Sir Peter Jonas, director of English National Opera and the Bayerische Staatsoper – obituary

2020欧洲杯网站 He attracted a new and youthful audience to the Coliseum, delighted in courting controversy, and went on to become revered in Munich

Sir Peter Jonas in 2017
Sir Peter Jonas in 2017 Credit: Gisela Schober/Getty Images

Sir Peter Jonas, who has died of cancer aged 73, was widely credited with revitalising both British and German opera as general director of English National Opera from 1985 to 1993 and then Staatsintendant (general and artistic director) of the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, until 2006.

At ENO he struck up a famously fruitful – and controversial – partnership with Mark Elder, the company’s music director, and David Pountney, its director of productions. Together they attracted new, younger audiences to the Coliseum by boldly expanding the repertoire into the modern and contemporary and updating classics into modern settings that often combined high camp with raw violence.

Confrontation was a word Jonas used a lot. Under his leadership, Jonathan Miller turned Verdi’s Rigoletto into a story about the New York Mafia, while Die Fledermaus featured an Adele baring her bottom at the audience. Meanwhile wheezes such as a poster campaign featuring bare-chested stagehands and nylon-clad sopranos raised ENO’s profile with the general public. “If Quentin Tarantino had ever run an opera house,” wrote one critic, “it would have resembled ENO in [Jonas’s] so-called ‘powerhouse’ years”.

2020欧洲杯网站The approach made headlines and raised the ENO to international status, albeit at the cost of alienating members of the company’s traditional audience – and some critics, one of whom, while acknowledging Mark Elder’s maintenance of the company’s high musical standards, accused Pountney and Jonas of sharing an “arrogant delight in shocking the bourgeoisie”.

Jonathan Miller's production of Rigoletto for the ENO Credit: Fritz Curzon/Arenapal

Eyebrows were therefore raised when Jonas was headhunted by Munich’s Bayerische Staatsoper, which had a reputation for musical excellence but staid and stolid staging, to replace Wolfgang Sawallisch.

True to form, Jonas set to work to expand the repertoire beyond the Munich staples of Mozart, Wagner and Strauss, back to the Baroque and forward to little-known composers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries: he insisted on a world premiere every year. He brought in a series of radical directors, many of them former ENO regulars, to, as he put it, make the Munich theatre “visually led”, not just “musically led”.

2020欧洲杯网站Munich audiences did not know what had hit them. His first season included Richard Jones’s and Nigel Lowery’s production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare, featuring an enormous dinosaur which slowly collapsed in the middle of the first act. Despite the chorus of opening-night boos, the production went on to become immensely popular – “my bestseller”– thanks to the coincidental release, the day after the premiere, of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.

More controversial still was David Alden’s production of Tannhäuser, in which Wagner’s mythic struggle between “holy German art” and the pleasures of the flesh was deconstructed as an inner battle for the German soul, with a Bosch-like Venusberg and a Wartburg court overshadowed by a huge sign reading “Germania Nostra” – an allusion to Albert Speer’s “Germania” – and a set in the last act eerily suggestive of a concentration camp.

Jonas in 2014 Credit: Kurt Krieger/Corbis via Getty Images

Despite the soon-to-be-customary opening-night protests, over the next decade Tannhäuser became one of the Munich Opera’s most popular productions, dividing audiences between enthusiasts and the outraged – the latter including Christian Thielemann, who cancelled a contract to conduct the piece after seeing a video of the production.

2020欧洲杯网站Other productions to cause a stir included Peter Konwitschny’s Parsifal, supposedly Wagner’s most religious work, in which the muscle-bound hero made his entrance, Tarzan-style, swinging across the stage on a rope.

But Jonas seemed impervious to criticism (a quality honed, he claimed, during “10 years’ training” with the Benedictine monks at Worth Abbey) and always insisted that he was as thrilled by the boos as by the cheers. In 1998, on the opening night of a radical new Elektra, when Richard Strauss, the composer’s grandson, stood up and ostentatiously walked out, Jonas was overheard whispering: “We must be doing something right!”

In 2001 Jonas, who famously kept the poison pen letters in a “stink box” in the bottom drawer of his desk, declared: “I’d rather live with that stink box than with the idea that, apart from your box office, there’s nothing about opera worth discussing.”

Jonas would delight Munich audiences by turning out in the full formal regalia of the Campbells, his grandmother’s clan Credit: Gisela Schober/Getty Images

Peter Jonas was born in London on October 14 1946. His father Walter, a German-Jewish industrial chemist, had come to Britain from Hamburg in 1931. Peter’s mother, Hilda, was a Jamaican-born Catholic of Scottish and Lebanese descent, and Peter and his beloved older sister, Kathryn, who was killed in a car crash when Peter was 20, were brought up as Catholics.

Aged just five he was sent to board at Worth School, West Sussex, where he was “teased mercilessly either for being German or Jewish”. Infected with the opera bug after a friend dragged him “kicking and screaming” to Covent Garden to see a production of The Flying Dutchman, he worked as a stagehand at Glyndebourne in his spare time while reading English Literature at the University of Sussex.

He then studied music history, opera and voice at the Royal Manchester (now Royal Northern) College of Music, followed by the Royal College of Music in London and the Eastman School of Music at Rochester, New York.

From 1974 he spent two years as Georg Solti’s administrative assistant at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Promoted to artistic administrator of the orchestra in 1976, he remained there until his appointment at the ENO in 1985, working with Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim and Rafael Kubelík.

With the choreographer Beate Vollack in 2017 Credit: Gisela Schober/Getty Images

2020欧洲杯网站As the 1980s drew to a close ENO’s increasing financial difficulties led Jonas to make begging-bowl appearances on the Coliseum stage, and his disputes with the Arts Council under its Thatcherite chairman William Rees-Mogg. became so fraught that in 1990, a year after Rees-Mogg resigned to be replaced by the more conciliatory Peter Palumbo, Jonas insisted on publicly blaming him for ENO’s financial problems.

2020欧洲杯网站It was no doubt with some relief that he moved to the much more generously funded environment of Munich.

There, he became known to a wider audience for his annual readings, in German, of A Christmas Carol at the city’s Prinzregententheater and for his role as master of ceremonies in the annual Fledermaus performed at the Nationaltheater. Staatsoper audiences loved it, too, when their Staatsintendant turned up in his box, in full formal regalia – kilt, plaid, sporran, and high-laced brogues – of the Campbells, his grandmother’s clan. After he was knighted by the Queen in 2000, residents of Munich were said to correct people crossly if they did not refer to Jonas as “Sir Peter”.

An obituary in the German newspaper Die Welt singled out one great misjudgment during his time at the Staatsoper: “A Munich tenor named Jonas Kaufmann, who absolutely wanted to sing here, he turned down several times.”

There was some surprise in 2006 when, a few months before his 60th birthday, he announced his retirement from opera management, having turned down invitations to become general manager of New York’s Metropolitan Opera House and director of the Salzburg festival.

But 30 years earlier Jonas had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease and given less than a year to live, and over the next 40 years he had recurrent bouts of cancer. At his last appearance at the ENO – a production of Macbeth – he was desperately ill with septicaemia and had to be brought to the performance by ambulance. In Munich he often flew to Berlin’s Charité hospital for treatment in the afternoon and was back at his desk the next morning.

Tall, slim and pale, Jonas was an attractive man who enjoyed female company. For many years he was involved with the soprano Lucia Popp. The relationship ended in the early 1980s, but they remained good friends until her death from cancer in 1993. Subsequently he was involved with the soprano Lesley Garrett.

2020欧洲杯网站In 1989 he married Lucy Hull, a musicians’ agent. The marriage was dissolved in 2001 and in 2012 he married Barbara Burgdorf, a German violinist, who survives him.

Sir Peter Jonas, born October 14 1946, died April 22 2020