Sir Charles can rightly be called a legendary figure. His career spanned an extraordinary six decades of achievement. He made his conducting debut with Sadler’s Wells Opera (now English National Opera) in 1948 and went on to enjoy a lifelong association with the company.
He was First Conductor of the Hamburg Opera (1966–69) and Musical Director of both Sadler’s Wells (1970–77), and of Welsh National Opera (1987–92). From 1982–85 Sir Charles was Chief Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra: he conducted the Orchestra in the opening concert of the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House in 1973, in which Birgit Nilsson sang in the all-Wagner programme. Sir Charles was Conductor Laureate of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Conductor Emeritus of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Conductor Laureate of the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra, Principal Guest Conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra, Conductor Emeritus of the Welsh National Opera and Principal Guest Conductor Emeritus of the San Francisco Opera. A specialist in Czech repertory, Sir Charles was Principal Guest Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra from 1997–2003, following his life-long association with both the Orchestra and many aspects of Czech musical life. He worked with the London Philharmonic Orchestra over a period of 45 years, conducting the Orchestra at London’s Royal Festival Hall and at Glyndebourne Festival Opera.
He was a regular guest with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra with whom he made his Salzburg Festival debut in 1988 conducting Le Nozze di Figaro. He made his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 2004.
In addition to his many appearances with the San Francisco Opera, he had a long association with the Metropolitan Opera, New York.
In Europe he conducted regularly in the opera houses of Paris, Berlin, Prague and in his native Australia at the Sydney Opera House. Sir Charles made his operatic debut with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1964, where he conducted 34 operas, including Un Ballo in Maschera, which celebrated his 50th anniversary and 80th birthday in 2005. 2002 marked Sir Charles’ 50th year with the Edinburgh Festival, in which he conducted Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, Handel’s Jeptha and Mozart’s Gran Partita. At the 2006 Edinburgh Festival he memorably conducted the complete Beethoven symphonies. In 2008, he was named Honorary President of the Edinburgh International Festival Society.
His lifelong association with Czech music produced many milestones, including the British premieres of Janacek’s Katya Kabanova (1951), The Makropulos Case (1964) and From the House of the Dead (1965), and his career defining Janacek discography with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. His vast discography reflects his pioneering interest in performance practice with the symphonies of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms.
In his final season he conducted his beloved Scottish Chamber and Philharmonia Orchestras in Edinburgh and London and he returned to three of his favourite opera houses: English National Opera for The Turn of the Screw which he had last conducted in London in 1956 at the Scala Theatre sharing the baton with Britten; the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden for The Cunning Little Vixen; and Glyndebourne Festival Opera for Cosi fan Tutte where on June 12, 2010 he conducted the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in what proved to be his final public performance.
Sir Charles received a CBE in 1974 and was knighted in 1979. He was honoured with the Medal of Merit from the Czech Republic in 1996, made a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1997 and made a Companion of Honour in the 2003 Queen’s Birthday Honours. In May 2005 he was presented with the Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal and in November 2005 was the first recipient of the Queen’s Medal for Music.