General Director of the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet

Born: June 1, 1924;

Died: March 18, 2020.

SIR John Tooley, who has died aged 95, ran the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, for 17 years, guiding the company to international status. He strove to rid both opera and ballet of their elitist image.

He was a musician of considerable ability (in his teens he had played the oboe and studied singing) and was blessed with enough charm, energy and wit to diffuse the most dramatic situation.

Under his stewardship the Royal Opera, the Royal Ballet and the Birmingham Royal Ballet all became great ambassadors for the UK, and Tooley’s unflappable management ensured that stars such as Maria Callas, Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev and Luciano Pavarotti appeared regularly at Covent Garden.

He was also a great supporter of Scottish Opera from its earliest days. He helped to bring the company to London twice; in 1973, with Tristan und Isolde, then, most memorably in 1990, just after he had retired. He had worked for some years to bring the company to the Royal Opera House and in 1990 they brought Berlioz’s mammoth Les Troyens and Judith Weir’s The Vanishing Bridegroom.

He also championed Scottish singers including Marie McLaughlin, Linda Finnie, David Ward, Isobel Buchanan, and the conductor, Roderick Brydon.

He was a major presence when any of the three companies visited the Edinburgh Festival - especially in 1976, when Nureyev danced the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet with Lynne Seymour, and BRB’s visit in 1979, in a tent erected in the Meadows.

John Tooley was born in Kent and read classics and history at Magdalene College, Cambridge. He served in the Rifle Brigade then became a graduate trainee at Ford. In 1952 he was appointed secretary of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama; three years later he joined the ROH as assistant to David Webster, the general administrator. Tooley assumed the top post in 1970.

His time in charge included many triumphs: the Fonteyn/Nureyev years, alongside wonderful new ballets by Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan, and heroic opera nights led by such singers as Birgit Nilsson, Joan Sutherland, Pavarotti and Placido Domingo.

The list of conductors Tooley was able to attract to Covent Garden included Georg Solti, Carlo Maia Giulini, Colin Davis, Bernard Haitink and Carlos Kleiber.

He had the knack of knowing when a singer was ready to assume new roles. He offered prestigious new productions to many stars: notably, he set up a new production of Verdi’s Otello for Domingo, which many consider the ultimate challenge for a tenor. He ensured Domingo was given a magnificent production by Elijah Moshinsky and conducted by Kleiber. It was a triumph.

There were a few problems, however. During a performance of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, Montserrat Caballé walked off stage during the great love duet with Pavarotti.

The tenor had already caused Tooley anguish as he had cancelled the first night, because his father was ill in New York. When he turned up the performance ground to a halt when Caballé strode off stage. As the curtain was lowered Tooley rushed backstage and negotiated a formula for the performance to continue and settle frayed egos. He then announced to the audience that Caballé had been unwell but “she would be all right in a short while.”

Tooley, known as J.T., was a genial presence and it is said he knew everyone by name and greeted everyone with a casual informality. Eleanor Fazan, who worked on several productions there (including the Otello) told The Herald, “John was a man of endless charm, patience and deep concern for the arts throughout the UK. He was a real gentleman.”

Tooley did much to open opera and ballet to a wider public. In London he set up the Midland Bank Proms and initiated the relays into the Piazza, which have expanded with relays into cinemas. He is survived by three daughters and a son.

Alasdair Steven