Artistic director whose adventurous stagings and fine translations underpinned the successes of English National Opera. The distinguished translator, critic and dramaturge Edmund Tracey was an éminence grise behind the successes of English National Opera in the 1970s and 1980s.
James Edmund Tracey, born 14 November 1927 Preston, Lancashire and died London 23 March 2007, the son of James Tracey and Annie Whelan who were married in 1916 in Bolton.
He was educated at St. Mary's College grammar school in Blackburn, At grammar school, heacquired his love of literature and cinema and, quite unprompted, made up his mind that he was going to Oxford. The headmaster, discussing his future with his mother, said that he supposed Jimmy (as he was then known) would go into a local bank when he left school, to which she retorted: "If you think that, you obviously don't know my son." Instead, he wrote, off his own bat, to the provost of Oriel, receiving a courteous reply to the effect that the college was likely to be full of returning ex-servicemen, but he was passing the letter to his friend the head of Lincoln College. He won a scholarship in 1945 to Lincoln College, Oxford, where he read English and composed incidental music for undergraduate productions, and called himself by his second name Edmund. After Oxford he worked in London in the theatre as composer and music adviser, before enrolling at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where he played the viola and studied composition with Benjamin Frankel, earning money by working nights at the international telephone exchange. He gradually recognised that he was not cut out to be a composer. He then turned to criticism, starting with film but soon moving to music.
From 1958 he was number two to Peter Heyworth on The Observer and music editor of the Times Educational Supplement, 1959-64. He also served on the editorial board of Opera magazine. His notices were elegant and trenchant, and betrayed deep knowledge of music and, in particular, opera.
Tracey was passionate about opera, but his standards were impossibly high, and he routinely gave performances at Sadler's Wells a slating. In 1965 Stephen Arlen, general manager of SWO, invited him to lunch and offered him a job, to see if he could do any better. Tracey took up the challenge and started his new career by improving the programmes.
The following year he and Arlen were discussing the future repertory and decided to commission another opera from the Australian composer Malcolm Williamson, whose first opera, Our Man in Havana, had been successfully performed by the company in 1963. The new work was to be suitable both for young people and adults and Tracey was asked to provide the text.
His first idea was a Dick Whittington, but Williamson did not approve, and suggested a fairy-tale play by Strindberg, Lucky Peter's Journey. Tracey wrote a three-act libretto, which Williamson duly set. The opera was given its premiere on 18 December 1969. Though strongly cast and well performed, it was not a success. The original play was pure fantasy, and Tracey had tried to introduce some realism, but neither children nor grown-ups in the audience enjoyed it. From then on Tracey concentrated on translating.
Nineteen seventy was the Beethoven bicentenary and "Sadler's Wells at the Coliseum" staged Leonora (the first version of Fidelio) in March and Fidelio itself in November. Tracey wrote new dialogue for both.
In August, between the two Beethoven works, a new production of Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann was given, in a performing edition by Tracey and Colin Graham, the director. Tracey made a new translation for the production, which was a tremendous success. Next Tracey translated La traviata (1973) and Massenet's Manon (1974), both very well received. By now the company had finally become English National Opera.
Tracey provided new dialogue for Offenbach's La Belle Hélène and Mozart's The Seraglio, then in February 1976 he made the translation for a new production of Tosca. After providing English Music Theatre with a translation of Mozart's La finta giardiniera - literally "The False Lady Gardener" - which was given as Sandrina's Secret at Sadler's Wells Theatre, Tracey worked on a new version of Verdi's Aida, which was performed by ENO in 1979. Meanwhile he wrote new dialogue for two operettas, Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus and Lehar's The Merry Widow. Christopher Hassall translated the lyrics in both cases.
In 1981 Tracey translated Gounod's Romeo and Juliet and Charpentier's Louise; he also adapted his version of The Tales of Hoffmann for a production, very different from ENO's, at Opera North.
Verdi's The Sicilian Vespers followed in 1984, then in 1985 Tracey made one of the most successful of all his adaptations: Gounod's Faust. Returning to the original version with dialogue, Tracey and the director Ian Judge made a performing text that brought the old warhorse/masterpiece to vigorous new life. His Faust translation was also used by the New Sussex Opera Company at the Brighton Festival in 1989. Tracey finally retired in 1993.
Despite his strong personality and charismatic charm, Tracey was in some ways a very private person; but those who worked for him and those who knew him well loved him. To them he was a wise friend and captivating companion, with a native Irish genius for storytelling, a near-perfect memory, a natural talent for attracting bizarre happenings and strange encounters, a mind full of unpredictable ideas, and a rare way with words, which made conversation with him a delight. During his long final illness (he suffered from Parkinson's disease), he showed a patience and fortitude that won the admiration of friends and nursing staff alike.
This is how Henrietta Bredin in The Spectator described his funeral:
“Edmund Tracey RIP
Memorial services. Difficult to get right but potentially celebratory, contemplative, comforting and spiritually sustaining. Earlier today, St Paul's Covent Garden saw a gathering that was all of those things, in memory of Edmund Tracey, a wise, witty and gloriously cultivated man, Literary Manager for many years at Sadler's Wells, then at English National Opera. He worked in happier times for that beleaguered company and a splendid assembly of singers, conductors, directors and numerous others came together to celebrate him. I can think of fewer more thrilling experiences than adding one's own piping tones in 'Immortal invisible' to the soaring notes of Dames Josephine Barstow and Anne Evans, backed up by Graham Clark's Wagnerian tenor, with Martin Neary at the organ. Wonderful.”
1980 The Merry Widow - Dialogue
1976 Die Fledermaus - English version
Lincoln College News, August 2008
Opera, June 2007
The Guardian, 25 April 2007
The Independent, 4 April 2007
The Spectator, 1st November 2007
The Stage 21 May 2007
The Times. May 2, 2007
Last update: 03 November 2016