Peter Hemmings

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The Independent Online

Peter William Hemmings, opera administrator: born Enfield, Middlesex 10 April 1934; OBE 1998; married 1962 Jane Kearnes (two sons, two daughters, one adopted daughter); died Piddlehinton, Dorset 4 January 2002.

Good opera administrators are a very rare species, and Peter Hemmings was one of the finest.

He started early, becoming President of the Cambridge University Opera Group. The success of the group's production of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress led to the founding in 1957 of the New Opera Company, with Hemmings as general manager. He retained this position until 1965, when he became full-time administrator of Scottish Opera, which he had joined three years earlier. After overseeing the move of Scottish Opera to its own premises in Glasgow, the Theatre Royal, he became general manager of Australian Opera.

He was there less than three years, as he and the music director, Richard Bonynge, disagreed fundamentally over repertory. He managed the London Symphony Orchestra for four years, then became general director of the Los Angeles Music Center Opera, which until then had not owned an opera company of its own, but had bought in other companies from New York, San Francisco and elsewhere. After 16 spectacularly successful years in LA, Hemmings returned to Britain and was invited to sit on the board of the Royal Opera House.

Peter Hemmings was born in Enfield in 1934 and educated at Mill Hill School before going up to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, after National Service. A choral scholar, he took a degree in Classics, but concentrated much of his time on the Opera Group, founded by the conductor Leon Lovett. He sang in several productions (as a bass), notably in Cimarosa's Il matrimonio segreto, Vaughan Williams's Sir John in Love, and in the famous 1956 staging of The Rake's Progress, in which he played the Madhouse Keeper. Lovett and Hemmings suggested to Norman Tucker, then director of Sadler's Wells Opera, that the New Opera Company, as it had been renamed, should give a short season at the Wells. Tucker agreed.

The season opened on 22 July 1957 with The Rake's Progress – its first London performance – conducted by Lovett, directed by Brian Trowell, with Kenneth Bowen as Tom Rakewell. It was a tremendous success. The second night saw the stage premiere of Arthur Benjamin's A Tale of Two Cities, which had won a Festival of Britain prize in 1951, but had so far only received a broadcast performance. That too was successful, though Benjamin's opera, based on the Dickens novel, was not in the class of Stravinsky's masterpiece.

Over the next 20 years the New Opera Company performed an astounding number of premieres and first British performances. In the first category, during Hemmings's years of management, operas by Arnold Foster, Elizabeth Maconchy, Buxton Orr and Daniel Jones were staged; in the second, Werner Egk's Der Revisor, Dallapiccola's Il prigioniero, Orff's Die Kluge, Schoenberg's Erwartung, Henze's Boulevard Solitude and Prokofiev's Fiery Angel (with an unforgettable performance by Marie Collier as Renate) received their British premieres.

Meanwhile Hemmings had to earn his living. In 1958 he worked for the agent Harold Holt, then the following year joined Sadler's Wells Opera, first as personal assistant to Stephen Arlen, the managing director, then as planning and repertory manager. He was also company manager when SWO gave a season of operetta at the London Coliseum, and sang the title role of Bizet's Don Procopio for the John Lewis Music Society. Meanwhile Alexander Gibson, who had been music director of Sadler's Wells, founded Scottish Opera in Glasgow in 1962. Hemmings did not attend the first, week-long season, as he was on his honeymoon, but he became part-time administrator of the young company later in the year.

By 1965 Scottish Opera's season had grown from one week in Glasgow to a week each in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. Hemmings left both Sadler's Wells and the New Opera Company to become its full-time administrator, based in Glasgow. For a dozen years Scottish Opera flourished under Gibson and Hemmings. It was a golden age: highlights included Verdi's Otello and Falstaff; the British premiere of Dallapiccola's Vol di notte; Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, the star attraction in 1965, and Die Walküre, which heralded the start of a Ring cycle in 1966.

Perth, Newcastle and later Stirling were added to the list of cities visited. New productions of The Rake's Progress and Peter Grimes opened at the Edinburgh Festival, as did Henze's Elegy for Young Lovers. Perhaps the greatest triumph of the early years was Berlioz' Les Troyens, given absolutely complete, with Janet Baker as Dido. Baker also took part in a notable production of Così fan tutte and sang Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier. In 1971 the complete Ring cycle was finally unveiled, receiving much praise. und Isolde followed two years later.

During those years Scottish Opera had no home of its own, but merely rented the King's Theatre ad hoc. Now the Theatre Royal, which from 1956 to 1972 had been the home of Scottish Television, became available. Built in 1895, it was nearer the centre of Glasgow than the King's, but needed completely rebuilding inside. Largely owing to the drive and determination of Hemmings, Scottish Opera acquired the theatre for £3m. A third of that sum was provided by the Government, a third by commercial firms, while the final million had to be scraped together from donations and fund-raising.

The building was gutted and rebuilding began. I have an unforgettable memory of Hemmings, in a hard hat, escorting a group of journalists, also in hard hats, to the top of the shell, from where we could look down to the lowest level, several floors below street level. The theatre was ready, or nearly ready, in an incredibly short time, and opened on 14 November 1975 with a gala performance of Die Fledermaus, conducted, of course, by Gibson. The director was David Pountney, and one of Hemmings's final legacies to Scottish Opera was the setting-up of a production of Jenufa, staged by Pountney, in conjunction with Welsh National Opera, which led to a complete cycle of Jánacek's major operas.

As an opera administrator Hemmings was a benevolent autocrat. According to his own account,

The most important single element in my time at Scottish Opera was my rela-

tionship with Alex Gibson . . . [He] left the running of Scottish Opera to me for most of the time . . . and I can never remember any serious disagreement.

Hemmings's relationship with the music director in his next appointment was very different. In the autumn of 1977 he left Scotland to become general manager of Australian Opera in Sydney. Almost from the first he was in disagreement with Richard Bonynge, over repertory, over casting, over most matters that arose.

One of the few projects that Hemmings was able to inaugurate was to commission an opera derived from Patrick White's great novel Voss from the composer Richard Meale. The premiere of Voss did not take place until 1982, long after Hemmings had left Australia, but it scored quite a success. Meanwhile Hemmings had departed from Sydney and disappeared, vainly sought by the world's press. He was, in fact, on board the Fishguard-to-Rosslare ferry, having lunch with me and a friend of mine, all of us bound for the Wexford Festival.

After due consideration Hemmings accepted an offer to become manager of the London Symphony Orchestra, which he ran with customary efficiency for four years. He was tempted back into opera in 1984 by an offer to become general director of the Los Angeles Music Center Opera. For the Olympic Games he arranged a visit to LA from the Royal Opera, which brought Turandot, Peter Grimes and The Magic Flute, and was very popular. The following year The Beggar's Opera from St Louis was not much liked, but Tosca and Le nozze di Figaro from the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, were more successful.

The first proper season of the LA Music Center Opera (later the Los Angeles Opera) opened on 7 October 1986 with Otello, in which Placido Domingo sang the title role. By December 1987 the company had performed nine more operas, including Salome, Handel's Alcina, Porgy and Bess, Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel and Tristan und Isolde, staged by Jonathan Miller and designed by David Hockney. The following seasons continued in the same manner, with operas such as Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Berg's Wozzeck, Weill's The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny alternating with Mozart, Verdi and Puccini.

Some operas were inevitably borrowed or joint productions with other companies: for instance, Verdi's Un ballo in maschera and Stiffelio, Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten and Britten's Billy Budd were borrowed from Covent Garden, while the premiere of Sallinen's Kullervo in 1992 was a joint production with Finnish Opera. However, many of the productions were entirely new. Domingo was a frequent visitor, so, when Hemmings's retirement was announced, it was no surprise that Domingo should be named as his successor.

Hemmings left Los Angeles in June 2000. The previous year he had been appointed to the board of the Royal Opera and, especially after the re-opening of the Royal Opera House in December, he attended every new production and revival. When the Covent Garden premiere of Henze's Boulevard Solitude, an opera for whose London premiere he had been responsible 39 years previously, took place in March 2001, he must have felt that his career had come full circle.

By Elizabeth Forbes