The outgoing director of the Art Gallery of NSW on opera, Karajan and the danger of mixing artforms.

When I was growing up we were always surrounded by rather conservative music, but one of the great moments was when I was 15 or 16 and we went on a family holiday to Rome. My parents said to me and my brother, “Right, tonight we’re going to the opera”. And we said, “Oh, shit”. Anyway, the opera happened to be Aida, outside at the Caracalla baths. It started at ten at night, and had the live animals and everything – what an introduction! It was amazing. So that was quite a defining moment for me.

Nowadays I’m totally eclectic when it comes to music. On my little iPod is the entire Brahms Requiem, the entire Verdi Requiem, Strauss’s Four Last Songs and Alpine Symphony, Wagner’s Tannhäuser, as well as a bit of the Rolling Stones, some Chinese Buddhist music and some Islamic music. I suppose if there’s one thing that drives me absolutely crackers it’s musicals. We had to do them at school – all this bloody Gilbert & Sullivan. I could’ve murdered the two of them. My father also loved to play G&S on the big grand piano we had at home, which was enough to put you off music for life. But my father also liked to play the organ. Once when he came out to Sydney I arranged for him to play the Sydney Opera House organ. He had the time of his life.

The most memorable concert I’ve been to was more recent, about 20 years ago. We used to go to the Salzburg Festival and heard Herbert von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in the Brahms Requiem. That was epic: one of those life-changing moments. What was amazing was that Karajan was very old, and he had a sort of chair to recline back on. He had a full orchestra and 200 in the choir – the whole caboodle – and he virtually didn’t move. But the fingers, these white, bony fingers were absolutely in control of everything. This was about a year before he died. So ever since that’s been the pinnacle of my musical life.

We do quite a lot of music here in the gallery too. Along with Roger Woodward we started a Festival of New Music. I love doing things like that. Bear in mind, the first concert we had was supposed to start at 7pm and finish at 10pm, but Roger was still wandering around in his dressing gown at one in the morning, and there was still music going on. The next year he had all these percussionists there, which drove everybody mad. The gallery staff were saying, “Edmund, could we not do that this year?”

I am, however, a bit of a purist when it comes to mixing artforms. Richard Tognetti and the ACO did a thing with Bill Henson at Angel Place twice and I’ve seen them both and I love the idea – but to be honest, I don’t know if works. Somehow there’s no kind of natural resonance between the imagery and the music. Whereas sitting in a big gallery with great acoustics, listening to music and having pictures on the walls – that’s lovely.

We did, however, do something similar in the mid-1990s when we did a big exhibition on the Fauves and one very substantial lender was a man named David Josefowitz, a great collector I was borrowing about 12 works from – fantastic pictures by Derain, Braque, Matisse. After we’d arranged it all, he said, “Now, Edmund, you know I am a conductor…” I said, “Yes, Dave”. “You know, Edmund, it is my dream to conduct in the Opera House of Sydney.” We somehow managed to fix it, and he did a whole concert in the Opera House! We had the paintings projected in the hall. So it all worked out for David in the end.