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Stuart David Challender (1947–1991)

by David Garrett

This article was published:

Stuart David Challender (1947–1991), conductor, was born on 19 February 1947 in Hobart, elder child of Tasmanian-born parents David Wilson Challender, draughtsman, engineer, and Australian Rules footballer, and his wife Thelma June, née Driscoll. Stuart’s father took him to his first symphony concert in 1961. His mother was an amateur pianist, and he was inspired by his maternal grandmother, Thelma Driscoll, who was an accomplished soprano. Tall, like his father, but with no aptitude for sport, the boy threw himself into music with an early ambition to become a conductor. He began learning the piano when aged five, later took up the clarinet, and borrowed musical scores and records from the local library.

At New Town (1959–62) and Hobart (1963) high schools Challender joined, and occasionally conducted, the school orchestras. He won a University of Tasmania scholarship to study at the Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne (BMus, 1968). With no conducting course available, he studied music theory, clarinet, and piano, later learning composition privately with the pianist and composer Keith Humble. He also worked with the amateur Victorian Opera Company; in 1968 he was briefly the company’s musical director and principal conductor.

Later that year, Challender travelled to Europe and began attending Hamburg’s Hochschule für Musik, which he chose for the reputation of its conducting course taught by Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggeberg. Following his studies—in which he was assisted by German scholarships—he was a repetiteur (playing piano for rehearsals) successively at opera houses at Detmold, Düsseldorf and Nuremberg, and at Zürich, Switzerland. He joined conducting summer programs at Siena, Italy, under Franco Ferrara, and at Munich with Sergiu Celibidache, who made a deep impression. His first conducting post was in Switzerland at Lucerne, where he made his European opera conducting debut in Verdi’s La Traviata in 1974, as well as his symphonic concert conducting debut.

In 1976 Challender was appointed resident conductor and principal repetiteur at the Basel Opera. Before long he judged he was ready to conduct opening nights, but he did not get this opportunity. This, together with the end of a romantic relationship with the American soprano Marilyn Zschau, the death of his father in 1980, and his attraction to men, contributed to a crisis in confidence. Returning to Australia as repetiteur and staff conductor for the Australian Opera in Sydney, he made his debut with the company in October 1980 in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. The remainder of his career would be based in his native country, where the breadth and depth of his European experience made him stand out among his Australian predecessors and contemporaries.

As well as his work with the Australian Opera, Challender was musical director (1981–83) of the contemporary ensemble the Seymour Group, programming and conducting the new Australian music it fostered. Becoming musical director from 1984 to 1987 of the Sydney Youth Orchestra, he expanded his repertoire of symphonic music. Yet, although the Australian Broadcasting Commission engaged him to conduct its Sydney and Tasmanian orchestras, such opportunities were sporadic, while his opera career prospered. In 1985, for example, he conducted Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at the San Diego Opera. Two Australian opera projects highlighted his commitment to local music theatre: he conducted Brian Howard’s Metamorphosis (1985) and the premiere of Richard Meale’s Voss (1986). A recording of the latter was to win the 1988 Australian Recording Industry Association award for best classical album. Meanwhile, in 1983, he learned he had tested positive to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), information held in confidence with his doctor.

Early in 1986 Challender became the principal guest conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (SSO). When the chief conductor, Zdeněk Mácal, quit his post suddenly, the management decided–with some boldness, given Challender’s small symphonic repertoire–to appoint him to the post from the beginning of 1988. In late 1987 he appeared as guest conductor with three orchestras in Britain: the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, the Royal Philharmonic, and the BBC Scottish Symphony. A 1988 tour of the United States of America by the SSO was planned around an invitation to perform for the General Assembly of the United Nations. At this time Challender began to fear he had developed acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), a diagnosis confirmed in 1988. In agreement with the orchestra management he decided to keep his condition from the public until circumstances made concealment impossible.

Only an inner circle of colleagues and friends knew how short Challender’s career would now be, at the very time it seemed so promising. His presence in Hong Kong in 1989 led to a last-minute invitation to replace an indisposed Seiji Ozawa, conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra there in Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection), which in 1987 had given Challender one of his most-admired early performances with the SSO. In 1990 he was engaged to conduct the Chicago Symphony in its home town. His last overseas appearance was the English National Opera’s David Pountney production of Dvořák’s Rusalka, which his health forced him to abandon in London after six performances. With a newspaper threatening to break the news that he had AIDS, he acted first, giving an interview to the arts editors Maria Prerauer and Michael Shmith. In the words of his biographer Richard Davis, he became ‘the first Australian celebrity to go public about his condition’ (2017, 149). He himself regarded what happened as ‘a forced “outing”’ of his homosexuality (Davis 2017, 147). A Christian believer by upbringing, he also found solace in Zen Buddhism and meditation.

In June 1991 Challender returned to Hobart to conduct his last concert, with the first orchestra he ever heard, the Tasmanian Symphony. He later had to abandon his final opera for the Australian Opera, Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, after four performances. His determination and fortitude in defying his condition won admiration, and the depth of his music interpretations increased, but the end was near, and a move to the Sacred Heart Hospice in Darlinghurst, Sydney, inevitable as palliative care became necessary. Appointed AO in 1991, that year he was awarded honorary doctorates of music and letters respectively by the universities of Sydney and Tasmania, neither of which he was well enough to accept in person.

Challender died on 13 December 1991 at the hospice, and was cremated. A memorial event took place at the Sydney Town Hall on 20 December. At his request, his ashes were scattered by his sister at Storm Bay on the Derwent. The Stuart Challender Trust—initiated by him and overseen by the SSO—was set up to aid young Australian conductors, and a lecture established in his honour. Challender had developed into a compelling conductor, especially of Romantic and contemporary music, to which he brought the insight of an erstwhile student of composition. His conducting was marked by his imposing physical presence: he was six feet four inches (193 cm) in height and long-limbed, with a shock of dark hair that later greyed impressively. In his last years the gestural exuberance of his conducting was refocused in a more restrained and subtle baton technique. The long singing line and a grasp of structure giving maximum effect to the emotional character of the music marked his conducting at its best.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Davis, Richard. Close to the Flame: The Life of Stuart Challender. Mile End, SA: Wakefield Press, 2017
  • Marr, David. ‘Stuart Challender: He Had Everything but Time.’ ABC Radio 24 Hours, February 1992, 34–37
  • Pos, Margaretta. ‘Farewell to a Music Master.’ Saturday Mercury (Hobart), 14 December 1991, 9
  • Prerauer, Maria. ‘Challender: The Man Behind the Baton.’ Australian Magazine, 1–2 July 1989, 22–26
  • Shmith, Michael. ‘AIDS, But Challender Won’t Quit.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 9 March 1991, 1, 20
  • Shmith, Michael. ‘Music Poorer for Challender’s Death.’ Age (Melbourne), 14 December 1991, 16.

Additional Resources

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Citation details

David Garrett, 'Challender, Stuart David (1947–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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