Opera in translation—though not always in the language of the audience—was once commonplace everywhere. In the age of titles, many think the practice archaic. But not Peter Moores, a 78-year-old Englishman knighted in 2003 for his charitable services to the arts.
"It's not that opera in your own language is better," he said awhile back on a rare visit to New York. "It's that you can understand it."
For his own part, Mr. Moores has no trouble following Italian, German and French repertory in the original. But in 1970 he had an epiphany when the English Wagnerian Reginald Goodall, a cult figure in his time, conducted "Die Walküre" — sorry, "The Valkyrie," the second part of Wagner's epic "Ring" cycle — at the English National Opera in London.
Bowled over, Mr. Moores approached EMI, proposing to finance a complete English-language recording of the "Ring."
"It took a long time to persuade them," Mr. Moores said. "It helped that Decca had just made a sensation with Georg Solti's first complete recording of 'The Ring' and its 36 anvils. And there they were at EMI, weeping in the corner. That experience made me realize what I could do if I wanted to." Adjusted for inflation, his stake in the project came to $1 million.
Though hailed as an instant classic in its original LP format, the Goodall "Ring" was eventually dropped from the catalog. Reissued on CD, it has found a permanent home on the Chandos label, along with nearly 60 other English-language recordings of operatic masterpieces. A crackling new account of Verdi's "Don Carlos" appeared last fall. The latest release is a historic account of Handel's "Julius Caesar," starring Janet Baker; the next, due in September, will be Richard Strauss's "Ariadne on Naxos," with Christine Brewer in the title role.
Wearing quite a different hat, Mr. Moores has played Father Christmas to Opera Rara, a British label whose name is its mission statement. That imprint offers more than 50 original-language titles by Mayr, Mercadante and Meyerbeer, as well as out-of-the-way Donizetti, Rossini and Offenbach.
Mr. Moores traces his can-do spirit and much of his fortune to his billionaire father, John Moores, who began his career deciphering Morse code on the west coast of Ireland. A publicity-shy bricklayer's son, the elder Moores went on to found the Littlewoods empire in soccer betting, mail order and retail.
"The ordinary man or woman can do anything," John Moores liked to say. Proving it in World War II, he retrained his female staff of clerks to manufacture parachutes, antiaircraft barrage balloons and whatever else the War Office required, setting a pace no established supplier could approach.
As a plutocrat's son, Peter was educated at Eton College and Christ Church, Oxford, where he studied Italian and German. But his passion from an early age was opera. He was spurred on by a grandmother who liked to mimic Nellie Melba's voice on the radio, his father's cabinet of three-minute vinyl platters and the pages of the American magazine Opera News.
Beginning in the early 1950s, Mr. Moores spent three years as a production assistant at the Vienna State Opera, toting a senior administrator's briefcase and sitting in on countless rehearsals, acquiring a wealth of experience. "Everyone knew exactly what they were doing," Mr. Moores said. "They could throw the second act of Hans Pfitzner's 'Palestrina' onstage in two hours, even if they hadn't done it in three years, and that's saying something." Peopled by dozens of prelates locked in furious doctrinal debate, the scene is musically among the most complex in opera.
Summoned back to the family business in 1957, Mr. Moores worked his way up from a receiving bay to the chairman's office. Along the way, in 1964, he established the Peter Moores Foundation, supporting the arts and social causes.
"Basically I gave from my pocket," Mr. Moores said. Early on he asked the young Australian soprano Joan Sutherland, now numbered among the immortals, if it would be rude to offer her a stipend so she could afford to turn down unwanted roles, as the great Kirsten Flagstad had been able to do thanks to a rich husband. "Joan said she wouldn't mind," Mr. Moores continued. "That's how we started. But there's a big difference between supporting a few singers and producing operas."
Rather than preserving a great estate for others to administer, Mr. Moores has lately been spending down. A grant of $23 million went to Kenneth Branagh's militantly pacifist, ardently ecological English-language film of Mozart's "Magic Flute."
"He is a beautifully complex man," Mr. Branagh wrote by e-mail from the set of his current action-fantasy, "Thor." "He knows the value of money and the cost of artistry. He is a shrewd judge of ideas and talent.
"His gift is to combine pragmatism with poetry. He and his impressive team were rigorous in their assessment of the financial approach to 'The Magic Flute' but also wildly imaginative in their response to the concept. At the beginning he asked me many searching questions, didn't necessarily expect answers to them all, and then he left me alone creatively."
The film features standout performances by Joseph Kaiser as the virtuous prince Tamino, an electrifying Lyubov Petrova as the Queen of the Night and René Pape as Sarastro, here a philosopher-general all too conscious of the vanity of human wishes. Yet the world at large gave the Branagh "Flute" the cold shoulder. Seemingly a natural for PBS, it has been in distribution limbo for four years. Now the American rights have been sold to Regent Releasing, a distributor of niche films, which plans to distribute it around November.
Beyond opera, Mr. Moores has bestowed his largesse on the fine arts. His single most impressive monument is the art gallery Compton Verney, in Warwickshire, housed in a Neo-Classical mansion built by the Scottish architect Robert Adam on grounds laid out by the English landscape architect Capability Brown. On view are permanent collections of British portraiture, Chinese antiquities, Northern European medieval art, masterpieces of the Neapolitan golden age (1600-1800), and British folk art and textiles.
"Compton Verney makes a nice destination for a day in the country," Mr. Moores said, "and it's easy to get to by public transport." The British folk art, he said, is proving a special hit with children. "Granny takes the kids upstairs, they look at the pigs and the barbershop signs, and then they filter down. They've had fun. They're not bored. And at that point they're ready to look at the Chinese bronzes."
But for the longtime pet projects of the Peter Moores Foundation, it is beginning to feel like the end of an era if not the end of the road. Money is not the only consideration.
"From choice of repertory to final mix and marketing, Peter has always been there every step of the way," Ralph Couzens, the managing director of Chandos, said recently from London. "He casts with care, sometimes waiting years for the right talent to come along."
Mr. Moores attends every recording session, policing the diction for clarity, requesting the odd word change in a translation and insisting on sound effects that help tell the story: a knock on a door here, a clatter of swords there. The attention to details pays off in a vivid theatricality that sometimes harks back to the golden-age Victrola discs that Mr. Moores grew up on.
"We want to create something that will stand the test of time," Mr. Couzens said. "In the beginning, the Opera in English series got a lot of criticism from the original-language snobs, but sales are increasing all the time, and more prestigious artists are asking to take part." (Not that the backlist is shabby, with star turns by the likes of Janet Baker, Jane Eaglen, Gerald Finley, Simon Keenlyside, Philip Langridge, Kiri Te Kanawa and let us not forget Ms. Sutherland.) The series even has a fan base abroad among listeners who may not speak English but say they love the recordings just for the overall quality of the performances.
Although the wish list Mr. Moores compiled for Opera in English decades ago is almost complete, Mr. Couzens said, many more works might be added. "But I doubt we could ever find someone with his vision," he said. "The whole thing is so personal to Peter and has his stamp all over it. Maybe it should end here?"
Stephen Revell, the managing director of Opera Rara, is less willing to call it quits. "Opera Rara is currently looking for other individuals, trusts and foundations and organizations who can take over where Peter leaves off," he said." We are confident that with luck on our side, Opera Rara can continue to flourish. There is still much to do."
As Mr. Moores has shown, passionate connoisseurship is not enough. The tycoon's killer instincts count, too.
"I make recordings to get people to know opera," he said. "It's no good just recording operas I like or operas I think you should like. Opera Rara reaches a quiet opera audience that is very loyal. We don't have to work so hard with them. But the operas in English are for the nonspecialist. We have to figure out what people will want to buy. If people don't buy, we're not doing a good job of getting them to know opera."