George Lascelles, the seventh Earl of Harewood, who has died aged 88, was unusual for a member of the royal family in deserving a substantial obituary on account of what he did rather than who he was. His overriding concern was to help transform British people's attitude to opera, most notably through his work as managing director of Sadler's Wells Opera (1972-85), via its change of name in 1974 to English National Opera (ENO) and then as chairman (1986-95). The company, built up by Lilian Baylis during the 1930s, had moved from the Sadler's Wells theatre in north London to the larger and more central London Coliseum in 1968, and the new title he obtained for it further enhanced its status. His previous experience had been at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, first as a member of the board (1951-53, and again 1969-72), then as casting manager on the staff (1953-60).

The fact that he succeeded Stephen Arlen, the force behind the move to the Coliseum, in charge of the English-language company – on Arlen's unexpected death – was a huge endorsement of the policy that Sadler's Wells Opera had been following. It was acquiring a reputation for grand opera and Wagner, for serious singing and conducting, that had often been snobbishly regarded as the preserve of Covent Garden.

The competition between the Wells and Sir Georg Solti's Garden, which faintly echoed the royal operatic rows involving Lord Harewood's Hanoverian forebears in Handel's day, was good for opera in Britain generally: the Ring cycle conducted by Reginald Goodall in the 1970s, with Norman Bailey, Rita Hunter and Alberto Remedios, was the jewel in the crown of what became the ENO: but the regent wearing that crown was Harewood. Another fruitful collaboration was with Charles Mackerras, the great pioneer of Janacek and music director from 1970 to 1977, whom Harewood regarded as "probably the most complete opera conductor of his generation". As managing director of English National Opera North (1978-81), he established a new base in Leeds. Outside the opera house, Harewood was artistic director of the Edinburgh festival (1961-65), the Leeds festival (1958-74), and the Adelaide festival in Australia (1988).

His career coincided with the creation of a proper British operatic tradition by Benjamin Britten, virtually single-handed and against all the odds. The peer's patronage of the arts was not just decorative or social, but positively enabling. Thanks to his first wife, the pianist Marion Stein, daughter of Britten's publisher Erwin Stein, Harewood enjoyed a close friendship with the composer, who was 10 years his senior, and his partner, Peter Pears.

Harewood's sincere commitment to music and opera, and his acquaintance with many other singers, musicians and composers, made a real difference. He was, after all, one of the few royals who genuinely valued British music and knew a great deal about it. As Queen Elizabeth herself once put it to the general director, Peter Jonas, in the royal retiring room at the London Coliseum, on a rare royal visit to the ENO when Harewood was chairman of the company, but equally rarely when her cousin was unavailable to greet her, "Funny thing about George. You know, in most respects he's perfectly normal."

Harewood's innate sympathy for the arts developed into a powerful practical force. He founded Opera magazine in 1950, and also edited, and thoroughly revised, Kobbé's Complete Opera Book (1954) – having damningly reviewed an earlier edition in Opera.

Harewood was in the line of succession to the throne because his mother, Princess Mary, was George V's only daughter, and Princess Royal. When he was born, his grandfather, the fifth Earl, still presided at Harewood House, the beautiful 18th-century Adam family seat off the road between Leeds and Harrogate. George was born in Mayfair, in Chesterfield House at the bottom of South Audley Street – the family's London residence, given up for a more modest "grace and favour" address in Green Street when he was eight. But his childhood was mostly spent in Yorkshire, and at Harewood after his father, the sixth Earl, inherited the title in 1929.

It was an idyllic interwar childhood. George and his younger brother Gerald enjoyed country pursuits, were coached in cricket by the Yorkshire and England player Herbert Sutcliffe, and entertained at Windsor by their royal grandparents. He was sent away to school at nine, and added a love of football to his liking for cricket.

The two Lascelles boys took part in royal ceremonial such as their grandfather's funeral procession in 1936 and the proclamation of King George VI after the abdication of his elder brother, Edward VIII. George was at Eton college when he was called upon to be a page at the subsequent coronation. He enjoyed his schooldays, won the history prize at prep school, loved music, but never progressed much at the keyboard.

At the age of 19, he was commissioned as a Grenadier Guards officer, and was severely wounded and then captured in the Italian campaign. He passed through a series of Italian hospitals and German PoW camps, ending up for a time in Colditz because of his "prominent relations", which was a formative experience, though less democratic than it might have been, since his fellow prisoners were also all well-connected. In the Spangenberg camp, near Kassel, he read Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians as far as the letter S.

From his mid-teens, he seized every opportunity to attend performances. Privileged status gave him an entree to the world he sought to work in, but somehow he managed to combine being a director of the Royal Opera House with doing a kind of rapid apprenticeship as an administrative assistant who was soon heavily involved in casting.

Harewood was, as he admitted in his autobiography The Tongs and the Bones (1981), a fundamentally shy man. No doubt this helped foster his considerable ability as a listener. His fascination with performers such as Maria Callas, whom he engaged for many roles at Covent Garden, was not the deference of a fan, but the grateful friendship of somebody who really knew what the adoption of an artificial role could cost and what benefit it might bring people. He once, in the early 1960s, spent the better part of a whole night driving Carlo Maria Giulini – who had just conducted the young Luciano Pavarotti in Rigoletto – around Rome. The maestro was so wound up he could not go to bed, and needed somebody to talk to.

Born into the line of the British succession, Harewood was, by contrast and choice, a retainer in the world of music and theatre. In a sense he saw the performing arts as a form of mediation very little different from that of constitutional monarchy, on whose periphery he was raised. He was fascinated during his time at ENO with operas that dealt with regents and courts.

The leadership he provided in the arts was very much that of a presiding constitutional monarch, whose moments of positive intervention were considered, tactful and carefully supportive of the creative and vital talents with which he was associating. To understand him, according to the so-called "Power House" team that he brought to prominence at ENO – music director Mark Elder, artistic director David Pountney and Jonas – you had to realise that he took genuine pleasure in the time he spent getting to know performers. Well-read, sensitive, and highly intelligent rather than intellectual, he was unsentimental in dealing with people. But he adored observing how artists felt and thought.

He particularly appreciated the company and character of mezzos and sopranos, just as he loved shooting and fishing and enjoying his Yorkshire estate. Both his wives were musicians – he moved from a pianist to a violinist, and was devoted to his Australian second wife, Patricia Tuckwell, the sister of the horn-player Barry Tuckwell, whom he encountered while at Milan airport.

He treated people with respect and civility – though he could pull rank. He had a breadth of vision and sympathy, both rare and welcome in the music business. His love of travel and foreign landscapes, as well as of his native Yorkshire, meant that his leadership had a relaxed and open quality different from the hard focus of more meritocratic managers and impresarios. He would say, at ENO meetings, "I will lie down in the road over this one," if a project dear to his heart seemed threatened. His commitment to the new was unwavering. ENO's reputation for daring in its 1980s production style did not always lead to shows he could endorse, but he never questioned the policy of renewal.

His renewed enthusiasm for football coincided with his time working on casting at Covent Garden. Just before Christmas 1961, he became president of Leeds United, the team he had supported as a boy. The club at that time was at the bottom of the second division and threatened with relegation. The improvement in its fortunes over the following years was not down to Harewood primarily, but to a local businessman, Harry Reynolds, who a few weeks later became its chairman. Don Revie had asked Reynolds for a letter of recommendation to work at another club as player-manager – but instead Reynolds brought him in as manager.

In 1964 they were second-division champions, and a year later they nearly toppled Manchester United at the top of the first. Revie, Harewood wrote, "welded together an ensemble – that is what a team is – which was the envy of others, and he and I used sometimes to talk into the night about how you build football teams and operatic ensembles and then inspire them so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts".

Harewood was president of the English Football Association when England won the World Cup in 1966. He was also the first royal in modern times to obtain a divorce and then remarry – with the necessary permission from the Queen under the Royal Marriages Act, 1772. He and Patricia finally married, in the US for reasons of legal convenience, in 1967, three years after the birth of their son Mark, and a few days after the divorce had come through. By Marion he had had three sons.

George – as colleagues called him – was unconventional, though not quite as unclass-conscious as he was sometimes assumed to be. Opera in English, and opera in Britain, benefited from his far-sighted leadership. He was the right royal, in the right place, at the right time. Indeed the only thing that was not right about him was his politics, which were liberal and democratic. He is survived by Patricia and his four sons.

• George Henry Hubert Lascelles, 7th Earl of Harewood, opera administrator, festival director and writer, born 7 February 1923; died 11 July 2011


Tom Sutcliffe

The GuardianTramp

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