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Obituary: Sir Peter Ebert, opera director and administrator

  • by ALASDAIR STEVEN
 

Born: 6 April, 1918, in Frankfurt. Died: 31 December, 2012, in Sussex, aged 94.

Sir Peter Ebert was one of the founding fathers of Scottish Opera (SO) in 1962. Along with Sir Alexander Gibson he created a company that rapidly became acknowledged worldwide as a major force in opera: its productions and repertoire were innovative and magnificently cast. Often they gave early chances to Scottish singers who went on to enjoy major international careers. Under Ebert’s imaginative direction the company produced the classics and took on challenges – Berlioz’s Les Troyens and Wagner’s Ring Cycle, for example – that many thought were too ambitious for such a young company. Ebert’s drive, energy and sheer belief in SO made it one of the most important arts company’s in Britain.

It was therefore sad that he resigned in 1980 amid some acrimony as to the financing and future artistic policy of the company. Ebert had strong reservations about the planned cuts in the number of performances from 200 a year and the reduction in Opera Go Round and Opera Youth.

“The demand is there,” he told reporters. “There were 2,800 people at the Playhouse in Edinburgh last week for Madama Butterfly. That is unbelievable.”

Alex Reedijk, general director of Scottish Opera, paid tribute to Ebert yesterday: “Peter Ebert made a vital artistic contribution in the early days of Scottish Opera. He directed our first incursion into contemporary opera with Dallapiccola’s Volo di Notte and through his expert hands unveiled our first Ring Cycle. His 20 productions included some of the company’s most popular works that were often revived.”

Ebert was the son of Carl Ebert, one of the founders of Glyndebourne. In the 1930 the family came to Britain to avoid Nazi persecution and Ebert attended Gordonstoun. He then worked for the BBC in Glasgow where he produced his first opera (Boito’s Mefistofele).

He directed opera in a variety of theatres in Europe and at Glyndebourne: in 1954 co-directing with his father Busoni’s Arlecchino as part of a double bill with Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. He was intendant at Wiesbaden Opera before joining Gibson and Peter Hemmings at SO.

From the outset he was an inspiring figure and as director of productions from 1965–75 he was responsible for a wide variety of operas which included works by Monteverdi to Don Pasquale and Fidelio.

He directed a memorable Falstaff with Geraint Evans making his debut in the title role and built a particularly strong artistic relationship with several singers, including the soprano Helga Dernesch.

Dernesch was to deliver commanding performances in both the Ring Cycle (alongside David Ward) and Les Troyens (with Janet Baker). When these two mammoth productions were seen at the Edinburgh Festivals of 1971 and 1972 the critics went overboard in their praise of Ebert’s visionary direction. The Scotsman drew attention to Ebert’s “clear, unforced” direction in the Wagner and of “the glory” he brought to the Berlioz.

His influential productions at SO included The Rake’s Progress (the first SO production to be given at the Festival), a joyous La Boheme and a mysterious Hansel and Gretel. His flair was seen in the 1975 production of Die Fledermaus when the company moved into the Theatre Royal, Glasgow.

Catherine Wilson sang Rosalinda and, to celebrate the company’s arrival at their new home, Ebert came on stage in the party scene and gleefully announced: “Well, we’ve done it.”

When it was revived the role of Frosch was taken by Billy Connolly.

In 1977 Hemmings left to run the opera in Sydney and Ebert was appointed SO’s general administrator. It was not an easy time to run an arts organisation, with funding being savagely cut by central government. Ebert’s plans to explore lesser known classics (he was enthusiastic to direct, for example, Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini) never materialised. Worse was the fiasco in Edinburgh when a performance of Die Meistersinger was halted mid-performance when the orchestra went on strike.

Sir Alexander’s widow, Lady Veronica Gibson, spoke to The Scotsman with much affection about Ebert. “Peter was a courteous, kind and able man,” she said.

“He was extremely popular within Scottish Opera; we all got on so well. Sylvia and Peter used to stay with us in Glasgow and we visited them in their house in Umbria. My husband and Peter seemed to see eye-to-eye about everything. I can’t remember a cross word.

“I have very happy memories of him both in the theatre and socially. He had unfailing enthusiasm for the next project and a glorious ability to charm singers and staff. Peter was very much part of the Scottish Opera family.”

Ebert continued to direct opera and theatre in Europe and was made an Honorary Doctor of Music at St Andrews University. He was twice married and is survived by his second wife, the dancer Silvia Ashmole, and his ten children, eight of whom came from his second marriage.

 

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