Any death, especially an unexpected one, gives one pause and it was certainly sad that the Musical Director of Opera Australia, the late Richard Hickox, died not only suddenly but in mid-career. Conductors usually tend to live to a great age. All that wand-waving is the best form of aerobic exercise.

But considerations of loss and longevity aside, it must be said that Hickox’s legacy with Opera Australia was nothing like that of his predecessor, Simone Young, whose appointment and subsequent performances generated genuine excitement. Her summary and arrogant dismissal was a blot on the company’s record, a mosimment of poor artistic judgement and serious incivility.

Hickox’s passing elicited a slew of gushing obituaries in the British press, most notably in the monthly magazine Opera which has long had a reputation for boosting British artists while praising only faintly “foreigners”.

In the same way that George W Bush justified his invasion of Iraq with weapons of mass destruction, Opera’s obituarist implied that Hickox’s’ sudden death had something to do with the less than ecstatic treatment he had received from a group of disaffected musicians and members of the Australian opera-going public.

Respected Sydney-based scientist and opera critic John Carmody takes a more balanced view of Hickox’s contribution in this letter which appeared in a recent edition of Opera. Rightly acknowledging the conductor’s affinity with British music, on which his reputation largely rests, Carmody questions Hickox’s fitness for the role of artistic supremo of an opera company and his command of the basic repertoire on which any opera company must depend for survival, the works of Mozart, Verdi, Wagner and Puccini. Not even Hickox’s most ardent fans would argue on this point.

Here’s Carmody’s letter:

An obituary is not a scholarly entry in the Dictionary of National Biography and we all know the admonition, “De mortuis nihl nisi bonum” (If you speak of the dead, say only good things), but such articles, being contemporaneous, do assume a later significance. Thus, Michael Kennedy’s affectionate appreciation of Richard Hickox demands a little perspective (Opera, February 2009, pp 1590160).

If Mr Kennedy had confined himself to a golden encomium of the conductor — even if it were thought exaggerated — one could hardly object. When, though, he cannot resist a gratuitous sneer at those (especially here in Australia) who had serious reservations about Hickox as the musical director of Opera Australia, criticisms which were made about far more than simply his choice of singers (on which Opera also commented in an editorial last November, incidentally), then he must be called to account and his article seen for what it was. All criticism can be “hurtful”, as Kennedy characterised it; as to his comment that it was “unjustified”, I would have to ask: “How would he know?” — those of us who experienced Hickox’s work in Sydney might be better informed.

It is plain hyperbole to say that Hickox “had rapturous reviews” for Prokofiev, Dvorák [apologies, my computer doesn’t seem to have the correct r here] and Janácek [ditto for the c]: in particular, I was convinced that he did not really know the score when he conducted The Makropoulos Case last year, an opinion which was corroborated by some relevant members of the company.

In fact, I never heard him give a really dramatic performance and doubt that he had a genuine affinity with opera. The Rake’s Progress and The Magic Flute were, frankly, dull when he was in the pit and he had a habit of withdrawing from romantic works after the first couple of nights, to the perplexity of the paying patrons, on the grounds that he was stressed and ill. The conductors whom he chose for other works in the repertoire were also mostly dull and pedestrian, leading to serious questions about his judgement or motives. Many musicians — conductors and composers as well as singers — found him hostile to them and their potential for the company: they cannot all have been wrong!

Paradoxically, when he was here he did not work with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in the English concert repertoire which was his real strength. So while I am sure that Michael Kennedy is correct in his view that Richard Hickox’s premature and lonely death has left “an enormous void in British music-making”, that cannot truthfully be claimed for Australia.

John Carmody.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey