Peter Jonas


William Robinson Clarke

‘Toddler who was destined to be a musical maestro’

1946 - 2020

Share this:

Peter Jonas would have been too young to remember his journey on the Empire Windrush 75 years ago. Aged almost two, he was travelling with his mother, Hilda, and older sister, Kathryn. The three were accompanied by Anna Malcolm who had been hired in Jamaica as a live-in nurse.

It was not Peter’s first time on a ship. The previous November, Hilda, and her two children had left Southampton for Jamaica on the SS Almanzora, staying there until the Windrush called in at Kingston. The family was living in Purley, Surrey, at the time.

Born in London on October 14, 1946, Peter was destined to become the often controversial head of the English National Opera and, in 2000, the recipient of a knighthood following a hugely successful musical career.

After a degree in English Literature at the University of Sussex, he studied music at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and the Royal College of Music in London. In November 1974, he became assistant to Sir Georg Solti, music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) until 1977, and subsequently, from 1978, the artistic administrator of the CSO.

Returning to England in 1985, Peter took over the management of the English National Opera. In 1993 he was invited to become director of the Bavarian State Opera, a position he held until 2006.

His belief that operatic output should be judged by the quality of the work on stage rather than by the balance sheet often brought him into conflict with members of the establishment as well as the press.

A flamboyant personality, his car registration was ENO1. Outside of work, Peter enjoyed cricket, hiking and Old Master paintings. He married twice, first to Lucy Hull, which ended in divorce in 2001, and then in 2012 to the violinist Barbara Burgdorf.

Peter’s mother and father had very different backgrounds. Born in Kingston, Jamaica on February 10, 1912, Hilda Jonas, née Ziadie, was a former fashion model of Jamaican and Lebanese descent. Her husband was Walter Jonas, a German Jewish emigre from a famous family of lawyers in Hamburg who had fled Nazi persecution. Hilda was also a German subject but had been granted British nationality in 1940.

Walter ran a dye works and factory and when he died in 1963, he bequeathed 75 percent of his holdings to his mistress with whom he had been living since 1961. Hilda, who was said to have spent £1,000 a year on clothes, contested the will, saying since her husband’s death she had been forced to live on what she described as a meagre widow’s pension.

She died in Croydon, Surrey, on July 5, 2000. Kathryn pre-deceased her after being tragically killed in a car accident in Spain on October 22, 1966. Sir Peter Jonas died on April 22, 2020, aged 73.

Share this: