During his 18-year tenure as general director of the Royal Opera House from 1970, John Tooley guided the historic Covent Garden institution and its opera and ballet companies through a period of tumult and transformation.
Born in Rochester, Kent, he harboured early aspirations to be a singer, but read classics and history at Cambridge (where he also took up the oboe) before serving with the Rifle Brigade, where his talent for administration was first recognised.
On being demobbed in 1948, Tooley joined the Ford Motor Company and in 1952 was appointed secretary of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He joined the Royal Opera House in 1955 as assistant to the then general director David Webster.
Over the following decade, he took on an increasing share of managerial responsibility as Webster’s health began to fail, succeeding him on his retirement in 1970 as the venue’s general director.
Tooley proved to be the consummate manager, mixing as easily with front-of-house and backstage staff as with marquee-name ballet and opera artists.
In charge of both artistic and financial matters, he championed new directors such as Peter Hall, Peter Ustinov and Sam Wanamaker and enjoyed close associations with his music directors, the conductors Rafael Kubelik (1955-58), Georg Solti (1961-71) and Colin Davis (1971-86). One of his last appointments was Bernard Haitink as Davis’ successor in 1987.
When his ambitions for the house were compromised by savage cuts in arts funding during the Thatcher government of the 1980s, he turned to private sponsorship and initiated cost-saving co-productions with other international venues. Widening access to the venue, he successfully pioneered live broadcasts to cinemas and introduced subsidised ‘proms’ performances, which drew new audiences to opera and ballet from 1972 until the building closed for refurbishment in 1997.
With a preference for naturalism in productions, his later years were marred by growing dissent from opera critics in particular. Yet he could count among his successes the nurturing of talent, including director Peter Hall and singers John Tomlinson and Thomas Allen within the house’s opera company.
During his tenure, notable new operas included the world premieres of Michael Tippett’s The Knot Garden (1970) and Hans Werner Henze’s We Come to the River (1976), as well as the first staging in Britain of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Donnerstag aus Licht in 1985.
Working alongside choreographer Kenneth MacMillan, his stewardship of the Royal Ballet spanned a golden period of sustained achievements in the 1970s, when the company could boast dancers of the calibre of Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev, Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell.
After his retirement, he served on several boards, including the Southbank Centre, Welsh National Opera and the Britten Estate.
Tooley was knighted in 1979, and published a memoir, In House, in 1999.
John Tooley was born on June 1, 1924 and died on March 18, aged 95.