English National Opera boss who transformed British opera and was later artistic director of Munich’s Bavarian State Opera
Together with the conductor Mark Elder and director of productions David Pountney, Peter Jonas presided over a golden period in the English National Opera’s history that transformed British opera and gave the company an international profile it had never enjoyed before or has since.
Respectfully dubbed “the Powerhouse triumvirate”, the trio seemed to have a Midas touch, attracting audiences even while pushing the boundaries of opera towards a more European-accented approach that produced a series of memorable, agenda-changing productions. Borrowing the company’s initials, Jonas, in a memorable advertising campaign, asserted “Everyone Needs Opera” and deftly went about widening its appeal.
Born in London, Jonas studied English at Sussex University, during which time he worked as a stagehand and on-stage extra at Glyndebourne Festival Opera. Later studies included the Northern School of Music (now the Royal Northern College of Music), Royal College of Music and the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where he sang the title role in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
In 1974 he was appointed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as administrative assistant to the formidable conductor Georg Solti. Promoted to artistic administrator in 1976, he developed lasting relationships with the leading conductors of the day.
He came to ENO in 1985 as its managing (later general) director. There his raising of production standards led to unprecedented prestige for the company even during an era of brutally diminished support from the public purse.
In 1990 he engineered the first tour of the Soviet Union by a major foreign company and at home, despite the attrition of Thatcherite economics (against which he publicly raged) pursued an adventurous approach to programming that peaked with the all-20th-century 1990-91 season that included Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek and Stephen Oliver’s Timon of Athens.
When Jonas, Elder and Pountney left ENO in 1993, Jonas went to Munich’s Bavarian State Opera as its artistic director and continued his agenda of broadening repertoire, widening audiences and supporting new work.
On leaving in 2006, he refused entreaties from New York’s Metropolitan Opera and the Salzburg Festival because, he said, his instinct and approach was “too proletarian”. Instead, he turned to teaching in universities and serving on boards throughout Europe.
In his early 20s, Jonas was diagnosed was diagnosed with cancer of the eye and survived it and a succession of other scares. In 2018, he was again diagnosed with a malignant carcinoma in his chest and a tumour on his hip.
Peter Jonas was born on October 14, 1946 and knighted in 2000. He died on April 22, aged 73 and is survived by his third wife, Barbara Burgdorf, leader of the Bavarian opera orchestra.