November 25, 2008 / 5:25 AM / 10 years ago

Opera world mourns conductor Richard Hickox

SYDNEY (Reuters) - The opera world paid tribute on Tuesday to conductor Richard Hickox, the musical director of Opera Australia, who died of a heart attack on Sunday at the age of 60 in a hotel room in Wales.

Hickox, a Briton, took the top job at Australia’s largest opera company in 2005 and recently extended his contract until 2012 despite being at the centre of a row in the local opera community over the company’s operations, staff and the time he spent overseas.

Opera Australia’s chief executive, Adrian Collette, said in a statement that the opera company was “profoundly shocked and saddened” at Hickox’s death, describing him as “meticulous” and a “singer’s conductor.”

“But above all I think what Richard brought, and will be missed, is that he had a great sense of the Australianness of this company,” Collette said on ABC Radio.

Richard Evans, chief executive at the Sydney Opera House, said in a statement that Hickox was a musical leader across the world.

“His contribution to opera, symphonic music and the performing arts in his homeland of England, across Europe, and most recently in Australia was enormously significant,” he said.

As well as his role at Opera Australia, Hickox was the founder and music director of the City of London Sinfonia, associate guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor emeritus of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

He won a Grammy in 1997 for his recording of Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes.”

But in recent months Hickox faced public criticism from mezzo-soprano Fiona Janes, who complained about declining standards at the opera company and nepotism, referring to Hickox’s wife, mezzo-soprano Pamela Helen Stephen.

In a widely reported letter to the Opera Australia board, Janes said the company was sliding into “an abyss of mediocrity” as a result of declining musical standards, discriminatory casting, nepotism and bullying.

The board found the allegations were unsubstantiated, and Hickox, in recent interviews, said he would not let the furore affect his work.

Opera Australia board member and novelist David Malouf said dissatisfaction among the opera community about the lack of work available to them predated Hickox’s appointment.

“The dissatisfaction has come, not from people who are working inside the company. As far as I can see in consulting with members of the company, the morale inside the company has been quite high,” Malouf told ABC Radio.

Hickox died on Sunday in the Welsh city of Swansea.

He was in Britain to conduct the English National Opera’s new production of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ opera “Riders to the Sea,” which opens this week.

He is survived by his wife and their children, Abigail and Adam.

Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith, Editing by Miral Fahmy

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