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Peter Ebert

Published on 4 January 2013

Opera director;

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Born: April 6, 1918; Died: December 31, 2012.

PETER Ebert, who has died aged 94, was one of the driving forces of Scottish Opera's early years, when he helped to lay the foundations of the great national company envisaged by the conductor Sir Alexander Gibson in 1962.

As director of productions from 1965 until 1975, he compiled Scottish Opera's first great Ring cycle – the first to be seen in Scotland for half a century – in 1967 and famously staged The Trojans, all five hours of it, in a single sweep in tribute to the Berlioz centenary in 1969. By 1970 he had presented an internationalised version of The Magic Flute, complete with a black Sarastro, in Edinburgh's Lyceum Theatre in celebration of the Commonwealth Games and, in the same year, a Beethoven bicentenary production of Fidelio with the glorious Helga Dernesch, clothed in black leather, as Leonore.

The son of Carl Ebert – Germany's distinguished opera director who had studied with Max Reinhardt and was one of the founders of Glyndebourne – Peter Ebert was born in Frankfurt and himself worked at Glyndebourne, as well as Dusseldorf and Hannover, before joining Alexander Gibson and Peter Hemmings in the creation of Scottish Opera. His first productions for the company were of Mozart's Seraglio and Dallapiccola's aircraft drama Volo di Notte (Night Flight) in 1964.

His Don Giovanni, launched at the King's Theatre, Glasgow, the following year, was an impressive example of the young company's vanguard flair, employing vast and menacing sliding panels between which the anti-hero was eventually crushed. His captivating production of Verdi's Falstaff, with Sir Geraint Evans in the title role, was another Ebert-Gibson success, as was that of Stravinsky's Rake's Progress, which marked Scottish Opera's first appearance at the Edinburgh Festival. When, in 1975, the company sensationally moved house to Glasgow's Theatre Royal, Ebert famously stepped into the party scene on the opening night of Die Fledermaus and announced to the audience: "Well, we've done it." These were the days.

By 1977, Peter Ebert had been appointed general administrator after his predecessor Peter Hemmings departed for Australia. But by then the company was entering a period of unrest and mounting financial problems which the new administrator had trouble averting and which culminated in an Edinburgh performance of Wagner's Mastersingers being halted before Act Three because the orchestra had gone on strike.

With a variety of responsibilities in his native Germany, where he had run the Augsburg Opera from 1968 until 1973 and the Wiesbaden Opera thereafter, Ebert found himself too frequently in the midst of operatic turmoil and left Scottish Opera in 1980, with his plans for productions of Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini and The Damnation of Faust, as follow-ups to The Trojans, regrettably unfulfilled.

Yet The Trojans, launched in 1969 and revived several times, had been one of Scottish Opera's first major triumphs and is still remembered with awe. How it was crammed into Scotland's small theatres was a feat of resourcefulness which Sir Alexander Gibson, with Dame Janet Baker as his eloquent Dido, resolved musically, even if, as I pointed out as an otherwise admiring critic, it meant that the Wooden Horse – a marvellous effigy designed by Hans-Ulrich Schmuckle – had to disgorge its human contents outside rather than inside the walls of Troy.

The circular Ring cycle, at a time when performances of Wagner's masterwork were in short supply in Britain, similarly faced a few technical challenges (including a tottering heap of gold in the final scene of Das Rheingold) but brought audiences from everywhere, including Bernard Levin, wearing his opera cloak, from London, and the arrival from America of Wagner's granddaughter Friedelind proclaiming the performance superior to Covent Garden's.

A fine Simon Boccanegra conducted by Roderick Brydon and a Hansel and Gretel with Die Walkure as its psychological starting-point were other Ebert hits, and occasional productions at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama – including a fascist-style Magic Flute, with Nazi salutes and arm-bands – showed his theatrical talents to be undiminished.

After retiring in later years to a hilltop farm in Umbria, where he entertained many old operatic friends, Peter Ebert returned to the surroundings of Glyndebourne, where both he and his father had worked, and died there on Hogmanay. He was married twice, and had 10 children.

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