Bruno Bartoletti, who died on 9 June the day before his 87th birthday, was a conductor who was associated with the Lyric Opera of Chicago for half a century, and who championed modern opera. In a career that saw him conduct into his 80s – he directed Puccini's Manon Lescaut at Florence's Teatro Comunale in February 2011 – he served as the first music director of Chicago's Lyric Opera, starting as guest conductor there in 1956, when he was relatively unknown.
Bartoletti was 30 when the then two-year-old Lyric Opera needed a replacement conductor for Verdi's Il Trovatore in 1956. Baritone Tito Gobbi endorsed him, and Bartoletti made his American debut, going on to conduct more than 600 performances of 55 operas at the Lyric in his 51 years there, with his last in 2007.
Sir Andrew Davis, the Lyric's present music director, said that when he took over from Bartoletti in 2000, "I was acutely aware of the extraordinary legacy which he had left. "Not only did he establish and maintain the great Italian opera tradition which earned the company the nickname 'La Scala West', but also he oversaw the broadening of the repertoire", including a "remarkable range" of 20th-century operas and premieres.
Bartoletti himself recalled in 2007, the year he returned to his native Florence, "One of the things I am proudest of is the premiere in Chicago of Alban Berg's Wozzeck, which I think is the great masterpiece of the 20th century."
The Lyric's general director Anthony Freud recalled how Bartoletti nurtured the fledging company. "By the time he retired as artistic director in 1999, Lyric was recognised around the world as one of the great opera companies."
Bartoletti also conducted at La Scala for 13 productions, starting in 1958, and conducted many times at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. Among the several notable albums he made was a recording of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera with Renata Tebaldi and Luciano Pavarotti.