Sir Edward Downes: Conductor celebrated as one of the finest Verdi interpreters of his generation

Edward Downes spent more than 50 years of his life at Covent Garden Opera House, as prompter, répétiteur, translater and, of course, conductor. He spent four years as the music director of Australian Opera, but returned at least once a season to Covent Garden where, in 1992, he was appointed assistant music director and principal conductor of the Royal Opera. He had been knighted the year before. He was one of the finest Verdi conductors of his generation, and in 1995 he launched an ambitious plan to perform all Verdi's operas at Covent Garden by 2001, the centenary of his death, a plan which unfortunately foundered from lack of funds. Downes's other great strengths were in Russian opera, especially Prokofiev and Shostakovich, though he did not neglect Tchaikovsky or Mussorgsky, and in 20th-century opera: he conducted several premieres and British premieres.

Edward Thomas Downes was born in Birmingham in 1924. Though his parents were musical and sang in the church choir, as did Ted, as he was always known, they did not approve of music as a career for their son. He left school at 14 and went to work for the Gas Board. In 1941 he secretly applied to Birmingham University for an open music scholarship, which was granted after an audition with the principal. Downes was far too short-sighted to be called up to war, but joined the fire service, which gave him a bed to sleep in, and he left home for good.

At that point he was not sure what he wanted to be; at first he studied piano, organ and composition; after graduating in 1944, he won another scholarship, to the Royal College of Music in London. Here he studied the horn as well as composition.

Although it was forbidden, many of the students played in orchestras in the evenings. Downes played at Sadler's Wells Opera for the premiere of Britten's Peter Grimes in 1945, for the ballet The Sleeping Beauty, and for the San Carlo Opera from Naples at Covent Garden in 1946. The following year he went as music lecturer to Aberdeen University and here he conducted his first opera, The Marriage of Figaro. Finally he had found his vocation and in 1949 he went to Zurich to study with and become assistant to the conductor Hermann Scherchen, travelling all over Europe with him for 18 months. He spent two seasons with the touring Carl Rosa Company as a répétiteur, working on, among other operas, George Lloyd's John Socman for the Festival of Britain, then in 1952 the company temporarily closed down. Downes applied to Covent Garden Opera Company, as it then was, for a similar post and was accepted.

Almost his first job was to prompt Maria Callas in Norma sung, unlike most of the operas at that time, in the original language, Italian. Downes was proficient in italian and German from his time with Scherchen. The first opera he conducted, in 1953, was La bohème, followed shortly by Carmen and a new production of Weber's Der Freischütz, with a very young Joan Sutherland as Agathe. In 1954 he conducted the opening performance of a new production of The Tales of Hoffmann (without rehearsal) as the elderly French conductor was considered incapable and tactfully removed.

For the British premiere of Janácek's Jenufa two years later, he collaborated with the Czech-born baritone Otakar Kraus on the English translation. By the 1962-63 season he was conducting all the performances of revivals of Verdi's Don Carlos, Puccini's Turandot and Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina, as well as sharing new productions of Falstaff and La forza del destino with Georg Solti.

In December 1963 Downes conducted Shostakovich's Katerina Ismailova for its British stage premiere, as well as providing the translation. He worked closely with the composer, who was allowed out of the USSR for the occasion, and the two musicians got on well together. The following season Downes conducted revivals of Verdi's Rigoletto and Otello and by the time he resigned from the music staff, to further his career elsewhere, he had conducted two complete "Ring" cycles – without rehearsal.

At the Florence Maggio Musicale in 1968, Downes conducted Otello: a starry cast of Jon Vickers, Tito Gobbi and Elena Suliotis had been announced, but none of them turned up; instead Ilva Ligabue as Desdemona and Sesto Bruscantini as Iago were perfectly acceptable, but the American tenor Arturo Sergi, who had arrived four hours before the performance began, was not. There was tremendous booing before the start of the third act; I have never heard such a demonstration, even at La Scala. Downes waited patiently until it petered out, then continued as if nothing had happened.

For his next trip abroad, in 1969, Downes chose Cologne, where he conducted two Ring cycles – with rehearsal, and warm applause. The first British performance of Henze's The Bassarids on BBC Radio 3 was followed by the British premiere of Humphrey Searle's Hamlet in 1969, by the world premiere of Richard Rodney Bennett's Victory, based on Conrad's novel, in 1970, and by the world premiere of Taverner by Peter Maxwell Davies in 1972, all at Covent Garden. Downes conducted a revival of Tosca in 1971, when the Cavaradossi was a young tenor called Placido Domingo.

In 1972 Downes became music director of Australian Opera. He began his stint in Melbourne with an extremely well-received perfomance of Der Rosenkavalier in the Australian premiere of Strauss's opera. Moving to Sydney, he conducted Rigoletto and Fidelio.

Meanwhile he had been busy with Russian translations; after Prokofiev's War and Peace for English National Opera in 1972, he translated Shostakovich's The Nose for the New Opera Company at Sadler's Wells, both of which were greatly admired. Then, for the official opening of the new Sydney Opera House, he conducted War and Peace, in his own translation, which was also used in Boston and Washington. The Sydney performance was a triumph, as was the Australian premiere of Jenufa, which he conducted, according to one reviewer, "with shattering intensity".

Back at Covent Garden he conducted Tannhäuser and a new production of La forza del destino, as well as Der fliegende Holländer for Welsh National Opera. In 1976, after Salome in Sydney and the Australian premiere of Berg's Wozzeck in Adelaide, Downes resigned from the post because of differences with the Board.

Downes was for many years involved with the BBC Northern, later the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in Manchester. In 1976 he prepared and conducted radio performances of Wagner's first three operas, Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot and Rienzi. Prokofiev's early opera Maddalena existed in an unfinished state and he completed and scored the work, which was broadcast twice in 1979, first in Russian, then in his translation. In 1981 Downes became chief conductor of the orchestra, and he conducted three Russian operas, Rimsky-Korsakov's Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh in 1986 and Christmas Eve in 1987, as well as Tchaikovsky's Vakula the Smith in 1990. At Covent Garden he conducted Verdi's Macbeth, Britten's Billy Budd, Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, a particularly fine version of Wagner's Lohengrin and, in 1990, Verdi's Attila.

His final performance with the BBC Philharmonic was a Promenade Concert at the Royal Albert Hall of the first British performance in Russian of The Fiery Angel. The following year Prokofiev's opera was given at Covent Garden in a superb production, magnificently conducted by Downes. Another very fine performance was that of Verdi's Stiffelio at Covent Garden in 1993 with José Carreras in the title role. He won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Conductor and the Royal Philharmonic Society's Award for his conducting of The Fiery Angel and Stiffelio.

At the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1994 he conducted a real rarity, Prokofiev's Eugene Onegin, a melodrama with incidental music in 44 short scenes written for the Moscow Chamber Theatre and never performed in the composer's lifetime. Some of the music sounded familiar, as Prokofiev re-used the material in later works. For the next decade Downes continued to conduct at Covent Garden: Giordano's Fedora with Mirella Freni, a new production of Aida, Un ballo in maschera with Luciano Pavarotti as King Gustavus, Simon Boccanegra, and a concert performance of the first, 1847 version of Macbeth, which scored a huge success at the Edinburgh Festival.

In July 1997 Covent Garden closed for reconstruction and Downes went to Los Angeles to conduct Stiffelio and Fedora. In 1998 the Royal Opera performed Verdi's I masnadieri in Baden Baden, Savonlinna and Edinburgh before finally reaching the re-opened Covent Garden in 2002.

In 2004 Downes conducted a new production of La traviata and in 2005 some performances of Rigoletto, both earning him praise from audiences and critics alike. His sight, always bad, was deteriorating fast, but his wife Joan, a former dancer whom he had married in 1955, looked after him. Then she too became ill. They went to Zurich and died together, with the aid of Dignitas.

Elizabeth Forbes

Edward Thomas Downes, opera and concert conductor, translator and music editor: born Birmingham 17 June 1924; married 1955 Joan Weston (one son, one daughter); CBE 1986; Kt 1991; died Zurich 10 July 2009.

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