Sad news: Sir Peter Jonas is dead

The former head of English National Opera and Bavarian State Opera died last night in Munich at the age of 73.

Peter had his first bout with cancer at 25 and struggled with it throughout his life. It gave him a sense of proportion and gratitude that endeared him to everyone. Few opera chiefs have spent more time encouraging young singers and helping them along their way.

He was, deep down, a solitary soul. On a BBC Lebrecht Interview he talked to me about being sent away to an English boarding school at five years old, about his long-distance marriage to the marvellous Slovakian soprano Lucia Popp and about their conciliation at the end of her life.

He was a loving man, much loved.

After working as artistic administrator with Sir Georg Solti at the Chicago Symphony, Peter led a powerhouse revolution at English National Opera from 1985 to 1993, before becoming Intendant at Bavarian State Opera until his retirement in 2006.

I have an abiding image of him sitting happily in his office, a short walk from the English Gardens and, as he would say, just 20 minutes away from the ski slopes.

In retirement, he walked across Europe, north to south. And more than once.

UPDATE: Statement from Bavarian State Opera:

“The world of music and opera has lost a great man in Sir Peter Jonas. Over the decades, he has shaped music theatre and concert life with courage, originality, energy and an irrepressible appetite for risk,” says General Manager Nikolaus Bachler. “The Bayerische Staatsoper was shaped by the London-born in a unique way, completely redefining its audience’s feeling and understanding of music theatre and positioning this art form far beyond Munich in 21st century society. Thus Sir Peter Jonas was fortunate for Munich – with English humour, which often touched on the absurd and British coolness, the ‚cinema fan’, who was open to everything visual, created a new view of the art of opera here. Since the Jonas era, the audience in Munich has been listening (also) with their eyes. We will miss him and remember him with gratitude – all over the world and especially in Munich.”

UPDATE: Peter Jonas, an object in art

ENO tweets: Everyone at ENO is extremely sad to learn that Sir Peter Jonas, CEO from 1985 to 1993, has passed away. Sir Peter was one of the fundamental bedrocks of ENO’s success in the 80s, and his legacy as CEO will echo down the generations for years to come.

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  • For me, Sir Peter was unvergleichbar. I will never forget him and always keep him in my heart.

    adieu dear sweet Sir Peter….

    Sir Peter Jonas  TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN
    Re: Helen Kamioner, Creative Consultants for the Arts. 

    I have known Helen Kamioner from the start of my tenure as Intendant of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich which lasted from 1993 until 2006.  From 1998 until the end of my term with the company, Ms Kamioner worked for us as our public relations advisor, coordinator and consultant for the USA.  Her work for the company continued even after my retirement. The USA was, and still is, an important catchment area for the Bavarian State Opera on the one hand because of the important contingent of US visitors to Munich‘s Opera Fetival and, on the other, for the garnering of financial support founded upon a secure base of loyalty to the company among american opera enthusiasts. Ms Kamioner has worked tirelessly to develop support for the Staatsoper over the years and has met with considerable success measurable not only by the increasing high level of attendance at performances by US visitors but also by the clearly identifiable editorial and critical coverage of the Staatsoper‘s affairs and performances.  Ms Kamioner‘s methods are not always conventional but always correct and certainly effective.  Ms Kamioner‘s integrity, enthusiasm, energy and perspicacity is unimpeachable and her personal and professional loyalty without question. I have no hesitation in recommending Ms Kamioner to any European opera company which might wish to raise its profile in the United States. Sir Peter Jonas  Wädenswil, CH 06.04.2009.

  • Dear Norman, Thank you for posting this lovely tribute to a great and very special human being. I know well that he had been ill for many years and he was extraordinarily brave. I had some brief contact with him in a very menial capacity as an assistant opera agent in the early 1990s, and despite my lowly status, he was always, kind, generous and considerate – even to me. He will be GREATLY missed and mourned.

  • Mr. Lebrecht, can you please provide us with a link to your interview with Peter Jonas, either the recording or a transcript?

  • I did not know he was Lucia Popp’s husband . The loss of her wonderful voice at such a young age ( why does it happen to so many relatively young women singers ? ) was an enormous tragedy

    • I think Jonas married her after her affair with Carlos Kleiber. It was such a shock with Lucia Popp died. Just yesterday I was watching the 1973 “Rosenkavalier” with Carlos Kleiber conducting and Popp in the cast – in a wonderful production.

      Sir Peter Jonas was, by all accounts, a lovely man. I’m sure he’ll be much missed.

      • Indeed, according to online reports, Lucia Popp’s affair with Carlos Kleiber predates her marriage with Peter Jonas. This of course doesn’t mean that Popp or Kleiber did not commit adultery… Let’s not go there when we enjoy the art of those two great musicians.

  • I was lucky to have been a student in London from 1985 onwards, when Peter Jonas was in charge of ENO – a true golden age for a young opera buff like me. RIP, Peter, and thank you for so many happy memories.

  • Sad! Does Wikipedia need correction regarding Lucia Popp- it mentions two other husbands for her, but not Sir Peter?

  • Great man and class act . I knew Peter from his time with the Chicago Symphony and he and Lucia would also visit St. Louis during my time as CEO of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra .

  • It was my pleasure to know Peter during his Chicago years. We became good friends and not only shared a love of music, but a passion for movies. I will never forget going to the opening of the first “Star Wars” with him. That special look he had when he smiled and those childlike eyes. We spoke often of his almost life ending battle with a rare form of cancer and the painful procedure and therapy he underwent. Goodbye to a courageous and wonderful gentleman.

  • I had the enormous privilege of working with Sir Peter having been taken on by him in 1987 as Press Officer (later Head of Press) at ENO. Apart from his huge contribution to opera, on a personal level Peter was a wonderful mentor and an immensely inspiring, loyal and generous person who continued to keep in regular touch after he left ENO.

    Despite all his illustrious global friends and contacts, Peter always remembered one’s birthday and never failed to respond promptly to any correspondence however unwell he was. I have boundless admiration for his unflagging courage, determination and zest for life through so much ill health and I am so thankful that he had the devoted support of his beloved wife Barbara (Burgdorf) in the years up to and during his last struggle.

  • Peter and I were close friends during our music student days at the *Northern School of Music, Manchester (not the Manchester Royal as is often quoted) where he studied singing and opera. I regularly played for him singing for his lessons, and exams. He was a frequent guest at dinner at my home and guest at my 21st birthday. We were both passionate about opera and singers and I remember his great love for Wagner and Verdi:in particular, Die Meistersinger, Don Carlo, and Otello.On one occasion we drove to London to hear Marie Collier and Charles Craig in Puccini’s Tosca at the ROH,Covent Garden. Peter sang the title role in Verdi’s Nabucco during his final music school year. With his passion, charisma, focus and determination we always knew he was destined to play an important role in music.
    *( The Northern School of Music and the Manchester Royal College of Music became the Royal Northern College of Music in 1973.)

  • Peter and I were at music college together in Manchester and had some very good nights out on the town! Very sad to hear the news.

  • I have been off-line for about 2 months and have just read of Sir Peter’s passing.

    I was a general dog’s body at the Chicago Symphony from 1978-1981, working next door to Sir Georg’s office where Peter and his delightful secretary Linda Dominguez kept everyone sane and calm, especially when Sir Georg the Dynamo was in town.

    Peter’s stomach cancer was a known quantity but he never ever brought attention to it. He was generous and supportive of a young conflicted musician (me) and bolstered my self-confidence by suggesting I would be a good replacement for his job as ArtistIc Director. I didn’t take it seriously and he was puzzled. I still wonder if he really meant it. But he loved young enthusiasm and drive (so did Solti and Rozhdestvensky who conducted the CSO often enough).

    It was the last golden age in the orchestra biz and it was ethical gentlemen like Peter Jonas who made it so.

    I will never forget Peter’s generosity and the long conversations about singers and operas.

    I hope you happen again somewhere, Sir Peter.

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