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Charles Mackerras (Sir)

Charles Mackerras (Sir)

1925 – 2010


Sir Alan Charles Maclaurin Mackerras,  was an Australian conductor  who was an authority on the operas of Janáček and Mozart, and the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan.

He enjoyed a long association with the ENO (English National Opera) and the Welsh National Opera and he was the first chief conductor of the Australian Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

He was born in New York to Australian parents but when he was three, the family moved back to Sydney, Australia.

While at school he showed an early if “precocious talent” by composing operas and conducting student performances.  At the age of 16 Charles Mackerras studied oboe, piano and composition at the NSW State Conservatorium of Music while earning additional income from writing orchestral scores from recordings. 

He joined the ABC Sydney Orchestra as an oboist and at age 19, became the principal oboist.

In 1947 he sailed for England intent on pursuing a career in conducting.  He joined Sadler's Wells Theatre as an oboist and later won a British Council Scholarship, enabling him to study conducting at the Prague Academy of Music.  While there, a lifelong passion for the operas of Leoš Janáček, began.

Returning to England in 1948 Mackerras  rejoined Sadler's Wells and so began his life-long association with the Sadler's Wells Opera which was to become the English National Opera. There he conducted  Janáček, Handel, Gluck, Bach, and Donizetti.

In 1951, he conducted the first British performance of Janacek’s “Káťa Kabanová” and his ballet “Pineapple Poll” using the music of Sir Arthur Sullivan had its first public performance.

Charles Mackerras also arranged the music of Giuseppe Verdi for the ballet The Lady and the Fool and a suite from John Ireland's score for the 1946 film The Overlanders.

In 1954 to 1956 he was the principal conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra and in 1963, he made his debut at London's Covent Garden conducting Shostakovich's “Katerina Izmailova”.

He was the director of the Hamburg State Opera from 1965 to 1969 and the English National Opera from 1970 to 1977. In 1972, he debuted at the Metropolitan Opera conducting Gluck'sOrfeo ed Euridice”.

Mackerras worked closely with Benjamin Britten for a time until 1958 but the two had a fallout and severed ties. He conducted the Sydney Symphony Orchestra with Birgit Nilsson at the opening of the concert hall in the newly opened Sydney Opera House in 1973 and remained a guest conductor with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company up until 1975.

In 1982 he was appointed chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, a post he held until 1985. With the Welsh National Opera from 1987 to 1992, his Janáček productions won critical acclaim and in Prague in 1991 he conducted a highly successful new production of “Don Giovanni” to mark the bicentenary of Mozart’s death. 

Among other notable successes was “Tristan und Isolde”, “The Yeomen of the Guard”, and “La Clemenza di Tito” with the Welsh National Opera.

During the period 1992- 2001 his various performances included postings as principal guest conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, principal guest conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, principal guest conductor of the San Francisco Opera, music director of the Orchestra of St. Luke's and conductor of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment where he was also appointed Emeritus Conductor in 2007.

In 2004, he became principal guest conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra while also taking the role of principal guest conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.

With the Royal Opera, he conducted a series of highly successful productions such as Gounod's “Roméo et Juliette,” and Handel's “Semele”.

Mackerras also had a long association with the Metropolitan Opera, where he regularly conducted “The Makropulos Case”, “Káťa Kabanová” and “The Magic Flute”.

On 18 December 2008, he served as the conductor for Alfred Brendel's final concert performance with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and his own last performance was in Glyndebourne in 2010 where he conducted  “Così Fan Tutte”.

Since 1999 Sir Charles Mackerras had been a Patron of the Australian children's cancer charity “Redkite”.

He died in London of cancer, on 14 July 2010 at the age of 84 and his funeral was held at St Paul's, Covent Garden on 23 July 2010.


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