Norman Platt, singer and opera director: born Bury, Lancashire 29 August 1920; principal, Sadler's Wells Opera 1946-48; Artistic Director, Kent Opera 1969-89, 1991-96; co-founded Canterbury Theatre and Festival Trust 1983; OBE 1985; married 1942 Diana Clay (one son, one daughter), 1963 Johanna Bishop (one son, two daughters); died Ashford, Kent 4 January 2004.
Norman Platt had a successful career as a baritone singer, but his major achievement was as founder of Kent Opera. He remained artistic director of the company, with Roger Norrington as music director, for 20 years and also directed many of the productions himself. As well as introducing Jonathan Miller to opera direction, he gave Nicholas Hytner his first opportunities to direct professional opera.
Inevitably the repertory of Kent Opera reflected both Platt's own taste and also the smallish size of the theatres and halls visited by the company. There was plenty of Monteverdi, Handel and Mozart on the bill, as well as Britten, and other 20th-century composers such as Judith Weir and Alan Ridout, but no Wagner, Strauss or Puccini.
Educated at Bury Grammar School and King's College, Cambridge, Platt studied singing with Elena Gerhardt and Lucy Manen. In 1946 he was engaged as a principal baritone by Sadler's Wells Opera, making his début as Ned Keene in Peter Grimes. His other roles included Schaunard in La bohème, Monterone in Rigoletto, Mizgir in Rimsky-Korsakov's The Snow Maiden and Master Page in Vaughan Williams's Sir John in Love. In 1948 he left Sadler's Wells and became for a short time a member of the English Opera Group, appearing in the first performance of Britten's version of The Beggar's Opera at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge. From 1948 until 1964 Platt was a member of the Deller Consort.
Kent Opera, the first English regional opera company, performed originally in the Assembly Hall, Tunbridge Wells, and the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury. The opening performance, on 10 December 1969, was of Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea (all operas were sung in English), at Tunbridge Wells, followed by two performances at Canterbury. Platt directed and Roger Norrington conducted, as he did for virtually all performances until leaving Kent Opera in 1984. The following year Handel's Atalanta was given at the Hintlesham Festival, while The Marriage of Figaro was also staged.
Kent Opera's first commission, The Pardoner's Tale by Alan Ridout, was given in Canterbury in 1971. This short opera had a role, Death, specially written for the countertenor Alfred Deller. Don Giovanni followed in 1972, and HMS Pinafore in 1973. So far, all the operas had been directed by Platt, but Pinafore was entrusted to Adrian Slack, who also staged Ruddigore in 1975.
Jonathan Miller's first production for the company was Così fan tutte in 1974, followed by Rigoletto (set in the 1850s) in 1975 and Monteverdi's Orfeo in 1976, the year that Platt directed a very successful and overtly masonic Magic Flute. Kent Opera visited the Schwetzingen Festival that summer, with a double-bill of John Blow's Venus and Adonis (supposedly written in 1685) and Ridout's The Pardoner's Tale.
At the 1979 Edinburgh Festival, Kent Opera performed Platt's greatly admired production of Gluck's Iphigenia in Tauris and Miller's more controversial staging of La traviata. The following year the 23-year-old Nicholas Hytner staged Britten's The Turn of the Screw, followed in 1981 by The Marriage of Figaro, two superb productions. For Kent Opera Hytner also directed Tippett's King Priam in 1984 and revived The Marriage of Figaro for a visit to Vienna. Miller's later productions were Verdi's Falstaff and Beethoven's Fidelio. Platt directed a magnificent staging of Handel's Agrippina and in 1984 an interesting performance of Mozart's The Seraglio, conducted by Ivan Fischer, who had taken over as music director.
The highly successful world premiere of Judith Weir's A Night at the Chinese Opera, commissioned by the BBC, took place in 1987; Richard Jones directed and Andrew Parrott conducted. Jones also staged Rossini's Count Ory in 1988. The following year, after Monteverdi's The Return of Ulysses, directed by Thomas Hensley, Platt staged his last production, of Peter Grimes. He had meant to retire completely, but in 1991 returned as artistic director for another five years. He translated many operas, including Don Giovanni and Fidelio, and in 2001 published Making Music.
I was a 23-year-old assistant director at English National Opera when, out of the blue, Norman Platt called and asked to meet me, writes Nicholas Hytner. Out of that meeting sprang my entire career in the theatre and, more importantly, an approach to directing the great works of the past from which I have deviated only at the cost of agonies of self-reproach.
Kent Opera's integrity was a precise reflection of Norman's integrity as an artist and as a man. It was impossible to imagine offering to him ideas that were sloppy, self-serving or merely fashionable. His dedication to the purest form of musical drama and his passionate respect both for the operas he produced and the audience for whom he produced them shone like beacons. I think of him often and repeatedly: his example continues to inspire my directorship of the National Theatre.
I directed operas by Britten, Mozart and Tippett for Kent Opera. Like Jonathan Miller, I think that I've never done better work in any opera house. Certainly, I've never had a better time. Norman had a genius for finding the right people and putting them together. My collaborations with the conductors Roger Norrington and Ivan Fischer were among the most satisfying of my life and they flourished under Norman's deceptively firm direction. There was an air of other-worldliness about him that concealed a razor-sharp mind. He could sit for a moment in a Tunbridge Wells teashop after a dress rehearsal and with a couple of off-hand observations put an entire show on the right track. Then he'd wander off, humming vaguely to himself, to put someone else right with the same apparent carelessness.
Kent Opera flourished marvellously but all too briefly. It was cast adrift by the Arts Council in a bout of idiocy that Norman chronicles mercilessly in his autobiography, Making Music, and it has never been equalled, though it shows present signs of an encouraging revival. Its orchestra was simply the best chamber orchestra in the country and it formed the nucleus of the original-instrument movement that now dominates the production of baroque and early classical opera. But it was miraculous that Kent Opera ever got off the ground in the first place. An opera company run from a Kent oast-house fuelled by the determination of one brilliant, stubborn ex-singer would nowadays be lucky to get enough funding just to fill in the forms.