Britten’s Death in Venice
Conductor Steuart Bedford talks to Christopher Gillett about working with Benjamin Britten, and the responsibility of overseeing the composer’s final masterpiece, his opera Death in Venice
Conductor Steuart Bedford tells Christopher Gillett about working with Britten on his final masterpiece
Venice, February 1949. On holiday with Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears sent a postcard to their close friend, the soprano Lesley Duff: ‘Dearest Lesley, the beauty of this place is past description, and though it has now been cold and the wind blows, it has been a wonderful 10 days – a very nice hotel with rooms overlooking the lagoon and the Doge’s Palace, wonderful pictures, the sun shining all the time, coffee by St Mark’s in the open, excursions by land and sea, church after church, and all without traffic – not a car – not a horse – not a sound – heavenly… Much love to all, Peter.’
Lesley Duff was married to an engineer,
Leslie Bedford, and what no one involved in the correspondence could have possibly imagined at the time was that 24 years later, one of their three sons, the nine-year-old Steuart, would become the man that Britten chose to conduct and record his last opera, Death in Venice. Shortly after its premiere in 1973, Pears and Steuart Bedford
would also drink coffee outdoors in St Mark’s Square, when they took the opera to La Fenice.
Now 78 and retired from the podium by Parkinson’s disease, Bedford is puzzling over the whole thing. ‘It’s a question I often ask myself. Of all the people he could have chosen, why me?’ In a business which favours the egotistical, famous and flashy, it’s something that a self-effacing, modest man like Bedford might well ask.
Britten, Pears and Lesley Duff had become close during the early days of the English Opera Group when she sang in the first performances of The Rape of Lucretia, Albert Herring and Britten’s version of The Beggar’s Opera. In 1948 Duff and her husband bought a holiday cottage in Snape and the Bedford boys would become frequent guests at Britten’s home, Crag ★ouse, on Aldeburgh Beach. ‘Ben was wonderfully happy in the company of young people,’ Bedford recalls. ‘There was nothing sinister about this at all. There was always something going on, a jigsaw on the piano, a bit of table tennis, always something. We were very attracted to him, particularly when he started playing the piano.’ Britten, an extraordinary correspondent who often wrote dozens of letters and postcards a day, would frequently write to the Bedfords, both young and old, or send the boys scores of his music. Young Steuart received copies of Britten’s Diversions and Piano Concerto while convalescing from a bout of dysentery. One of Bedford’s early memories is of lying in his sickbed, listening to the first broadcast of The Turn of the Screw from Venice.
Then in the 1950s Lesley Duff was deemed to be too old for her roles with the English Opera Group and was suddenly an outcast – a crushing blow for her. The Snape cottage was sold.
After leaving school, Steuart Bedford seemed destined for a career as a cathedral organist. But
‘‘ Britten used to say ‘I don’t want anybody to interpret my music – I just want them to do what’s there’ ’’
in 1964 he conducted his first opera, Britten’s Albert Herring for the Oxford University
Opera Club, and he was hooked. ★e joined the music staff at Glyndebourne, and in 1966 was offered a job with the English Opera Group. ★e was suddenly back on his mother’s old turf. ‘Obviously Ben had been keeping a careful watch on me as a possibility for the company. But I have never really known how much.’
Britten asked him to assist on the recording of his A Midsummer Night’s Dream and he was given The Beggar’s Opera to conduct, even though he had little experience and no one in the English Opera Group had seen him conduct anything.
Perhaps Britten recognised something of his own approach to conducting in his protégé, which Bedford describes: ‘There was never any egotistical nonsense that you so frequently get from conductors, in order to show themselves off in the right sort of shirt, the right sort of gesture, or rehearsing their gestures in front of a mirror or something ridiculous. Everything was entirely music-orientated. Ben used to say “I don’t want anybody to interpret my music – I just want them to do what’s there”. I think it’s
very possible I had an innate idea of what he was trying to do, from growing up with his music. It seemed very natural to me.’
Bedford’s ascent was rapid. ★e was given more and more work by Britten, not because he was ambitious to rise but because he was exactly what Britten was looking for. ★e assisted on The Rape of Lucretia, but his mother, the original Lucia, was never mentioned. ‘It never came up. Nobody knew.’
When it came to Bedford’s conducting, ‘Ben was always very generous. If you said to him “look, I’m doing your piece, have you got any time to go through it?” he would always try to make it possible. The professional relationship worked rather well.’
But Bedford worried about his mother and ‘what she must have felt when I joined the English Opera Group. She must have suffered a lot over that, particularly as I got closer and closer. She must have thought I was going to be burned alive. Certainly people were. But I never felt, even if I really mucked it up, that he was anything other than very considerate and helpful.’ Still, Bedford had learned from her experience that it was a good idea to keep a distance socially, ‘to know when to turn down an invitation to lunch at the Red ★ouse.’
By 1972, Britten’s heart was failing. ★e needed major surgery and was struggling to finish Death in Venice. Bedford cannot remember exactly when and where he was offered the job, but just 32 years old, with no great reputation behind him, he found himself tasked with preparing and conducting the newest major work by one of the 20th century’s greatest composers. ‘Ben said he was planning to take over performances later on. ★e wanted to take a back seat, to watch what was going on, to advise, to correct anything that was wrong, without having the responsibility of conducting the performances.’ But Britten never conducted again.
In September 1972 Britten wrote to the countertenor James Bowman, asking him to sing the Voice of Apollo in Death in Venice
– ‘my favourite of my operas (so far!)’ In his letter Britten didn’t mention who would be
At just 32, Steuart Bedford found himself conducting Britten’s newest major work
conducting. Bowman himself hadn’t given it much thought. ‘I wasn’t surprised when it turned out to be Steuart because I knew Ben implicitly trusted him enormously. ★e’s a wonderful musician and was the obvious person to do it. I don’t think anyone else was in the frame. Charles Mackerras possibly? I don’t know. Steuart deserved to do it; he was the heir-apparent.’
★owever, no one was prepared for how absent Britten would be from the process of mounting the opera. ‘Ben didn’t have much of a hand in it at all,’ says Bowman. ‘It’s all a myth that Steuart would go and see Ben every evening. ★e hardly ever saw him.’ That myth may have sprung from an article in The Times, timed to coincide with the premiere in June 1973, in which Bedford was quoted as saying ‘we’ve been right through the score and talked a great deal about it’. Bedford denies it, ‘simply because it wasn’t true!’
In early 1973 Britten played through the score to a small group, singing all the roles. Bedford particularly remembers the second of two sessions. ‘★e was very tired, he didn’t want to do it. Those occasions were really tense, particularly when Ben was playing his music for the first time. ★e was doing the very end, the dance with the very high percussion, and I was turning pages and I thought “shall I put the tuba in and help him out a bit?” and then I thought “no, I’ll get it wrong” and I froze. And he managed just fine. We got to the end and he said “I play it very badly” and rushed to the drinks cabinet.’
Before the premiere, Bedford saw Britten just twice more. ‘I visited him once, when he said he was “being fattened for the kill” in the London Clinic in preparation for his operation. We went over various things and that was the last I really saw of him until after the premiere. There was one bedside consultation in The Red ★ouse during the rehearsal period, about a cut that Colin Graham (the director) wanted to do, but that was the only time he had any input into the staging or the musical side of the performance.’
Peter Pears was singing Aschenbach. It would be his last major role and a mammoth undertaking; Aschenbach never leaves the stage. James Bowman recalls that ‘Peter knew Ben was dying. It was obvious. The whole thing was tinged with sadness. It was the music, it was Venice, it was the whole story, everybody knew it was the end of the road.’
But Bedford’s recollection is different.
‘When Ben went in for surgery, Pears came into rehearsal, said “Ben’s on the table” and got on with it. Peter was very different when Ben wasn’t around, and when I worked with Peter, Ben was never around. ★e was much easier, much more at ease. ★e would be his own, masterful self. The dynamic of that relationship has never been fathomed at all. One never quite knew what was going on. You didn’t want to make an enemy of Pears. ★e was perfectly amenable provided you observed the niceties.’
Many found the idea of the opera distasteful and balked at the idea of it being autobiographical in any way. It’s not something that seems to have bothered Bedford. ‘It was never a big issue, not at all.’
On 16 June, 1973, after just five weeks of rehearsal, Death in Venice had its premiere at the Aldeburgh Festival. Opera magazine’s
Alan Blyth described Bedford’s conducting as ‘masterly’. Britten, recuperating at home, had still not heard a note of it. Bedford cannot remember if his mother Lesley came to the performance, but thinks she must have done.
Britten was due to see a private performance in September, but Bedford was determined ‘to make sure he heard the piece on tape before he saw it in the theatre. I wanted him to hear the music by itself first. I can’t think of any example remotely similar to a youngish conductor driving down to a major composer with stacks of tapes of his latest composition. ★ere you’ve got this magnificent opera and the composer himself has not heard a note. Can you imagine taking tapes down to Wahnfried and playing Parsifal to Wagner because he’d been too ill to hear it? It was quite a nerve-wracking experience. So we listened and I would swear that the composer was more nervous than I was. At the end there was a long silence and he said “is it alright?” I think I said “yes it is alright, it’s magnificent”. At which point he lurched for the drinks cabinet.’
Wish you were here: conductor Steuart Bedford on Aldeburgh Beach; (opposite) Peter Pears, director Colin Graham and Bedford enjoy the Venetian life, 1973; a postcard sent by Britten to Bedford
Mythical creatures: Janet Baker, Britten and Bedford rehearse the cantata Phaedra in June 1976
Final reflections: Peter Pears starred in the Death in Venice premiere in 1973