On International Women’s Day 2019, we pay tribute to Lies Askonas (1913-1996), one of the most formidable artist managers, and a vital part of Askonas Holt’s history.
Born in Vienna, her story is inspiring; from skiing out of Austria at the Anschluss and working in intelligence during the war, to setting up her own agency in 1955 – an exceptional achievement for a woman at the time.
Written by the late Robert Rattray, the following text first appeared in the April 1996 edition of Opera magazine. Reproduced with kind permission.
“Lies Askonas effortlessly combined a rare ability to inspire deep affection and loyalty to her artists, and had a gift for forming life-long friendships, some spanning over 40 years, with those with whom she did business.
She was born on 13 August 1913 into a loving, cultured Jewish family in Vienna; her mother a gifted pianist, her father an amateur singer. Many of Vienna’s cultural elite were guests in their home – Alma Mahler, Elisabeth Schumann, Lotte Lehmann, Otto Klemperer, Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Chamber music, theatre, opera and above all song were central to her life from childhood – her instinctive respect for and lifelong dedication to the performing artist began early.
She studied history of art in Vienna under the great Ernst Gombrich. Her life and the lives of those around her began to fall apart with the rise of Nazism. At the Anschluss she famously skied out of Austria to freedom as the German army crossed the border. She made her way first to Paris and then to England to join her family who had by then settled in Leatherhead. After war service in intelligence and latterly on Eisenhower’s staff, she made her first moves into the music business. Initially she worked for Walter Legge in the first days of the Philharmonia Orchestra and subsequently won her spurs working for the distinguished agent Wilfrid van Wyck. It was Elisabeth Schumann, who had remained a close friend, who in 1955 encouraged her to set up her own agency. With a loan of £75 from the man who would later become her husband, she bought a desk, a chair and a telephone, and never looked back.
She was famous for her blue-chip roster of artists: she began with legendary names such as Hans Hotter and Set Svanholm; soon Birgit Nilsson, Teresa Berganza, Lucia Popp, Nicolai Gedda, Hermann Prey, and conductors István Kertész, Claudio Abbado and Zubin Mehta joined her. For a woman working alone with a tiny staff, such a list of clients was remarkable. Her talent extended beyond artists’ management – she toured the Royal Ballet with Fonteyn, the Philharmonia with Giulini, the Stuttgart Ballet with Cranko, the Bavarian Radio Orchestra with Kempe, and the Royal Shakespeare Company in the Brook-Scofield King Lear, which she took behind the Iron Curtain, an exceptional development at that time. She toured Scottish Opera in its early years. Her work in bringing the Hamburg Opera to London and Edinburgh, and the Prague and Royal Swedish Operas to the Edinburgh Festival brought her awards from German, Czech and Swedish governments.
All this was done with an ineffable flair and an impeccable sense of style. She was in every sense a great lady. Throughout her life she was always passionately concerned to help young, new talent. Proud as she was of her achievements, nothing interested her more than the continual rejuvenation of her list of artists with young newcomers who were manged under her name even after she began to withdraw and eventually retired.”