The eminent American-born (of Australian parents) Australian conductor, (Alan) Charles (MacLaurin) Mackerras, was taken to Sydney, Australia, as an infant. He studied oboe, piano, and composition at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music. Then he was principal oboist in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (1943-1946). Subsequently he went to London, where he joined the orchestra at Sadler's Wells and studied conducting with Michael Mudie. He won a British Council Scholarship in 1947, which enabled him to study conducting with Václav Talich at the Prague Academy of Music.
Returning to London in 1948, Charles Mackerras was an assistant conductor at Sadler's Wells until 1953. The he was engaged as principal conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra (1954-1956). Subsequently he appeared as a guest conductor with British orchestras, and also had engagements on the Continent. In 1963 he made his debut at London's Covent Garden conducting Dmitri Shostakovich's Katerina Izmailova. From 1966 to 1970 he held the post of 1st conductor at the Hamburg State Opera. In 1970 he became music director at the Sadler's Wells Opera (renamed the English National Opera in 1974), a position he held until 1978. In October 1972 he made his Metropolitan Opera debut in New York conducting Gluck's Orfeo et Euridice. From 1976 to 1979 he was chief guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London. After serving as chief conductor of the Sydney (Australia) Symphony Orchestra (1982-1985), he was artistic director of the Welsh National Opera in Cardiff (1987-1992). He was principal guest conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Glasgow (from 1992). In February 1993, Sir Charles was appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London and later conducted its first professional performance in the UK of the "original version" of Glagolitic Mass with the Brighton Festival Chorus at the Royal Festival Hall. In 1993 he was also appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the San Francisco Opera.
Charles Mackerras distinguished himself as an opera conductor by championing the works of Janáček. He is a specialist in the Czech repertory, notably Janáček. He has also conducted operas by George Frideric Handel, Glück, and Johann Christian Bach. He likewise is a discriminating interpreter of the orchestral repertoire.
Charles Mackerras undertook a great deal of research into performance practice of the 18th and 19th centuries. One of the highlights of the 1991 season was the reopening of the Estates Theatre in Prague, scene of the original premiere of Don Giovanni, in which Sir Charles conducted a new production of that opera to mark the bicentenary of Mozart's death. He has recorded all the symphonies and serenades of Mozart with the Prague Chamber orchestra for Telarc, and since becoming Principal Guest Conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra has recorded The Magic Flute, Cosi fan tutte, Le Nozze Di Figaro, and in 1999, a new performance of Abduction from the Seraglio, which, in a joint production with the BBC and Antelope Productions, was filmed on location at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. The new recording is scheduled for release in June 2000.
Charles Mackerras was for many years associated with the Royal Opera House and he returns to Covent Garden in 1999-2000 to conduct Romeo et Juliet and Martinu’s The Greek Passion. In addition to his many appearances with the San Francisco Opera, he conducts regularly at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, where his recent appearances include The Makropulos Case, Katya Kabanova, Die Zauberflöte, and Lucia di Lammermoor. He made one of his many visits to Australia last year to conduct Opera Australia in a new production of Jenufa. He also made his debut at the Salzburg Festival conducting hugely successful performances of Le Nozze di Figaro with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
Charles Mackerras recorded a cycle of his operas with the Vienna Philharmonic. His vast discography includes an award-winning cycle of Janáček operas with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana (awarded Gramophone Magazine’s Best Opera Recording for 1994), and Dvorak’s Rusalka with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Notable are his recent highly acclaimed recordings of the Brahms symphonies and serenades with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra for Telarc.
Charles Mackerras was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1974, and was knighted in 1979 for his services to music. At the end of 1996 he received the Medal of Merit from the Czech Republic, and last year he was made a Companion of the Order of Australia. He is a DMus (hon) of the Universities of Hull, York, Nottingham, Brno in the Czech Republic, Griffith in Brisbane, Australia, and Oxford. Sir Charles celebrated his seventieth birthday in 1995 with gala concerts with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Edinburgh, Welsh National Opera in Cardiff and with San Francisco Opera.
Sir Charles Mackerras died of cancer in London at age 84.