Serving for a little more than 20 years as head of two of Europe’s leading opera houses, Sir Peter Jonas, who has died aged 73 from cancer, made an indelible impression on operatic activity the world over.
From 1985 to 1993 he was general director of English National Opera, a member of the so-called Powerhouse triumvirate along with the conductor Mark Elder and director of productions David Pountney. Together they fostered a production style based on radical, dynamic dramaturgy, underpinned by the highest musical standards.
Convinced that operatic output should be judged by the quality of the work on stage rather than by the balance sheet, Jonas fought his corner with successive ENO managements and Arts Council officers, not to mention an often hostile press, leaving behind a series of productions that have entered the annals of operatic history.
Exploring social and psychological issues latent in the works, and featuring arresting images of dislocated reality and above all an abundant sense of theatricality, they included Pountney’s production of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, with its revolving steel-laddered slaughterhouse hung with carcasses; the same director’s Hansel and Gretel (both 1987), with its suburban 1950s kitchen and dream pantomime peopled by fantasy figures from the children’s imagination; and David Alden’s production of Verdi’s A Masked Ball (1989), conceived as a grotesque dance of death, its ballroom scene dominated by a horseman of the apocalypse.
From 1993 to 2006 Jonas was intendant of the Bavarian State Opera, the first British national ever to run a major German opera house. There too his programming was ambitious, with some 90 new productions mounted, ranging from Mozart and Berlioz to Hans Werner Henze and Jörg Widmann. One third of those new productions were of works dating from the 20th and 21st centuries, including a dozen world premieres.
Such a commitment to contemporary repertoire marked a decisive break with the previous regime of Wolfgang Sawallisch, centred as it was on Mozart, Wagner and Strauss. Conscious of the need to carry his audience with him – for historical reasons the Bavarian State Opera is far more dependent on box office returns than other German houses – Jonas offered challenging, theatrical productions, promoted via modern marketing techniques.
A central plank in that strategy was the construction of a baroque style tailor-made for Munich. With the conductors Ivor Bolton and Harry Bicket as regular fixtures, vibrant if often controversial productions of Monteverdi, Cavalli and Handel (of which Richard Jones’s Giulio Cesare and Martin Duncan’s Xerxes were two of the most successful) created a stir far beyond Bavaria.
Accused of establishing an “ENO-an-der-Isar” with his deployment of directors and singers familiar from the Coliseum, Jonas dismissed the idea as “a bit of a myth”, pointing to the number of non-ENO artists he worked with. He also enthused about his partnership with Zubin Mehta, appointed general music director in 1998, who conducted some 400 operas and concerts there in Jonas’s time. In the last year of his incumbency he mounted 30 productions in 35 days – the largest opera programme in the company’s history – achieving an attendance record of 98.4%.
Jonas described his father, Walter Jonas, a native of Hamburg, as “a Jewish agnostic from a famous family of lawyers” and said that his mother, Hilda Ziadie, “was very beautiful and had her portrait painted by Max Liebermann”.
Born in London, Peter went to Worth school, a Benedictine establishment in West Sussex, and then to Sussex University for an English literature degree, acting in tandem as a stagehand at Glyndebourne. He studied music history, opera and voice at the Northern School of Music (now the Royal Northern College of Music) appearing as the one and only Flemish deputy in a Don Carlos alongside John Tomlinson as King Philip and Rosalind Plowright as Elisabeth), followed by the Royal College of Music, London, and the Eastman School of Music at Rochester, New York, where he sang the title role in Don Giovanni.
He then became Georg Solti’s administrative assistant at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1974–76), at which time he made a facetious contribution to Solti’s 1976 Vienna recording for Decca of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The recording was lacking a Nightwatchman and Jonas suggested getting Bernd Weikl (the Beckmesser) to sing the first song and Kurt Moll (the Pogner) the second, each trying to imitate the other. “Ridiculous,” said Solti, “what are we going to call this person?” Jonas’s suggestion of Werner Klumlikboldt, an anagram of the two names, was printed on the first version of the recording.
Promoted to artistic administrator of the orchestra, he remained there until 1985, working with Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim and Rafael Kubelík and responsible for the debuts with the orchestra of Adam Fischer and Carlos Kleiber.
At the height of its success as the Powerhouse, in the latter part of the 80s, ENO provided the engine room of radical experimentation in opera production and Jonas became a leading advocate for state support of the arts. In the 1989–90 season, as the economic recession began to bite, he publicly lambasted the Arts Council for its failure to provide adequate basic funding, setting targets more suitable for profit-making businesses.
Jonas was much relieved when the avowedly Thatcherite chair of the council, William Rees-Mogg, was replaced by the more conciliatory Peter Palumbo, telling the Evening Standard that he had been much cheered not to have been greeted at their first meeting as if he were a ravenous, threatening wolf.
Unmoved by the clamour for safer, more conservative programming, he pressed ahead with a 1990 tour to the Soviet Union – the first by a major foreign opera company – performing Jonathan Miller’s production of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, Pountney’s of Verdi’s Macbeth and Nicholas Hytner’s popular account of Handel’s Xerxes, and with an ambitious 20th century season (1990–91) including Wozzeck, Turnage’s Greek, Delius’s Fennimore and Gerda (billed with Gianni Schicchi), Bluebeard’s Castle/Oedipus Rex and Stephen Oliver’s Timon of Athens. The latter season was an artistic success though the box office returns were disappointing.
Jonas supported ENO’s controversial advertising campaign of 1991–92, featuring a semi-naked male torso and flimsy negligees, citing not only the need to appeal to a broader, younger demographic, but also the desire of the founder, Lilian Baylis, to extend the audience for opera. But on matters of repertoire and production style he was unyielding: “You will never achieve satisfying everyone – nor should you try to,” he declared.
It was a philosophy to which he adhered in his Munich years too. In addition to his duties at the opera there, he lectured at the universities of St Gallen and Zurich. A self-confessed workaholic, he continued to teach after leaving the State Opera, remaining on a number of boards including the joint one of the three Berlin opera houses.
He was courted by the Metropolitan Opera in New York but was unconvinced that paying stratospherical artists’ fees and filling a 4,000-seat auditorium were consistent with the kind of high-quality, cutting-edge programming he was interested in. An approach from Salzburg was also turned down, on the grounds that he was less attracted by “incredible festival-style projects” than operating within the repertory system.
His vehicle number plate in the London years, ENO 1, was regarded by some as a pledge of loyalty, by others as vanity. He was also regarded as an uncompromising operator with radical and modernist tendencies, a badge he wore with some pride. His extracurricular interests included cricket, hiking and old master paintings. He was knighted in 2000.
In 1989 he married Lucy Hull; they divorced in 2001. In 2012 he married Barbara Burgdorf, a violinist and a leader of the Bavarian opera orchestra, who survives him.
• Peter Jonas, opera administrator, born 14 October 1946; died 22 April 2020
• This article was amended on 30 April 2020. Peter Jonas studied at the Northern School of Music rather than the Royal Manchester College of Music. The two organisations combined to become what is now the Royal Northern College of Music.