Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, CBE (1936–2012)
Richard Rodney Bennett’s opera The Mines of Sulphur was his first full-length stage work. Written in 1963 to a commission from the Aldebugh Festival, it was first performed at Sadler’s Wells in 1965. With its modernist style and gothic plot it created a short-lived sensation in Europe and America. Revived by Glimmerglass in 2004, the Wexford production in 2008 was the first in Europe since the performances in France, Germany and Italy in the wake of the London premiere in 1965. The Wexford performances of The Mines of Sulphur that first season in the new Opera House revealed Bennett’s sure dramatic sense, his ability to create atmosphere, and his skill in deftly and economically suggesting character.
Bennett was an eclectic composer who successfully pursued multiple musical lives. He composed more than 200 highly-regarded concert works, fifty award-winning scores for film and television (of which Four Weddings and a Funeral and Murder on the Orient Express are two of the best known) and had a fifty year-career writing and performing jazz songs. Born in the south of England, he studied with Elisabeth Lutyens and with Boulez in the 1950s. His music was then part of the European avant-garde but naturally developed through a form of ‘neo-Romantic serialism’ to the increasingly tonal idiom he adopted in recent years. He was made a CBE in 1977 and knighted in 1998. He made his home in New York in 1979 and died there on 24 December, 2012 after a short illness. His music is published by Novello & Co (www.musicsalesclassical.com).
Peter Ebert (1918-2012)
Peter Ebert, who died on 31 December, 2012 aged ninety-four, played a significant role in establishing the reputation of Wexford Opera Festival during its early years. He directed fourteen operas at Wexford between 1952, which was only the second year of the Festival, and 1965; works by Donizetti, Bellini, Rossini, Verdi, Ponchielli, Stanford and Mozart. In 1965 he directed Verdi’s La Traviata and Mozart’s La Finta Giardiniera, for which the costumes and sets were designed by his daughter Judith Ebert. The 1965 Festival also included Massenet’s Don Quichotte, which was directed by Peter Ebert’s father Carl Ebert (1887-1980). Carl Ebert was asked by John Christie, founder with Audrey Mildmay of the Glyndebourne Festival in 1934, to produce its first opera, Le Nozze di Figaro, with Fritz Busch as conductor. Carl was Artistic Director at Glyndebourne until 1959.
Peter gave the Dr Tom Walsh Lecture in 2000 and talked about working in Wexford in the early years of the Festival when things were very different. Despite the limited facilities in the Theatre Royal and budget constraints, Dr Tom strove for the highest possible standards.
Jim Golden was a voluntary worker in the props department at the early Festivals in Wexford and recalls how ‘a producer like Peter had to work with practically a total voluntary workforce. The backstage crew, the wardrobe staff, the majority of the chorus and the production manager were all unpaid locals, as was the Artistic Director, Dr Tom himself. I only remember two professionals backstage, one stage manager for all three operas and a lighting board technician. There may have been a paid lady in the wardrobe. The locals did work to the highest professional standards. This was the atmosphere and setup in which Peter worked, and he thrived on it, winning the loyalty and trust of all who worked there. The fact that he produced two operas at the one Festival in 1965, when the rehearsal period was just two weeks, shows his commitment to Wexford.’
Eithne Scallan also remembers Peter Ebert at Wexford and the indelible impression he made on the Festival. He had a natural charm and the ability to get on with everybody without ever sacrificing his artistic commitment to producing the best with the material to hand. She said Ebert ‘was clearly happy in Wexford and I could see that Artistic Director Dr Tom Walsh and he were, after several successful years, really good friends. His smiling manner extended to the administrative staff and he was genuinely sorry when, during a performance of La Gioconda, baritone Lino Puglisi stood on my vintage guitar, which I had unwisely provided as a prop! Gracious manners did not prevent him from being a meticulous, strict and inspired director and he must have learned much of the skill which took him through his long career in world opera from the challenge of handling splendid opera productions in the opera house conditions at Wexford, which were almost primitive. His genius showed in the production of Rossini’s Il Conte Ory in 1964 when he rose to the challenge of distributing the chorus members on the tiny stage by contriving a scene of medieval ladies sitting around a great tapestry, sewing in tempo.’
Peter Ebert was born in Frankfurt and moved to Britain with his family in 1933 to avoid Nazi persecution. Although his work for the fledgling opera festival in Wexford is held in high regard, he is perhaps best-known as one of the founders of Scottish Opera in 1962, with Alexander Gibson and Peter Hemmings. Ebert was director of productions at Scottish Opera from 1965 to 1976 and was general administrator until 1980. His productions of Berlioz’s Les Troyens and Wagner’s Ring cycle at the Edinburgh Festival in 1971 and 1972 gained the status of operatic legends, and the critics showered him with praise for his ‘visionary direction’.
In retirement he lived in Umbria and then in Sussex, near Glyndebourne. He had ten children, eight with his second wife, the dancer Silvia Ashmole.
Victoria Walsh-Hamer, the daughter of Dr Tom Walsh, knew Peter Ebert since she was a small child. She has written this tribute to Peter and his Wexford years for Wexford Festival Opera.
From the time I was about six, when as a child I sat in on his rehearsals, I have been privileged to have known Peter as a friend who, with his wife Silvia, attended my wedding to Kenneth. They subsequently invited us and our daughter Clara, then a toddler, to stay with them in Italy. Peter loved Wexford, and Wexford loved Peter. The performers loved him and he was able to encourage the best out of them all. One can see this spark by looking at photos of Peter directing the chorus at rehearsals. He had this facility for understanding and communicating with people. Peter was an integral part of Wexford, frequently spoken about around the town. In my own home he was constantly within the Walsh psyche, either in person during Festival time, or being written to, or being referred to.
Peter Ebert was an ongoing producer of magic on the tiny stage of Wexford. Peter was so good for the Festival; he did marvellous work, and so much of it. His skill was in getting what came off the stage to hold the audience, so much so that all these years later, people who saw La Finta Giardiniera in 1965 – which had all of three performances, still rave at the memory of this jewel of a production by him.
His work was absolutely crucial to the success of Wexford in the early days. His first production at Wexford was in 1952, followed by 1953, 1954, 1956, 1957, and 1958. His work continued in each year from 1961 to 1965 which was the final year as Artistic Director of my father, Dr Tom Walsh. Peter directed fourteen productions at Wexford in all, including I Puritani with Mirella Freni.
Peter wrote In This Theatre of Man’s Life, a moving book about his father Carl Ebert, who honoured Wexford with directing Don Quichotte in 1965. Peter’s daughter Judith that year designed the costumes and sets for Peter’s production of that magical La Finta Giardiniera. 1965 was an ‘Ebert’ year.
The affection in which he was held by the town was such that when he came back to Wexford in 2000 to give the ‘Dr Tom Walsh Lecture’ he had so much to say about his time in Wexford that he was asked back again the following year to continue all his memories and anecdotes. The telling of anecdotes was a delight to him and to us. Peter was always delighted that when he returned to Wexford people still remembered him and came up to him and gave him the Wexford welcome. He continued to ask for updates on how the Festival was progressing and to want to know about Wexford, until well into his nineties.
And there was the fun, jokey side of him – he used to love cracking a boiled egg, eating it, and when no-one was looking, pretend he hadn’t and turning it upside down so that it looked not eaten. And then, shock, horror, he put the shell in his mouth and ate it! That may be why he was such a good producer in getting people to perform on stage – he had the knack of engaging them with fun and twinkle and charm.
His eightieth birthday party was a barn dance. His ninetieth birthday party was held at Glyndebourne, with many Wexford-connected artists present, including Peter Rice (designer) whom he had introduced to Wexford in 1954.
Peter was most loyal to Wexford and its integrity. He was very perspicacious – on one occasion he said “The Wexford Festival deserves better” (this trenchant comment was neither about an opera, nor about a person).
Peter was good for Wexford.