July 14, 2009 / 12:21 PM / 10 years ago

UK conductor and wife end lives at Swiss clinic

LONDON (Reuters) - Renowned British conductor Edward Downes and his wife Joan have ended their lives at the Dignitas assisted suicide clinic in Switzerland, their children said in a statement on Tuesday.

A road sign marks the Ifangstrasse in front of the commercial centre in the town of Schwerzenbach north of Zurich December 4, 2007. The building locates the controversial Swiss right-to-die group Dignitas, according to local media reports. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

Downes, who had a long and distinguished career at the Royal Opera House and with the BBC Philharmonic orchestra, was 85 when he died and “almost blind and increasingly deaf,” according to his son Caractacus and daughter Boudicca.

His wife Joan, a former ballet dancer and later personal assistant to Downes, was 74 and terminally ill, according to Downes’s agent Jonathan Groves. He did not comment on reports she had been suffering from cancer.

“After 54 happy years together, they decided to end their own lives rather than continue to struggle with serious health problems,” said the statement.

“They died peacefully, and under circumstances of their own choosing, with the help of the Swiss organization Dignitas, in Zurich,” it said, adding that they died on Friday.

“They both lived life to the full and considered themselves to be extremely lucky to have lived such rewarding lives, both professionally and personally. Our parents had no religious beliefs and there will be no funeral.”


The Metropolitan Police in London said they were investigating the deaths of Downes and his wife.

Under British law, assisting suicide is a crime that carries a maximum sentence of 14 years.

However, since 1992, dozens of British citizens have ended their lives at the Dignitas facility in Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal, without relatives being prosecuted.

Downes, who was born in Birmingham in 1924, took up the violin as a boy, played the horn in the first performances of Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes” at Sadler’s Wells in 1945 and studied with German conductor Hermann Scherchen.

An association of more than 50 years with London’s Royal Opera began in 1952, and his first job was as prompter to soprano Maria Callas in Bellini’s “Norma.”

Downes made his conducting debut for the company in 1953 and his last conducting performances at Covent Garden were in 2005 with 10 performances of Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”

In total, he conducted 49 different operas and more than 950 performances at the Royal Opera House, where he worked with some of the great singers of his generation like Luciano Pavarotti.

Downes also led Australian Opera, conducting the first opera performance at the newly opened Sydney Opera House in 1973.

He enjoyed a relationship of more than 40 years with the BBC Philharmonic orchestra, including 11 years as principal conductor, and was known as a leading expert on Verdi and Russian music. Downes was knighted in 1991.

Roger Wright, controller of BBC Radio 3, told the broadcaster: “I think even people who don’t know his work will now come back to it and think this was a very, very important British conductor.”

Editing by Paul Casciato

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