Nicholas John played an important role at a pivotal time in post-war British opera. From 1976 until his untimely death in a hill-walking accident in 1996 at the age of forty-three, he was a central part of English National Opera, at a time when the company was instrumental in changing the nature of opera production in the UK. During the 1980s and 1990s, in what became known as the Power House years, the company embarked on an approach to opera which had a profound effect in Britain and beyond. With a succession of radical productions that resolutely treated opera as serious music theatre, ENO both challenged and shocked audiences. Nicholas John provided much of the literary and intellectual underpinning for this bold venture.
Nicholas John initially joined ENO as publications manager, and his first aim in this position was to set about transforming the company’s programme books. He expanded their range and depth with highly illuminating essays by writers from much more diverse backgrounds than had previously been featured in opera programmes. He also included enlightening quotations and often unfamiliar images which helped convey the nature not only of the works themselves, but also, and perhaps more importantly, of the productions and the ideas which lay behind them. ENO’s programme books became models of their kind.
Supported and encouraged by Lord Harewood as managing director and then Peter Jonas as general director, by the early 1980s ENO was being led by Mark Elder as music director and David Pountney as director of productions. New young directors and designers were regularly given the opportunity of presenting innovative productions of the standard operatic repertory, while at the same time the company extended its range by presenting works by neglected composers from the past and new operas by modern composers. The aims and scope of the company became increasingly ambitious, and in 1985 Nicholas John was appointed ENO’s dramaturge (the first such for any British opera company). In this capacity, he acted as the company’s literary advisor. His great love of opera and his extensive knowledge of all areas of the repertory enabled him to work closely with conductors, directors and designers in the early stages of devising a production and to give advice on authentic texts, performance practice and the performance history of an opera.
In addition to this, he had in 1980 begun work as editor of a series of opera guides with the publisher John Calder, in association with ENO. At the time of his death, sixteen years later, these had reached a total of forty-eight titles, covering no fewer than fifty-eight operas (some guides dealt with more than one work) and had moved beyond the central operatic repertory to include stage works by then relatively little-performed composers such as Monteverdi, Bartók and Tippett. These guides, which the present Overture series has built upon and expanded, became the most highly respected of their kind in the English-speaking world. They all included scholarly articles on the background and music of the operas, a full libretto with a singing translation in English, a musical thematic guide, copious illustrations, a discography and a bibliography. They were prized by opera-goers and professionals alike, and for many years no rehearsal of a British opera company would be complete without at least one copy of a Nicholas John opera guide on the production desk. In a preface to the guides, Nicholas John had explained the main idea behind the project: ‘As companions to the opera should be, they are well informed, witty and attractive’. The guides lived up to these ambitions.
Nicholas John’s other publications extended to a number of important opera books which he edited, including one with Jonathan Miller, The Don Giovanni Book (1990), and another, Violetta and Her Sisters (1994), an examination of the background and responses to La traviata. He also compiled and edited the celebratory Power House: The English National Opera Experience (1992), the best available record of a truly remarkable period in post-war British cultural history. At the very end of his life, he was about to embark, with the collaboration of Lord Harewood, on a wholesale revision of Kobbe’s Complete Opera Book. His sudden death robbed the opera world of one of its most creative and knowledgeable figures.
Nicholas John’s great passion for opera lives on through the work of the Nicholas John Trust, not least through its nurturing of new young singing talent and other projects with opera at their core. His belief in the power of opera to enlighten and enrich our lives was embodied in all his work at ENO and in his opera guides and books. The present Overture series builds directly on the extraordinary achievements of his original guides, and the Nicholas John Trust is generously giving its support to enable all the guides in the new series now to be available as ebooks. Nicholas John worked before a time of electronic publishing, and one cannot but feel he would have applauded this extension to a broader public of such an important part of his legacy.