Charles Mackerras, 84

Maverick Australian conductor Charles Mackerras dies at 84

Among Mr. Mackerras's main achievements was bringing Leos Janacek's works into the Western canon.
Among Mr. Mackerras's main achievements was bringing Leos Janacek's works into the Western canon. (Metropolitan Opera Archives)
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By Anne Midgette
Friday, July 16, 2010

Charles Mackerras, 84, the maverick Australian conductor whose interests led him across the spectrum of opera, pioneering in areas as far removed as period-instruments performance and the works of Leos Janacek, died July 14 at a hospital in London. He had cancer, according to his management firm.

Among his greatest achievements was bringing Janacek (1854-1928) into the Western canon. When he conducted "Kat'a Kabanova" in 1951 at Sadler's Wells (the company that later became the English National Opera), Janacek's operas were virtually unknown outside what was then Czechoslovakia.

Even in the composer's native country, the scores were heavily adapted as conductors and publishers smoothed over innovations that they perceived as mistakes.

Mr. Mackerras, however, recognized that these quirky works, with often angular music based heavily on patterns of conversational speech and with eccentric choices of subject matter -- including one adaptation of a newspaper comic strip, "The Cunning Little Vixen" -- were modern masterpieces.

Going back to the original manuscripts in many trips to Czechoslovakia, and learning to speak fluent Czech in the process, he helped produce definitive editions, then recorded them in the first complete cycle of Janacek operas on record outside of Czechoslovakia; his cycle remains a benchmark.

His interests were by no means restricted to Czech opera. He was an early advocate of the English composer Benjamin Britten; one of the first conductors to explore what performances of the music of Handel and Mozart might have sounded like in the composers' day; and a great devotee of the light operas of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Rise as oboist

Alan Charles MacLaurin Mackerras was born Nov. 19, 1925, in Schenectady, N.Y., where his Australian father was working with General Electric.

When the boy was 2, the family returned to Australia, where the father worked on electrifying New South Wales and the son -- one of five boys -- developed his love of music to a point where he became the principal oboist of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra immediately upon graduating from the New South Wales Conservatorium in 1943.

Inspired by some of the great conductors who came through Sydney to guest conduct with the orchestra, Mr. Mackerras went on to England to continue his conducting studies.

He took a job as second oboe with the opera company at Sadler's Wells; studied with the conductor of the company, Michael Mudie; and met a young clarinetist in the orchestra, Helena Judith Wilkins, who became his wife. She survives, along with two daughters.

Seeking additional training, Mr. Mackerras applied for a scholarship to study in Prague under the conductor Vaclav Talich, an experience that was to shape him for life.

His work with Janacek's operas was only the most obvious manifestation of a lifelong involvement with Czech music in particular and Eastern Europe in general. His work there enabled him to establish the foundations of an impressive orchestral library, full of editions not available in the West. He was known in the business for bringing his own parts, complete with markings, when he conducted an orchestra.

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