Opera Scotland

Charles Mackerras Suggest updates

Sir Alan Charles MacLaurin Mackerras.

Born Schenectady, NY, 17 November 1925.

Died London, 14 July 2010.

Australian conductor and editor.

Studies New South Wales Conservatory (oboe, piano and composition) then in London and Prague.

Honours: CBE (1974); Knighthood (1979); Companion of the Order of Australia (1998); Companion of Honour (2008).

1948-54 Staff Conductor Sadler’s Wells Opera.
1954-66 Principal Conductor BBC Concert Orchestra.
1966-69 First Conductor Hamburg State Opera.
1970-77 Musical Director Sadler’s Wells Opera (later ENO).
1987-92 Musical Director Welsh National Opera.
Multitudes of guest appointments, including Scottish Chamber Orchestra (1992-95) and Czech Philharmonic (1997-2003).

Sir Charles Mackerras had a unique record as a conductor of orchestral and operatic music in a huge range of styles and periods. He was a major influence for restoration of styles of practice in the works of Handel and Mozart. He was almost single-handedly responsible for the introduction of the works of Janáček to Britain, and not only conducted first British performances of most of them, but by reference to original sources he prepared accurate performing editions of several of those which had been altered by other musicians over the years.

Born in the USA, where his father was a student, he grew up in Sydney. He studied the oboe and became principal oboist in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. In 1946 he sailed to Britain to further his studies, joining the orchestra of Sadler’s Wells Opera. He studied for a year in Prague under Václav Talich, discovering the works of Janáček. On his appointment to the staff at Sadler’s Wells he persuaded the management to stage the British premiere of Kátya Kabanová. He had meantime appeared as a conductor, starting with Die Fledermaus, and had adapted Sullivan’s music to make the John Cranko ballet Pineapple Poll. In 1959 he directed a recording of Handel’s Fireworks Music using the original vast complement of wind instruments specified. He conducted all over the world, in opera and concert, with consistent success, always spreading his ideas on the performance of Handel, Mozart and Janáček in particular, but he was also a master of Verdi, Puccini, and Strauss. He had a lovely touch with operetta, continuing to conduct Sullivan’s works throughout his life. He also worked for a while with Britten, and conducted the premiere of Noye’s Fludde at Aldeburgh in 1958.

He appeared regularly at the Edinburgh Festival over 60 years, though he never conducted staged opera there. He was scheduled to conduct The Flying Dutchman with his Hamburg company in 1968 but had to withdraw. Relatively late in his career, he struck up a fruitful relationship with the SCO which led to a succession of superb concert performances either at the Festival or during their main season. The Mozart works were generally recorded, but they also performed other works such as Fidelio, Der Freischütz, Maria Stuarda and Macbeth. His Lucia di Lammermoor with the Hanover Band was also memorable. He only worked with Scottish Opera during one brief period in 1978. This began as a collaboration with his long-standing colleague Janet Baker as Purcell’s Dido visiting the Aix-en-Provence Festival. In the Glasgow season that autumn they added Holst’s Savitri, and while he was in Glasgow, Mackerras, with typical generosity, stood in for an ailing colleague to conduct Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. He did sometimes work with SWO/ENO on tour, including Carmen, Bluebeard’s Castle and Oedipus Rex (Edinburgh 1972) and a Ring cycle (Glasgow 1976). Sadly, he never conducted a Janáček opera in Scotland.

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