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Sir Colin Davis (1927–2013)

Tributes to the former Music Director of The Royal Opera from Dame Monica Mason, Sir John Tooley and others.

By Royal Opera House

16 April 2013 at 4.45pm | 12 Comments

The Royal Opera is much saddened by the death of Sir Colin Davis, Music Director of The Royal Opera from 1971 to 1986, who worked closely with many leading singers, directors and musicians here, during more than fifty years of his association with The Royal Opera House.

Early career

Sir Colin studied clarinet at the Royal College of Music. His first conducting position was as conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. He became Chief Conductor of Sadler’s Wells in 1959 and Music Director there in 1961. His first appearances at the Royal Opera House were for The Royal Ballet. He conducted La Valse in 1960 and Le Baiser de la fée in 1960, and several ballets in 1962, including The Rite of Spring.

Dame Monica Mason, former Director of The Royal Ballet, remembers:

'I first met Colin when he conducted the opening performances of The Rite of Spring in 1962. I was the Chosen Maiden and he was the most wonderfully encouraging conductor for the entire cast at that time. Fifty years ago he was a young man of 35, and he went on to make an enormous international career. We had remained friends ever since, and I am very sad to think I won’t see him in the Royal Opera House again.'

In 1967, Davis was appointed Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. His first performance for The Royal Opera was conducting Le nozze di Figaro in 1965. He went on to conduct Der fliegende Holländer, Don Giovanni and Fidelio with the Company in 1967, and in 1968 conducted The Midsummer Marriage by Tippett, a composer he championed. In 1969 he conducted Peter Grimes for The Royal Opera, and in the same year conducted the first performance of Berlioz’s Les Troyens staged in one evening in French for The Royal Opera, recording the piece the same year. More Tippett followed in 1970 with the world premiere of The Knot Garden.

Director of Music at The Royal Opera

In 1971 he joined The Royal Opera as Music Director. Sir John Tooley, who was General Administrator (later General Director) of the Royal Opera House from 1970 to 1988, has very happy memories of Davis’s time here:

'With the death of Sir Colin Davis, we have lost a remarkable musician, and conductor who contributed hugely to all the organizations for which he worked. He arrived as Music Director of The Royal Opera with the reputation of being something of a firebrand. There was little evidence of that, but Colin, knew what he wanted orchestral musicians and singers to give, in terms of a performance which he would have regarded as true to the composer. And this was the case particularly in those early days of Mozart and Berlioz in the performance of whose music he already excelled. Colin was no slouch, and took on a repertory at the Royal Opera House much of which was not familiar to him at the time but which he wanted to explore.

'Colin’s early days at Music Director at the Royal Opera House were not easy for him, as they had not been for his predecessor, Sir Georg Solti. There were some doubts that he could deliver and that he could begin to match some of the world’s greatest conductors. In all of this, the doubters were wrong and proved to be wrong by Colin as he widened his repertory and excelled in much of what he undertook. One of his biggest challenges was the new production of Der Ring des Nibelungen from 1973 to 1976, in which he collaborated with director Götz Friedrich. Not an easy relationship, but one that nevertheless flourished and resulted in some remarkable performances. As I look back over Colin’s life and particularly his 15 years at the Royal Opera House, he seemed to be on a journey through music in which he was constantly re-examining and developing his interpretations. Colin was an immensely humble person, for which he was to be admired, and never allowed himself to become an obstacle between the music and the audience. He was generous in that he allowed us to engage many of the world’s great conductors and was in no way disturbed by the success they might have had; in fact, he rejoiced in it.'

During his time as Music Director, Colin Davis conducted a wide repertory. It included all the major Mozart operas, Der Freischütz, Wagner’s Tannhäuser, Tristan und Isolde and Der Ring des Nibelungen, Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini and a revival of Les Troyens, Verdi’s Nabucco, Il trovatore, Simon Boccanegra, Otello and Falstaff, as well as Carmen, Samson et Dalila, Werther, The Rake’s Progress, Pelléas et Mélisande, the UK premiere of the three-act version of Alban Berg’s Lulu, Eugene Onegin, Ariadne auf Naxos and Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg and Eine florentinische Tragödie. Many members of the staff of The Royal Opera have warm memories of working with him both during his tenure and after.

Peter Katona, Head of Casting, remembers:

'Sir Colin was Music Director when I joined the Royal Opera in 1983. Over the years that followed we became close. He was a wonderful and warm musician, devoted to the music he loved and free of all pomposity. Once or twice a year I would sit at his kitchen table in Highbury, made welcome by him and his wonderful wife Shamsi, and we would take a tour d’horizon of life in general and of his forthcoming projects, at Covent Garden in particular. With few artists does one have such a direct, human and honest contact. An occasion I will never forget was an orchestra rehearsal of Così fan tutte a few years ago – the singers in front of the curtain, no production to distract, and the music speaking with a richness and depth, an emotion and clarity such as I have very rarely experienced. Mozart himself would have been moved to tears, I am sure. Thank you, Sir Colin. You will long be remembered by those who had the good fortune to work with you as an artist and to know you as a man.'

David Syrus, Head of Music for The Royal Opera, worked closely with Sir Colin on many productions:

'On the day Colin started as Musical Director here I started as a fledgling répétiteur. He was my first and most stimulating professional teacher – singing bel canto in every language, using text as the driving force (in the first Friedrich Ring Götz talked music, Colin text!), discovering the rhetoric in accompanied recitative (not to mention the first two chords of the ‘Eroica’!). But most of all he taught humility – towards the pieces and towards colleagues. He was staggeringly erudite, but never flaunted his knowledge, he was very funny, always ready for good exchange of ideas (though if it was about appoggiaturas, you’d run up against a brick wall eventually!). The modesty and humanity of the man irradiated his music. We loved him and we miss him badly.'

Many of the singers who worked with Sir Colin Davis here also have fond memories of him.

Thomas Allen worked with Sir Colin many times at the Royal Opera House, first as Melot in Tristan und Isolde in 1973, then in roles including Pelléas, Wolfram, Don Giovanni, Eugene Onegin and Don Alfonso. Allen remembers Sir Colin’s tenure as a very fruitful time:

'He was Music Director of The Royal Opera at the most crucial stage of the Company’s history and development, one that happened to coincide with my own arrival in WC2. Led by him, I will always remember the strength of the Company in visits to La Scala, Milan, South Korea and Tokyo and the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, key moments in creating and establishing the international standards for which the company is renowned. Colin Davis led The Royal Opera through all of that vital period.'

Heather Harper also had a fruitful collaboration with Colin Davis, singing Ellen Orford and Nadia in The Ice Break for him with The Royal Opera, and other roles elsewhere:

'Colin and I started almost at the same time, just two years from each other; those years were his beginnings and also mine. We worked together quite a lot. I remember singing Vitellia with him at a performance of La clemenza di Tito in London when very few people had heard this opera. Much later when we were both established we worked together on many occasions, notably in Britten’s music and also Tippett’s. I remember the happy occasion when Elijah Moshinsky’s production of Peter Grimes had its premiere in 1975; there was such a good atmosphere and he was so serene. Although Colin could be very emotional. When we went together to La Scala and Claudio Abbado came to London with the La Scala company, Colin showed in Italy much more of the fire and character associated with the Italians than Abbado, who was always cool. He laughed so much when I told him about it. It was he who got me to almost shout the word ‘answers’ in the recording of Tippett’s Third Symphony. He was not only a well read intellectual but also a good motivator and colleague, as well as a sensational musician. He has gone, but those like me who were lucky to have known him and work with him will keep and treasure these memories.'

Later career

After he left The Royal Opera in 1986, Sir Colin went on to hold positions with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He was made Principal Guest Conductor of the Dresden Staatskapelle in 1990, and Principal Conductor of the LSO in 1995. He became President of the LSO in 2007. He continued to appear regularly
with The Royal Opera, conducting Ariadne auf Naxos and Fidelio in 1987, Don Giovanni in 1988 and Die Zauberflöte, La clemenza di Tito and Der Freischütz in 1989.

The soprano Anna Tomowa-Sintow sang Ariadne under Sir Colin in 1989, and remembers him warmly:

'It was with the greatest regret that I heard the very sad news about the great loss of the beloved and much valued Sir Colin Davis. I will never forget the wonderful possibilities that I had to collaborate and make music with him in numerous performances and concerts, at Covent Garden, in Munich and elsewhere. His enormous commitment, always searching for the truth in music, will forever give direction to new generations of musicians. May his memory be full of light. He will always be in our hearts!'

Sir Colin’s appearances with The Royal Opera in the 1990s included Turandot, La Damnation de Faust, Manon, Die Entführung aus dem Serail and The Turn of the Screw. From 2001 onwards he largely conducted Mozart with The Royal Opera, though he also conducted Hansel and Gretel in 2008.

Opera director David McVicar worked with Sir Colin when Sir Colin conducted his Royal Opera productions of Die Zauberflöte (2003 and 2011) and Le nozze di Figaro (2006 and 2011) and his new production of La clemenza di Tito (for Aix-en-Provence, 2012):

'When I first started listening to opera and especially listening to Mozart, it was Sir Colin’s recordings I first listened to. So when it came to working with Sir Colin on Die Zauberflöte, Le nozze di Figaro and La clemenza di Tito, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to me. He was completely inspiring to work with, gentle and wise and he didn’t give a damn about following fashion in Mozart. He followed his own heart and belief. His way with Mozart was the way I learned Mozart – and the most natural way to work on these operas. Everyone who worked on these productions benefitted from all his wisdom and experience: it was magical and very special.'

Simon Keenlyside, who sang Papageno for Sir Colin with The Royal Opera, has similar memories:

'In an age of ever more marketed, and image conscious musicians... Colin was always clear that first and last, music was ‘the Thing’, the only distraction worth driving for. His music making was fierce and uncompromising, but away from the podium, he was a mischievous, irreverent and deeply inquisitive man. We will miss him, even if his wonderful recording legacy remains often as a benchmark for excellence.'

Sir Colin Davis’s last appearances with The Royal Opera were conducting Die Zauberflöte (2011) and Così fan tutte (2012).

Christopher Maltman sang Papageno in 2011:

'Great conductors don't simply keep orchestra and singers in time, they bind them together with an overarching artistic vision that imbues tempo with meaning and purpose, and mystically facilitate the sometimes convoluted process of lifting music from page to public. Sir Colin was a truly great conductor. Even more remarkably, he was one who managed his Herculean tasks with profound integrity, humility, depth and class. An example for us all. I was fortunate enough to work with him on music ranging from Mozart to MacMillan, including both my Covent Garden debut and The Royal Opera’s 2011 incarnation of the eternal Zauberflöte, and, although the sparkling, rejuvenating energy he brought to each, even into his eighties, may have now departed, all of those pieces will for me be haunted forever by his warm, benevolent spirit.'

Sir Colin, thank you for so many years of marvellous music-making with The Royal Opera. You will be fondly remembered and much missed.

If you would like to leave a tribute to Sir Colin Davis, please do so using the comments form below.

This article has 12 comments

  1. Peter Eldrett responded on 18 April 2013 at 9:50am Reply

    Wouldn’t it be great to have a performance of The Knot Garden or the Ice Break in tribute to Sir Colin?
    Ah well, I can dream.

  2. David Hayward responded on 18 April 2013 at 5:19pm Reply

    In particlular, I remember my first live performance of Tanhauser conducted by Sir Colin during his tenure as Music director at ROH, plus a truly moving performance of the Bruckner 7th symphony at the Palais de Beaux Arts in Brussels; the concert was preceded by an interview in which his humanity and love of music came across most clearly.

  3. Tori responded on 18 April 2013 at 5:55pm Reply

    Dear Colin, thank you for your musical honesty, humanity, talent and finesse. Your work is an inspiration.

  4. John Skerritt responded on 18 April 2013 at 6:24pm Reply

    I write as a neighbour of Colin in Highbury for the last 18 years, and leave it to others to comment on his singular musicianship. He and Shamsi were immensely kind, thoughtful and generous, and several of us treasure the memories of receiving Alexander Technique lessons from Shamsi whilst music, often played by their children, wafted. into the room from elsewhere in the house. Even his beloved Mozart was not enough to keep him alive and, losing her, he died of a broken heart.

  5. Brian Higgins responded on 18 April 2013 at 10:15pm Reply

    I have always remembered the inspirational performances which Colin Davis gave when he brought the Chesea Opera Group to Oxford in the early 1950s.Wonderful Mozart in the happy days of our youth - and his ! Thank you Sir Colin !

  6. Dame Gillian Beer responded on 19 April 2013 at 5:51pm Reply

    I've wonderful memories of singing as an amateur undergraduate at Oxford in Colin Davis's Chelsea Opera Group touring productions in the 1950s. He'd gather a raw group of us and by sheer inspiration and precision form us into an instrument.

  7. Adam Lee responded on 19 April 2013 at 11:00pm Reply

    Among other greater accomplishments, Colin was the first conductor and President of the Chelsea Opera Group, and made a major contribution to the now-fashionable format of concert operas. Over the last 63 years COG has gone from strength to strength, introducing the public to less well known opera, giving opportunities to younger singers, and much pleasure to audiences. Mary Wane wrote a nice letter of tribute to the Guardian, and it is likely that the COG performance of Verdi's Alzira on June 2nd at the QEH will be dedicated to our late President.

    Adam Lee, Trustee, former Treasurer, Committee member and chorus member.

  8. musgrave responded on 21 April 2013 at 11:08am Reply

    I remeber Colin Davis, as he then was, charming and controlling an excited Prom audience at the RA Hall. I was a fan from that moment on and am saddened to hear of his death. My sympathy for his family.

  9. Glynne Williams responded on 21 April 2013 at 9:29pm Reply

    Sir Colin Davis was simply the best interpreter of Berlioz ever; there is no-one to date to equal him. Les Troyens was fantastic, and I remember the wonderful reception he had for his interpretation of that extraordinary and incredibly difficult work. Somehow he made the whole sprawling piece hang together - that is sheer genius!

  10. El-Sioufi responded on 23 April 2013 at 11:42am Reply

    A great musician and gentleman of tremendous generosity and humanity. I shall never forget the concert Sir Colin Davies gave in aid of the children of Gaza at the Barbican a few years ago. My heartfelt condolences to his family and all those who knew him.

  11. richard ashby responded on 24 April 2013 at 10:53am Reply

    It is with great sadness we say farewell to one of the great Conductors of our times. It was an honour to have met him on a number of occasions. A perfect Gentleman.

  12. Deborah Jackson responded on 4 May 2013 at 9:15pm Reply

    I saw the splendid Elijah Moshinsky production of Peter Grimes at ROH with Colin conducting - wonderfully visceral performances. wonderful conductor and man.

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