee singing 'Ah mes amis' from Donizetti's La fille du régiment at a Rosenblatt Recital in 2010

You might think from this — promotion to Wigmore Hall, a new series on Sky Arts — that Rosenblatt was pushy, aggressive even, in the manner of certain fellow operatic donors, but he credits others with the drive and seems instead an amused, if sharp, observer.

A friend with connections to Sky suggested the series. Securing a berth at the Wigmore ‘never even crossed my mind. I only went to the Wigmore Hall because the Wigmore Hall came to me and asked if I would go there.’ Under an earlier director, the Rosenblatt Recitals were not even welcome near the premises: ‘We did some leafleting on the pavement outside the hall for one of our concerts and I got a very, very rude and rather unpleasant response from [the director], which meant I had to write him a letter saying he didn’t own the pavement.’ 

Even the impetus for the recitals came from elsewhere, when he stood in as a last-minute sponsor of a concert by dashing Argentinian tenor José Cura, conducted by Placido Domingo, in 1999.

‘I’ve never done anything like this before in my life. I just wrote a cheque and agreed that I was going to have so many tickets for so many guests, have a party. At the time it was the firm’s tenth anniversary and my 40th birthday, so I was justifying it for all kinds of reasons like that.’ ‘Justifying’ is probably the right word: it seems like something Rosenblatt would have wanted to do, birthday or not.

 

The opera scene

The UK hardly lacks for opera. The Royal Opera House is still the last word in first-class singing as well as the height of society, while the English National Opera has been drawing in thousands with its avant-garde productions, its thrilling orchestra under Edward Gardner and its relatively cheap ticket prices. Companies in Scotland, Wales and the North of England are well-regarded.

There are the summer festivals, like Glyndebourne, Garsington and Grange Park. Add to this OperaUpClose, tiny shows upstairs in an Islington pub, and Grimebourne, a subversive opera festival at the Arcola Theatre in East London, and the sum is a thrumming scene.

Nevertheless, the gap — singers simply singing — was and still is largely there. ‘Occasionally Covent Garden or the South Bank or the Barbican will put on a celebrity concert,’ Rosenblatt says with a certain moue of distaste, ‘but there are not that many celebrities and there are lots of great singers.’

Back in 1999, there were only pirate CDs of recitals and there was no YouTube for a quick hit of Anna Netrebko singing ‘The Song to the Moon’. So how much of the series was for Rosenblatt and how much for everyone else? ‘All for me!’ he says, laughing, but he doesn’t seem to mean this selfishly: it’s more that he didn’t know quite how popular they would be.

 

Picking winners

Rosenblatt has a track record in picking future stars: Juan Diego Florez, Vittorio Grigolo, Saimir Pirgu, Joseph Calleja all appeared in the first five years. Rosenblatt points to Maria Radner — ‘most unexpected, she’s a deep mezzo, contralto-type voice’ — who, soon after we met, was singing in the Ring Cycle at Covent Garden as First Norn (it’s a surprisingly important role).

Nonetheless, he roundly refuses to take any credit for their careers, even if he is frequently the first to bring them to London, and laughs at a suggestion that he’s a modern-day Maecenas, a pre-eminent cultural patron: ‘No, far from it. Are you joking? I don’t see it as being a patron of the arts, whatever that is, or of singers in particular. You’ve got to remember, this is their living, this is what they do for a job.’ Occasional gratitude is welcome, but he doesn’t believe the singers think he’s done them a favour.

If the singers are occasionally grateful, critics and hard-line opera fans take a certain amount of glee in not being grateful at all, seeing the recitals as déclassé.

‘I think there’s a huge amount of snobbery about them. Huge. You should see some of the reviews that come out from the concert we had the other day. There’s lots of twittering and blogging going on, because my concerts are concerts. They’re supposed to be entertaining.’ 

 

Hierarchies

The operatic world has strict cultural hierarchies: opera arias accompanied only by a piano (as at the Rosenblatt Recitals) are frowned on; opera arias outside an opera are derided as context-free.

A singer had the music on stage for a Beethoven song cycle and the bile flowed. One shouldn’t clap between songs, but ‘people are supposed to go to have a good night out. If they’re having a good time and enjoying themselves, you should express it and clap.’

Rosenblatt seems exasperated by this, but not upset. It was another example of operatic high-handedness which got his goat, when he recently took his parents to Covent Garden. He’s a patron of the Royal Opera House and spends additional thousands each year on four tickets for almost every production, so when his mother took some chocolate out of her handbag to eat during the interval and was ‘virtually the subject of a citizen’s arrest by an usher’, he emailed the chairman of the board — after defiantly gobbling down some more chocolate.

‘I said, “This is complete and utter nonsense.” Nobody’s cooking a barbecue. You’ve got people like my father, who’s 80 — he doesn’t want to have to go out in the interval to the Floral Hall, nor do people necessarily want to spend 50 quid on a glass of wine and  a smoked salmon sandwich, which is pretty much what it comes to.

I got a phone call from the house manager, who came out with the immortal line, “Mr Rosenblatt, the Royal Opera House is not a tourist attraction.” To which I said, “I don’t know what planet you’ve landed from — it’s exactly what it is. It gets government money because it’s a tourist attraction.”’ Why Rosenblatt chooses to hold his own unstuffy recitals becomes easier to understand in this context.

Watch above: Ailyn Pérez singing Hahn's 'L'heure exquise' at a 2012 Rosenblatt Recital

 

'Operatic trainspotting'

His love of the voice (as differentiated from opera as a whole) comes from as unstuffy an origin as you can imagine. He was born into a large Jewish immigrant family in Liverpool in the Fifties, and his father and his father’s brothers were part of the cantorial tradition in religious life, so they sang all the time: ‘Singing was almost a contact sport in my house. It was all about who could sing higher and louder. We’re talking about serious operatic trainspotting here, where a record would go on and two bars of something would be played and you had to guess the singer.’

The first thing he did when he came to London for university was queue for a ticket to see Pavarotti in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera.

Pavarotti sits high in Rosenblatt’s pantheon of performances, but he makes a song and dance (if you’ll pardon the expression) of choosing his other highlights, declaring it impossible, as is often the case with those who know too much or have seen too many.

Alfredo Kraus in concert was one, and he loves Verdi’s Falstaff (‘endlessly invigorating and amazing because it doesn’t sound like anything else that Verdi wrote’), but Puccini has to be in there, too. ‘How do you choose? You can’t choose.’ A few minutes later, he returns to the subject: Jonas Kaufmann in Massenet’s Werther. ‘That was the one that nailed it for me.’

Did he ever try to have Kaufmann appear at the Rosenblatt Recitals? ‘We had him booked before he was famous, and then get got famous and so he cancelled. There’s been a few of those.’

Pictured above: Lawrence Brownlee's Rosenblatt Recital CD, one of a growing series

 
The charitable agenda?

While everyone else is rushing to embrace philanthropy, Rosenblatt is guarded, detecting an agenda in charity, which perhaps reveals his legal side bleeding into his operatic side. His problem is in the acclaim or rewards sought by donors or provided by institutions, even if in my experience most philanthropists are only interested in acclaim inasmuch as it encourages others to give.

Nevertheless, opera — and our broader cultural scene — is coming to rely heavily on personal and corporate philanthropy. The Royal Opera House is safe, Rosenblatt says, because it has, ‘whatever their motivations, a very wealthy and very loyal coterie of donors’, but everyone else is ‘stuffed’ without subsidy.

Rosenblatt’s attitude seems counterintuitive: philanthropists are suspicious to him, but corporate donors — who are either fulfilling some CSR requirement or burnishing their name — are not, perhaps because of the blatancy of their motives. Still, their part is too great — the government needs to step back in, he says.

In a seeming contradiction, Rosenblatt also advocates greater recognition for philanthropists, although he hastens to clarify that he doesn’t mean himself.

‘I think people who give large amounts of money to make sure that our arts institutions thrive — and I mean thrive — then they should be celebrated and they should be publicly recognised. Otherwise what we would we do without them? How are we going to rebuild whichever theatre Lloyd Dorfman gave ten million quid to?’ Still, one theory I recently heard suggests that British orchestras are so much better than French ones because the latter have grown fat on state subsidy, while the former are lean and innovative.

 

Twilight of the Gods

Earlier in the conversation, we discussed Wagner’s Ring Cycle, one quarter of which Rosenblatt was off to see after our meeting.

The story which runs through the fifteen hours of music is of the decline of the gods thanks to their own vanity and venality, and the cycle ends with the fiery destruction of Valhalla, the gods’ newly built palace, and of the gods themselves in Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods). So, just before Rosenblatt heads back to his desk and thence to his plush velvet seat, are there any lessons from Götterdämmerung which that similarly threatened, venal and declining institution, the City, should be taking? 

Rosenblatt laughs long and loud. ‘Yes!’ He laughs longer. ‘We all know where it’s going to end up, don’t we?’

The next Rosenblatt Recital is on 23 May 2013

 

 
 

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