Anthony Freud, 21st Century Evangelical

“As the General Director of an opera company, it is incumbent on me to be evangelical about the art form within which I work.” Of course for Anthony Freud, O.B.E., Houston Grand Opera’s CEO ( ), that’s not a challenge; it’s clear immediately that it would be near impossible for him not to share his passion for opera.

Born in London to immigrant parents, Anthony was introduced to opera as a young boy.

He first attended Hansel and Gretel at Sadler’s Wells at the age of four. His strongest memory of the event was that he had three banana ice creams at intermission – and that it was performed in English. His father, a refugee from Hungary, worked for a mining company.  From time to time, the company would offer middle management employees a pair of tickets to Covent Garden. “My parents were not the sort to get a babysitter and leave me at home while they went off, rather one of them would stay home and I would go to the opera or ballet with either my mother or father. I saw Tosca with Tito Gobbi as Scarpia and Romeo and Juliet with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. We went just often enough that I relished every opportunity.” At the age of eleven, he was attending concerts and theater on a regular basis and the language didn’t make a difference, he soaked it all in.” And he “turned into a real discophile, spending all of my pocket money buying LPs in the record stores. I developed an insatiable appetite for engaging with the arts in all its facets – and opera became the most all-consuming of these appetites.”

 “At the age of thirteen or fourteen I had already decided that I wanted to run an opera company.” London was comparatively safe at the time, and the teen Anthony could go off on his own to performances and come home at 11:00pm. “Although there was not so much interest in opera around the house, my parents were pleased with my enthusiasm and encouraged it. I remember the first time I bought a ticket to Covent Garden to attend on my own,” it was tremendously exciting.  In the early 1970s, the Royal Opera had a program called the ‘Young Friends of Covent Garden’.  It was a membership organization, and “once the initial fee was paid, members received ticket vouchers which had about the same face-value as the cheapest tickets. I attended three or four nights a week, and on this voucher system I went eighteen or twenty times for nothing! He saw every performance Carlos Kleiber conducting Elektra with Birgit Nilsson in the title role and Dame Gwyneth Jones as Chrysothemis. Other memorable performances were Dame Joan Sutherland and Jon Vickers in many of their signature roles and a famous revival of Aida with Riccardo Muti conducting Montserrat Caballé, Fiorenza Cossotto and Placido Domingo. In 1977 La Scala and Covent Garden arranged its first exchange in twenty-five years.  La Scala, sharing its ‘Rossini-renaissance,’ brought Jean-Pierre  Ponnelle’s production of La Cenerentola featuring Teresa Berganza and Luigi Alva and also Giorgio Strehler’s Simon Boccanegra with Mirella Freni and Gianni Raimondi  – all performances conducted by Claudio Abbado. These performances were life changing for the aspiring opera administrator. He recalls “that the quality of music-making and theater was astounding.”

 Anthony qualified as a barrister and started practical training, but felt he didn’t have the same vocation for law as he did for the arts.  He started to send out letters, and after “sixty or seventy” applications, he was hired as the assistant to the director of Sadler’s Wells in 1980.  “I felt immediately at home there.” Next came seven years at Welsh National Opera where he first served as Company Secretary dealing with legal matters and subsequently as Director of Opera Planning (the equivalent position of an Artistic Administrator here in the United States). He later moved on to be Director of Planning and Artistic Administration at Philips Classics. When Matthew (Epstein) resigned from Welsh National Opera, he applied for the post of General Director, and his career goal was realized when he returned to WNO in that position which he held from 1994-2005.  “It was the first opportunity where I felt that I had a responsibility for the evolution of the art form itself.  I felt it was essential to create and perform new works and new productions, to be dynamic in drawing people into our art form. Human resources are vital in opera and I was dedicated to exploring and embracing the broad range of the community. Opera remains relevant when it builds bridges and recognizes that a serious long-term relationship must be developed with the community.  The breadth and depth of services that we can offer a city makes opera relevant to modern cities. It was the first time when I knew that community outreach needed to be expanded and broken out of the confines of being an optional extra; we began in earnest to contemplate the delivery of services and how to reach as many people in as many ways as possible.”

 In 2005, Anthony Freud was hungry for a new challenge and that opportunity came to him in Houston, Texas.  “I wanted to explore a new world; after all you don’t move 5,000 miles to discover what you left behind.” HGOco is his new world visualization of his community outreach initiative in Wales. He explains, “it involves reconsidering internally and externally the culture and purposes of an opera company. We wrestle with the question of how a four hundred-year-old art form can remain relevant in a twenty-first-century city like Houston.”  A combination of music, theater, scenic design and dance, opera as an art form is inherently “all about collaboration.”  Houston Grand Opera under Freud’s leadership is “building bridges in unexpected ways. We’re finding ways to tell Houston stories through words and music – it is utterly universal.” The Refuge, composed by Christopher Theofanidis with words by Leah Lax, involved collaboration with seven immigrant communities and told individual stories of their journeys to Houston.” [to order a copy of the cd, please visit ] In 2010, HGO is looking at ways to commemorate the important Mexican anniversary. From 2011 to 2014 a collaboration with the Asian communities is planned.  “Not all of the projects will result in commissions on the scale of The Refuge, but we’re exploring with people how we can celebrate them and tell their experiences through the medium of opera. We want to use our art form in a way that embraces diversity and engages with people on their terms.”

 Anthony Freud’s journey with opera began as a result of a mining company’s corporate support of Covent Garden and the realization of the importance of music in the lives of its employees.  It was nurtured by his refugee parents who made sacrifices to be sure that the arts were a core value in their son’s upbringing.  Freud, in turn, reaches out to the new immigrant communities in the Lone Star State and says “I have an unswerving belief of the role of culture and the arts in society; a society without the arts is not one in which I want to live. And as times get harder economically, the role that the arts play is more and more important.  We all need to be imaginative and dynamic to the greatest possible degree.”

 Houston is all the better for the call that Anthony Freud heard and that, in the famous quote popularized by Horace Greeley, he decided to “go west, young man.”

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