Stella Chitty

Stage manager at the Royal Opera House
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The Independent Online

Stella Chitty was employed by the Royal Opera at Covent Garden for 47 years, rising from assistant stage manager to general stage manager. She saw the company develop from the frankly provincial standards of the early post-war years to the international status it has today. She lived, loved and breathed Covent Garden. Her two husbands were both affiliated to the Royal Opera: the first, William Bundy, was lighting director, who lit many fine productions; the second, Jack Stirling-Wakeley, was principal percussionist in the ROH Orchestra. Even after she retired from stage management in 1993 she continued for another four years as relief house manager.

Stella Chitty, stage manager: born London 11 March 1928; OBE 1992; married first William Bundy (deceased), second Jack Stirling-Wakeley (deceased); died London 17 June 2005.

Stella Chitty was employed by the Royal Opera at Covent Garden for 47 years, rising from assistant stage manager to general stage manager. She saw the company develop from the frankly provincial standards of the early post-war years to the international status it has today. She lived, loved and breathed Covent Garden. Her two husbands were both affiliated to the Royal Opera: the first, William Bundy, was lighting director, who lit many fine productions; the second, Jack Stirling-Wakeley, was principal percussionist in the ROH Orchestra. Even after she retired from stage management in 1993 she continued for another four years as relief house manager.

She was born in Brixton, south London, in 1928. Her first job was as secretary assistant to Howard Keel, star of Oklahoma, which began its long run at Drury Lane Theatre in April 1947. She then worked for H.M. Tennent, the theatrical management, and in 1948 went as stage manager with the Old Vic Company that toured Australia and New Zealand. The company, headed by Laurence Olivier, performed The School for Scandal, Richard III and Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth. A short season followed at the New Theatre, London (now the Albery), at the beginning of 1949.

Chitty joined the Covent Garden Opera Company, as the Royal Opera was then known, in 1950 as assistant stage manager. Most operas were sung in English, though some Wagner performances were in German. Guest artists such as Boris Christoff in Boris Godunov sang in the original language while the remainder of the cast sang in English. Chitty, who throughout her career got on extremely well with singers, found Christoff unsympathetic and avoided him as much as possible. An opera that was to become one of her favourites - Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd - received its premiere in December 1951, conducted by the composer. Another, equally well loved, was Alban Berg's Wozzeck, first staged at Covent Garden in 1952, conducted by Erich Kleiber.

She became deputy stage manager in 1958, the centenary year of the present Covent Garden theatre. A magnificent production of Verdi's Don Carlos, conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini and directed by Luchino Visconti, was staged in celebration. Chitty, along with most of the females who worked in the Opera House, and most of those in the audience, fell madly in love with Giulini, both the man and the musician. She was also very fond of the wolfhounds that were part of King Philip's entourage.

The following year Joan Sutherland, a member of the company since 1952 and a favourite of Chitty's, astonished the opera world with her singing of the heroine of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, conducted by Tullio Serafin and directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Covent Garden had become an international opera house.

Chitty had her likes and dislikes in opera. She was not very keen on Handel, Mozart or the 18th century generally, greatly preferring the Romantic tradition of the 19th century, especially Wagner and Verdi. One of her tasks was to rehearse the soldiers - genuine guardsmen in those days - who provided the warriors in the Triumph Scene in Aida; they were always exceptionally well drilled. She also liked Richard Strauss, especially Der Rosenkavalier when conducted by Erich Kleiber or, many years later, by his son Carlos Kleiber. The latter was seen as a terrifying figure by many, but Chitty, who considered him a genius, had no trouble in looking after him.

Georg Solti became music director at Covent Garden in 1961 and three years later Chitty became stage manager, entering, as it were, into her kingdom, where she ruled for three decades. Solti, like Colin Davis and Bernard Haitink, who succeeded him as music director, trusted Chitty implicitly. She worked hard, arriving at the Opera House at 9.30am (having done an hour's gardening at her house in Herne Hill) and leaving at 11pm on days when opera was being performed, which in the summer when the ballet company was touring could be as often as six days a week. Departments of the house were then spread all over London, with rehearsals, set construction and other activities having to be co-ordinated.

Chitty treated everyone with respect, not only star singers and temperamental conductors, but also the members of the chorus, the rank-and-file orchestral players, the stage-hands, even the canteen ladies, who could all contribute their efforts to facilitate the delivery of great opera. Although singers and conductors came first in her list of priorities, she co-operated equally well with directors, both those like Ande Andersen, John Copley and Elijah Moshinsky who worked frequently with the company, and guest directors such as Franco Zeffirelli, August Everding and Götz Friedrich. Her admiration for Friedrich, with whom she worked on the techmically complicated Ring cycle designed by Josef Svoboda, which was at first mingled with slight fear, soon turned to genuine affection.

Among singers Chitty was particularly fond of those who had started their careers at Covent Garden: Joan Sutherland, Jon Vickers, Gwyneth Jones, Kiri te Kanawa and Thomas Allen. But she also succumbed to the charms of the three tenors Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and José Carreras. Carreras sang Cavaradossi in Tosca on the Covent Garden tour of Japan and South Korea in 1979, which also included performances of Peter Grimes with Vickers in the title role and Die Zauberflöte with Allen as Papageno. The success of this tour was a well-earned tribute to Chitty's amazing organisational skills, as was the Royal Opera's visit to Los Angeles during the Olympic Games of 1984, when Andre Serban's production of Turandot was given its first performance.

Turandot was taken to Tokyo and Korea, along with Carmen, in which Carreras (and two other tenors) sang Don José, Samson et Dalila with Vickers as Samson and Così fan tutte, on a second successful tour of the Far East in 1986. If Chitty had a fault it was her reluctance to delegate, but, as the years went by and the technical demands of productions grew ever greater, she was forced to do so. Her loyalty to the singers, however, never wavered. Before a performance, according to Thomas Allen, there would be a gentle tap on the dressing-room door and a voice would ask softly "May I come in?" as she made sure that everyone was prepared and everything in place. After her retirement in 1997, she continued to attend dress rehearsals and first nights at Covent Garden. Her loyalty to the Royal Opera was absolute.

Elizabeth Forbes

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