Endless Riches: Sir Charles Mackerras & Le nozze di Figaro [Royal Opera 24 June-19 July]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to the celebrated musician as he prepares to conduct his favourite Mozart opera at Covent Garden…

Sir Charles Mackerras. Photograph: Clive Barda

Certain conductors have been noted for their longevity as working musicians – Klemperer, Solti, Stokowski and Toscanini among them – and happily Sir Charles Mackerras, now an octogenarian, is of their number. Not only is he currently at Covent Garden for the latest revival of David McVicar’s acclaimed production of Le nozze di Figaro, but in addition he will be getting The Royal Opera’s next season under way in September when he conducts Don Giovanni. With so much experience, it would be perfectly understandable if Sir Charles were to feel that he has fully uncovered the depths of works like these. But he believes instead that such music contains endless riches still to be discovered. “You never really do reach a point when you have done all you can do. There’s always something new to find in all these great masterpieces, and I certainly re-study these works quite diligently each time that I do them. You learn things in rehearsal too, and in this instance I’ve discovered a few new things simply by watching David McVicar’s assistant, Leah Hausman, who has been involved in rehearsing this revival.”

In talking with Sir Charles I wanted to touch on the past as well as on the present, but, with such a long and illustrious career behind him, there was no time to do other than to pick out certain key moments for comment. I did know that one of his ancestors was the composer and musicologist Isaac Nathan born in 1792 and considered a pioneer in his field in Australia, but I was not sure how wide-spread music was in his family, “There was always a very wide interest in it in my family – and knowledge of it, indeed – but after Isaac Nathan the next actual professional musician in our family was myself.” That became the case very early in his life since Charles was still in his teens when he was appointed principal oboist in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and he also played chamber music. As he explains, this opportunity was a reflection of the times.

“It was the war, don’t forget, and, although we in Australia didn’t suffer much, there was a certain amount of rationing and, of course, people went away to serve in the war. Having studied music including the oboe I was able in the circumstances to get into orchestras fairly young, and then before I would have been called up at the age of eighteen the war was more or less over. So there I was working with people like Eugene Goossens who came over and was persuaded to stay. Consequently we in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra found ourselves tackling a range of works new to us. I must also mention that I was the oboist in a performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and in that wonderful echo aria I played the obbligato for Joan Sutherland. It was that great, great diva’s first public appearance ever, and I’m proud that I took a part in it.”

With such success as an oboist, the question arises as to what it was that made Mackerras turn to conducting. “Just at the end of the war Eugene Ormandy came out to Australia and I was very much influenced by him. Prior to that, we had Australian conductors who were hardly competent to conduct anything and who didn’t really have any influence on how the orchestra performed. But when Ormandy came I saw for the first time what a conductor can actually do. I was terribly impressed by him and by his performances of such works as Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony and the Beethoven Choral Symphony. He transformed the orchestra, and I took note too of another visiting conductor whose technique made conducting look beautiful. That was Sir Malcolm Sargent, and I know that in this country he was disliked by many professional musicians but I thought that he was pretty wonderful.”

Sir Charles Mackerras

By 1947 Mackerras had arrived in England and would soon be in Prague through a British Council scholarship. The outcome of this was so significant that it seems apt to record detailed comments about how it came about. “I hadn’t realised then how important Czech music was going to become for me, but while still in Australia I had come to love the symphonies of Dvořák both by playing in them and on one occasion by conducting the New World Symphony. The way I got to know about the scholarships being available was through getting into conversation with a stranger in a café here in London. I had just bought a miniature score of a Dvořák symphony and this fellow opposite me said, ‘I see you are studying the music of my country’. So we talked. I mentioned my conducting ambitions and he told me about this scholarship which I then applied for and got.

“I thought that I would be studying with the great conductor Václav Talich but it turned out to be a case of attending his rehearsals which were extremely interesting. He was tireless, rehearsing opera every morning in Prague’s National Theatre, then rehearsing the newly formed Czech Chamber Orchestra in the afternoon and often conducting opera performances at night. That meant that my own studies as such were with professors at the Conservatory. That was until the Communists came in, in February 1948, and virtually relieved Talich, who was ill at the time, of all his posts, after which I was able to go to Talich’s villa outside of Prague in Beroun. I used to study all sorts of scores with him and I treasure those times. But it was earlier, and shortly after arriving in Prague, that I saw him conducting Katya Kabanova and thus, with visits to other operas following, I got to know about the music of Janáček.” It is, of course, a matter of musical history how with the advocacy of Mackerras the operas of Janáček have in the last fifty years or so come to be acclaimed, but what fascinates in listening to his description of how he got to Prague is the question that it prompts: is it possible that Janáček would not be the internationally recognised figure that he is today if Charles Mackerras had sat at a different table in a London café in 1947?

Before moving on to Mozart, I am keen to raise one other point with Sir Charles. He is on record as saying that Benjamin Britten is the finest musician he has ever worked with and, given all the great artists that he has known, I wonder what it was about Britten that earned him this exceptional accolade. “He was just such a wonderful all-round musician who understood the orchestra form A to Z. He was so sensitive and so clever. Then there was his conducting: he was a great inspiration not only with his own music but with that of those composers with whom he had a particular affinity, not least Schubert and Mozart. I remember being present at the rehearsals of certain Mozart piano concerti in which he was also the soloist and the way he did it! It was marvellous, marvellous playing.”

Having got to Mozart, I ask Sir Charles if, different as they are, he has a favourite among the operas. “I would say the Figaro is probably my favourite of all operas. Having said that, there are at least two others by Mozart that are, let’s say, equally great: Don Giovanni and Idomeneo. The latter, written so many years before the three great da Ponte operas, has a depth and profundity you could hardly expect of a composer so young. It is a unique masterpiece. And, of course, Così fan tutte, which I’ve recently recorded again in English for the Peter Moores Foundation, is another great masterpiece, albeit one that wasn’t appreciated in its own time.

Sir Charles Mackerras (b.1925). ©Chris Lee

“If, taking account of these other operas, I put Figaro at the top it is because it has everything. There’s more variety in it than in any other, both musically and in regard to the many issues it touches on. Just think of the music: the Sextet, that lovely duet at the beginning of Act Three for the Count and Susanna and all those marvellous ensembles in the finales. They are so cleverly wrought and are surely the highpoint of all comic-opera writing. Yet – and that is what is so wonderful – all those amusing situations have a serious undertone. Of course, Beaumarchais as the author of the original play didn’t really like the opera when he saw it. I think that’s probably because he thought it didn’t deal with the class issue in quite the revolutionary way that he wanted. But librettist da Ponte was, I think, very clever in his adaptation. He may have toned down the violently revolutionary aspects of the play, and indeed had to make it acceptable to the Emperor and to the general opera-going public, but he didn’t erase them altogether.”

Revolutionary or not, there’s no doubt that Figaro despite its comic elements (“so ingenious”, as Sir Charles puts it) incorporates music that is very moving, not least in the characterisation of The Countess emotionally committed to a husband who has proved to be a philanderer. Two of her arias, ‘Porgi, amor’ and ‘Dove sono’, come respectively shortly before and just after scenes that accentuate the comedy. For a conductor this means that one is simultaneously bringing out the flow and build-up of the comedy while also creating an overview that encompasses fully the serious aspects that culminate in the fourth Act when the Countess willingly forgives and the couple are reconciled. The challenge in bringing all this off is clearly one that Sir Charles relishes. “Oh, yes, keeping the balance is crucial to how the piece is presented, and in performance one naturally has both moods in mind, That’s really what conducting is about, seeking to influence everybody mentally into thinking about what the work means underneath the obvious text. Of course, there are many stage directors who take that to what I consider to be ridiculous lengths. Those are the ones who say ‘I don’t produce the text, I produce the sub-text’. Well, I believe in producing both the text and the sub-text! As for the conclusion of Figaro, the moment expressing forgiveness may be brief, but I don’t think that because of that it becomes difficult to express the weight of it. You have the sudden appearance of the Countess, that lovely phrase when she sings and the Count begs for forgiveness and a sublime melody to express it. It’s the depth that counts.”

Before our conversation closes, I ask Sir Charles about his views on the present state of music and of what music means to him. “I’ve always had a strong feeling about the importance of all the arts, but of music especially. I have always taken it for granted just how important it is to people’s lives and I have to say that in the last twenty years or so I’ve become rather shocked by how classical music, opera especially, is dismissed by some as being something for toffs. These days when people are referred to as musicians that has largely come to mean pop musicians unless the contrary is indicated and, of course, to me most pop music is very ephemeral and empty. It’s all linked to the climate of social change, but I’m always surprised how these days it almost seems that you have to make an apology if it’s classical music to which you are devoted. Despite the marvellous young musicians around today, the media’s tone is rarely sympathetic. Do I believe that classical music will survive? I’ve got to believe it because otherwise it would mean that the serious arts were giving way to what I see as the unserious arts – and that would be an appalling catastrophe.”


  • The opening night of Le nozze di Figaro is 24 June 2008 at 7.00 (5 & 12 July at 6.30 p.m.) and runs until 19 July (David Syrus conducts on 8 & 19 July)
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera
  • The performance on Wednesday 16 July at 7 p.m. is broadcast live and free to Trafalgar Square, London; Canada Square Park, Canary Wharf; BP Chertsey Road, Sunbury; BP Duthie Park, Aberdeen; Lakeside, Thurrock; Botanic Gardens, Belfast; and Clayton Square, Liverpool
  • ROH BP Big Screens
  • Mackerras’s Così fan tutte recording

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