Obituary : Nicholas John

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The sudden death of Nicholas John has shocked the opera world. He was in Liechtenstein, leading a group of music lovers to a Schubert festival in Austria, when he fell in bad weather during a solitary walk on a mountain.

John was the English National Opera's dramaturge - a term which Kenneth Tynan introduced into the language from German - and the only dramaturge in a British opera company. His responsibilities became greater year by year as his wide knowledge of all aspects of opera, from its history and annals of performance to the practicalities of making repertory works shine anew, and of reviving forgotten works successfully, became increasingly recognised.

He totally changed the programmes of the ENO so that patrons stopped objecting to the price, given the wealth of readable and relevant information they contained. He filled them with illustrations that he went to endless pains to find, as well as including articles not always directly about the subject of the opera, but in some way connected to it. He edited the series of ENO Opera Guides, of which 48 have appeared, each a heavily illustrated paperback with articles, the complete text, a thematic guide to the music and much reference material. He brought out two books, one on Don Giovanni and one on La Traviata, each exhibiting unconventional scholarship, and he had nearly completed the Blue Guide to Operatic Europe. He was to be the next editor of the updated Kobbe's Complete Opera Book.

John was developing an international reputation as a lecturer on opera and a leader of operatic and musical tours, such as the one on which he died, holiday sidelines to him, which enabled him to fill out his knowledge, build his European contacts and share his enthusiasm for an art that the ENO, in contradistinction to Covent Garden, has struggled to keep affordable, democratic and spread over a wide and adventurous repertoire. He was the backroom boy par excellence, who increasingly had earned his right to be in the front room.

Although he was very much a part of the old team (Jonas/ Elder/Pountney) that had scored so many successes in the past decade, he had no difficulty in adapting to the current one, which recognised how much it needed him by increasing his responsibilities as literary manager.

Nicholas John was born in 1952 and educated at Westminster and University College, Oxford. He became a solicitor before his obvious penchant for the arts led him to desert the law for a job with the Harrogate Festival and the ENO, which he joined in 1976. The idea for the Opera Guides was his and he approached me as a musical publisher in 1979 when we decided to make them much more comprehensive than his original plan, adding the complete text. Over the years they were revised and enlarged and are now the best-known such series in the world.

John's tastes were wide and he kept up with modern theatre and non-operatic music, constantly making matches between those who worked in different arts. He played a major role in the Coliseum's outreach programmes and their workshops to bring new works into being. His creativity would undoubtedly have evidenced itself in opera production, either as a librettist or producer. He leaves a gap that it will be extremely difficult to fill.

Two things always struck people about Nick John, writes the Earl of Harewood: his knowledge of opera and his enthusiasm. We were lucky to employ him at English National Opera as soon as he had made up his mind what he wanted to do, and his qualities were invaluable. At first he struck one as rather closed in, even forbidding, but when I mentioned this to a colleague, he said: "Just make him smile."

It worked; he beamed, and we became friends. After I left ENO's management and became chairman, I used to see him quite frequently and last year asked him to take over the editorship of Kobbe's Complete Opera Book, an enlargement and revision of which we planned and on which I would work with him. Again, those two qualities were heavily in evidence.

I found him packed with knowledge of rare works, full of enthusiasm about writing about them, and we laughed at the same things. We had been working assiduously together for the first six months of this year; his death means the loss of a valued friend as well as a colleague.

Nicholas John, writer, editor and dramaturge: born 18 August 1952; died 25 June 1996.