Charles Mackerras (born 1925) is considered one of the most dynamic conductors within modern opera. He spent 30 years at Sadler's Wells Opera during which he both presented Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) operas in their intended form, but sung in English, and introduced the work of Leos Janacek, the Czech composer, to the West. He also has specialized in presenting operas from the Baroque period. He is said to have conducted more operas than any other British conductor actively working. He is equally reknown for his work with orchestral pieces.
Alan Charles Mackerras was born on November 17, 1925, in Schenectady, New York, to Australian parents—Alan Patrick Mackerras and Catherine Brearcliffe. His father, an electrical engineer, was pursuing a scholarship at General Electric in Schenectady at the time. He and his parents returned to Australia, and Mackerras was raised and educated in Sydney. He studied oboe, piano, and composition at the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music in Sydney. He became principal oboist of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in 1943 at the age of 21. It was during this period that he first began conducting.
Mackerras moved to Britain, where he performed with the Sadler's Wells orchestra and began studying conducting with Michael Mudie. Mackerras married Helena Judith Wilkins, a clarinet player who was also with the orchestra, in 1947. They would have two daughters. He successfully applied for a British Council Scholarship to study conducting with Vaclav Talich at the Prague in 1947.
"In those days, the only way you could study Slavonic arts or culture was to go to Czechoslovakia," Mackerras said in an interview with Opera News. "The Iron Curtain really was iron." He says he would have stayed, but for the fact that Communists came into power in February 1948. "[T]hey became exceedingly suspicious of foreigners. The Czechs hated anything German at that point, even Beethoven—though they still considered Mozart an 'honorary Czech' because of his love of their country and his famous opera performances in Prague."
As Stephanie Von Buchau in Opera News notes, "The year Mackerras spent in Czechoslovakia changed his life. He learned Czech and discovered Janacek." Mackerras told her: "Of course I knew [Antonin] Dvorak [(1841-1904)] and [Bedich] Smetana [(1824-1884)], but even in Prague in 1947, Janacek was considered an eccentric." Talich introduced him to Janacek works including Kat'a Kabanova and Jenufa. "I was determined to propagate this composer when I returned to London, and I found a willing victim in my boss at Sadler's Wells. He helped with the English translation— everything at the Wells was sung in the vernacular then— and in 1951 we produced Kat'a Kabanova, the first Janacek opera ever heard in Britain."
Mackerras had become the conductor at Sadler's Wells Opera in 1948; he made his conducting debut with Die Fledermaus. The company went on to stage Janacek's The Makropulos Case and House of the Dead as well as record other Janacek works under Mackerras's direction. As such, he is credited not only with introducing Janacek to Great Britan, but also to the West.
Mackerras learned Czech to help in this musical obsession. He became fluent in the language. He later recorded a series of these Janacek operas with the Vienna Philharmonic. Mackerras recalled, "[T]he Vienna Philharmonic was astounded when I spoke to the singers in their own language—you should have seen their faces!" Von Buchau said these recordings "have set the musicological standard since he started the series, in the early '70s."
He was a staff conductor with Sadler's Wells until 1954 and was principal conductor of the British Broadcasting Corporation Concert Orchestra during this same period, from 1954 until 1956. Mackerras became principal conductor for the English Opera Group for several of its seasons beginning in 1956. This group was founded by Benjamin Britten with the express purpose of furthering the musical form in English. With them he conducted world premieres of Britten's Noye's Fludde and Ruth by Lennox Berkeley. In 1964, Mackerras debuted at the famed Covent Garden as conductor of Katerina Ismailova, a work by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975).
It was during his work with the English Chamber Orchestra that Mackerras decided to begin experimenting with "historically informed" performances. This requires great scholarship on the part of the conductor who must uncover and discover how the composer intended the piece to be played and how it would have been played in the era when it was written. He had begun this work in the 1950s. His 1959 recording of George Frederick Handel's (1685-1759) "Fireworks Music" with its original wind band instrumentation was the first of this type of work he had undertaken to be noticed.
"I was always interested in how things were performed in their day. And the first thing that made me really aware of it is that I used to have a recording of the Handel Water Music conducted by Sir Hamilton Harty. I knew it was an arrangement, but I had never been aware of how much of an arrangement it was," he told Classics Today. "But when I was a teenager I got to look at a facsimile of the score and I saw immediately that what we were hearing bore little relationship to what Handel had actually written. And with the Fireworks Music, I saw the original orchestration and I thought 'My God, I wonder what this must sound like!' You know, the original has 24 oboes, and all those bassoons and horns."
The recording was made to commemorate the Handel bicentenary. Mackerras recalled "we got every wind player in London to come for one session, in the middle of the night, and have a go at it. It was all edited and issued very quickly, in just a few days, and I must say I was a bit frightened that it would sound horrible, but of course just the opposite occurred. It sounded marvelous. I was very relieved, let me tell you! We also did the Concerti a Due Cori on the other side of the LP, and even these works hadn't been played at all since Handel's day… . There's still quite a lot we don't know about what really went on in those days."
Continuing with this idea, in 1965, Mackerras presented Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro at Sadler's Wells Opera in England, "in English, with embellishments and appoggiaturas, those eighteenth-century expressive devices that had fallen into disuse for a century and a half," notes Stephanie Von Buchau in Opera News. Mackerras himself told her, "I'm sure that we went too far in that Sadler's Wells Figaro, exaggerating in an effort to get people's attention, but there wasn't too much opposition. The ECO was eager for fresh ideas, and the singers who performed with us on the BBC's Third Programme all wanted to learn correct style. Naturally, the BBC was also sympathetic to the cause of historical performance practice, but I think we turned the corner when I persuaded Elisabeth Schwarzkopf to sing 'Voi che sapete' in the highly ornamented version by Domenico Corri… . The eighteenth-century Viennese loved coloratura."
Mackerras accepted an invitation to conduct the Hamburg State Opera in 1966. During his tenure as principal conductor with that company, he reportedly conducted many works for the first time, some without rehearsal. Among the critically acclaimed productions Mackerras mounted were Igor Stravinksy's (1882-1971) The Rake's Progress, Boris Gudonov by Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1881), and Richard Wagner's (1813-1883) Der fliegende Holländer. He held this post until 1969-1970.
Mackerras was appointed music director of Sadler's Wells, whose name was changed to English National Opera, in 1970. He held the post until either 1977 or 1978 (published accounts give varying dates). While with the company, he conducted more than 40 operas, which included some works not in the standard repertoire such as Handel's Semele and Gaetano Donizetti's (1797-1848) Maria Stuarda, the latter of which was presented as "Mary Stuart" in English. He also established himself as "a major conductor of both Verdi and Wagner," according to International Dictionary of Opera. In this same general time period, he was the chief guest conductor for the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
Mackerras was rarely idle. He conducted Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck's Orfeo et Euridice in his New York Metropolitan Opera debut in 1972. He returned to Australia in 1973 to christen the Sydney Opera House. He conducted both the inaugural concert and Die Zauberflote; Mackerras was appointed as the Sydney Symphony Orchestra's conductor in 1982, a post he held until 1985.
He has also been music/artistic director of Welsh National Opera (1987-1992), a guest conductor for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and worked with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, San Francisco Opera, (London) Royal Philharmonic, Prague Chamber, and Czech Philharmonic orchestras.
By virtue of his chosen profession, Mackerras has had an active recording career. His body of work includes not only operas but also orchestral pieces such as the complete Mozart symphonies and serenades. He also has recorded the complete symphonies of Brahms and Beethoven, as well as major works by composers including Handel, Dvorak, Shostakovich, Sibelius, Holst, and Haydn, among numerous others. These works have been recognized with various awards. His recording of Britten's Gloriana, for example was named Gramophone Magazine 's Best Opera Recording in 1994.
According to International Dictionary of Opera, Mackerras says he attempts "to hit the happy medium between being a musician and a musicologist." Yet, he does not like to be confined to any particular specialty. "Generally I prefer conducting works by unusual composers or unusual works by famous composers. I'm always interested in something new."
Mackerras also had a passion for Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in his youth which he has explored professionally. "When I was young we used to sing Gilbert and Sullivan operettas constantly in all-boys productions at school. We sang all the parts, women's too, in the same treble voices, so I got to know them all very well," he told Classics Today. "But I used to think how nice it would be if some of these great tunes were somehow arranged into a big symphonic suite." The result was "Pineapple Poll," which also became a ballet. "That became a tremendous success, and it was wonderful fun to do. It also opened a lot of doors for me as a conductor because I was able to play the work all around England. Actually, my first recording with the Sadler's Wells orchestra was of 'Pineapple Poll.' I still perform it."
In a 1995 interview with Opera News, Mackerras said he would take no more permanent positions. He contended to do the best possible work as a music director, one must live in that city to work closely with the orchestra. He continues to be based in London. "Today most conductors are fly-by-nighters, and if I were to take a music director's job, with all my commitments, I'd end up being a fly-by-nighter too. Besides, I don't like being a pennanent [sic] conductor. I'd much rather be freelance!"
Mackerras has received numerous honors throughout his career. He was knighted in 1979 and has been given numerous honorary degrees by universities in the United Kingdom and Czechoslovakia. Mackerras has been conductor emeritus of Welsh National Opera since 1992 and of the San Francisco Opera since 1996. He was appointed to a similar post with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in 1995. He observed his 70th birthday with in 1995 celebrations with the San Francisco Opera, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Edinburgh, and the Welsh National Opera in Cardiff.
Mackerras has conducted more operas than any other active British conductor according to International Dictionary of Opera. This reference cites as exemplars works including Wagner's Ring Cycle, Aida and Carmen, "his Handel is vital but there has been all too little of it … and his Strauss is luminescent."
Debrett's People of Today, Debrett's Peerage Ltd., 2002.
International Dictionary of Opera, 2 vols. St. James Press, 1993.
The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Macmillan Press Limited, 1992.
Opera News, November 1995.
"Sir Charles Mackerras," Telarc International websitehttp://www.telarc.com/biography/bios.asp?aid_60 (February 28, 2003).
"A Talk With Sir Charles Mackerras," Classics Today, http://www.classicstoday.com/features/f1-0200.asp (February 28, 2003).