Richard Hickox conducted the first opera I ever saw as a Sydneysider, Janacek's Jenufa. That was a matinée, two weeks after I moved here. Even before that, just a few days after I arrived, when I was still camped out in a backpackers in King's Cross and wondering what on earth I'd done, the first performance of any kind I saw as a resident was Opera Australia's 50th Anniversary Gala, also conducted by Richard Hickox. Part of the reason I'd moved here was because I needed to live somewhere with regular opera. Opera Australia has provided it ever since, and Richard Hickox is the only Music Director I've known. For those who knew the company under previous régimes, there are points of comparison to be made, some to Hickox's advantage and some, I suppose, not. I can't make those comparisons. Since my first, tentative steps into trans-Tasman fanaticism, Opera Australia and Richard Hickox have been synonymous as far as I've been concerned.
And maybe it's just coincidence — and maybe it's not — but while parts of the opera community were blaming him for a perceived slip in artistic standards, the three finest productions I saw at Opera Australia this year were all led by Richard — Billy Budd, the extraordinary revival of The Makropulos Case and, above all, Arabella, whose opening night was quite simply the best night I have ever spent in any theatre, anywhere.
It is a pity that, as has been pointed out elsewhere, several of the Australian newspapers have chosen to report this awful tragedy as the next installment in the sorry saga of Opera Australia's embattled administration. Such an approach does justice to nobody — neither Richard, who deserves far more dignity, nor the dissenters who, for all the complaints they made and insults they levelled, obviously never, ever wanted it to end like this.
I have always felt myself in capable hands with Richard in the pit. In some cases, I've felt myself in the best imaginable care, above all in the British works which were his joy, his passion and his unquestioned forte. The performances he led of Billy Budd and of Vaughan Williams' The Pilgrim's Progress were both of the kind which made me think: this is as good as it gets, nobody does this as well as that man right there, and what good fortune that all it takes to experience his incredible skill is a ticket and a twenty minute train ride. And it always made me inordinately happy when, arriving at the theatre well in advance, I would see him perched at the cafe in the Opera House concourse, enjoying a pre-show snack with his son.
At times like this, there's little worse than manufactured emotion. I will not now fabricate a deeper affection than I felt. But even if Richard Hickox rarely inspired me to rapture, he has been a significant and positive presence in all of my Australian opera going, and I have always felt it a privilege that an artist of his standing, reputation and skill was all the way over here, looking after Australia's — after my — opera company. Opera is my maddest passion, the love of my life, and for the last two years, the nature and nourishment of that passion has been almost entirely in Richard's care. The seasons he designed, the performances he led, the artistic vision which he and this company have pursued — whatever you might think of them, these have been the basis of the most significant phase in my development as a lover of (and writer about) opera. For that I will always remember him, I will always be grateful, and, yes, I will miss him.
The loss to music is huge, but the personal loss is of course far greater and more painful. My thoughts now are with those closest to Richard, his friends and colleagues, both here and in the UK, and most of all, his family, his wife Pamela and his children. May they find strength and peace in this extraordinarily difficult time.