Conductor Andrew Davis, music director emeritus of Lyric Opera, dies at 80

Conductor Andrew Davis, music director emeritus of Lyric Opera, dies at 80

Sir Andrew Davis, the widely beloved music director and principal conductor of Lyric Opera of Chicago for some 21 years and one of the great operatic figures of his generation, died Saturday of leukemia, with the Lyric announcing his death Sunday morning. Davis was 80 years old and had been living in Chicago.

Having made an auspicious debut during the 1987-88 season, wherein he conducted “Marriage of Figaro,” Davis went on to conduct the Lyric Orchestra more than 700 times and continued his professional career there even after his formal retirement in 2021. Former Tribune critic John von Rhein wrote about Davis in 2022 in a piece penned for the Lyric — the conductor had returned to Lyric to lead the Orchestra and Chorus, in celebratory fashion, in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

“Looking back at my reviews of his performances over the years,” von Rhein wrote. “I am struck by the consistently high quality he maintained, regardless of repertoire, cast, or production. With him, there was never a hint of the slapdash, nothing routine, nothing overdone or underdone, no significant musical detail overlooked.”

Davis’s interpretations of the music of Mozart and Richard Strauss were among his most admired endeavors at Lyric, but then that is a long list.

“Sir Andrew’s contributions to the arts in Chicago in general, Lyric Opera in particular, are an achievement beyond price,” von Rhein told the Tribune Sunday. “Somehow his sterling musicianship, his mastery of a vast operatic and symphonic repertoire (most of which he shared with lucky Chicago audiences) seemed fused with his jovial and unassuming personality. With him, it was all one. He will be greatly missed.”

Davis was born in the British county of Hertfordshire in 1944 and studied at the Royal College of Music and King’s College, Cambridge. His career spanned innumerable companies and orchestras, including the BBC Symphony Orchestra (of which he was chief conductor from 1989-2000), Glyndebourne Festival Opera (music director from 1988-2000), the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (principal conductor from 1975-88) as well as Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, among many others. He became Lyric’s music director and principal conductor in 2000. From 2013 to 2019, Davis served as principal conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, where he remained conductor laureate.

He conducted works by every major composer from Handel to Beethoven and from Puccini and Massenet to Verdi and even Arthur Sullivan. He was an artist of eclectic musical taste, as attested by his huge and widely renowned discography. And he worked in almost every major opera house in the world, including London’s Royal Opera House and New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

“We will miss his incredible artistry, his extraordinary wisdom, his irrepressible humor, his unfettered zest for life, and his devotion to the arts and the humanities. We have all been incredibly fortunate to have had Sir Andrew as a constant inspiration for so many years,” said Anthony Freud, Lyric’s general director, in a statement.

Enrique Mazzola, Davis’s successor at Lyric, said that Davis was “a remarkable music director and conductor.”

Davis was married to the American soprano and teacher Gianna Rolandi (who died in 2021). All the way until the end, Davis was a humanist and a cheery conversationalist, well known in Britain for his folksy appearance at the famously informal and nationally broadcast Last Night of the Proms, as well as his many other international accomplishments over a five-decade career, and, most recently, a favorite companion of the other residents in his home. In 1992, he was made a Commander of the British Empire, and having remained a British citizen, in 1999 he was knighted in Queen Elizabeth’s New Years Honors List.

He was singularly popular among the Lyric musicians with whom he worked the most and who perhaps knew him the best during the second half of his career, many of whom greatly lamented his eventual retirement, as they surely will his death.

Davis is survived by son Edward Frazier Davis, sister Jill Atkins and brothers Martin and Tim Davis, as well as many nieces and nephews. The family plans a private memorial.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.