David Gyger was born in Maine, the youngest of seven children of a prosperous New England family. He discovered his calling as a journalist early on, writing for and editing student newspapers at high school and college. He always regarded journalism as a craft to be practised at the highest possible level; this applied not only to the careful shaping of the prose, but also to the elegance of layout on the page. The seeds for his love of music were likewise planted early, through attendance at Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts with his mother. The first opera he attended was also in Boston – a performance of Rigoletto, with the legendary American baritone Leonard Warren in the title role.
David Gyger was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for service to the arts and the community in 2009. Photo supplied by Elliott Gyger
He graduated from Amherst College in 1952, at the height of the Korean War, and volunteered for military service, training as a Morse Code operator. His time in the army fired his curiosity to see more of the world; inspired in part by meeting Australian soldiers in Korea, he travelled to Melbourne at around the time of the Olympic Games in 1956 to pursue a journalistic career.
His first full-time job in Australia was as editor of the Riverina Express in Wagga Wagga, which he held for seven years. This period was certainly crucial in shaping his accent, a unique trans-Pacific hybrid which most people were at a loss to identify. One of his reporters on the Riverina Express was Frank Moorhouse, later to become a major novelist. Moorhouse’s 2011 book Cold Light is warmly dedicated to David, described as “my first mentor, who, when I was young, introduced me to all that is best in traditional American liberal values, arts, thought and manners – and much more.”
An event with great significance in his life was moving to Canberra to join the staff of The Australian in 1966. There he met a PhD student and lecturer in the ANU English Department, Alison Jones, his interest being particularly piqued by the fact that her record collection included a complete Ring cycle – the then brand-new, landmark recording by Georg Solti for Decca.
Alison and David were married in March 1967, and relocated to Sydney with The Australian. David was at that point working as a sub-editor, with particular responsibility for the Letters page. In 1971, however, he suddenly found himself chief Sydney music critic for The Australian, a position he held for four years until he was equally suddenly displaced. This period was a particularly exciting one in Australian musical life, centring on the opening of the Sydney Opera House in 1973. He had no previous experience as a music critic, but quickly established a reputation for his shrewd, articulate and open-minded reviews.
In 1978 David was invited by The Australian Opera to create a new monthly newspaper focusing exclusively on opera, then known as Opera Australia. Initially planned as an in-house publication, an outspoken editorial in the second issue criticising some aspects of the company’s programming led eventually to a parting of the ways.
Alison and David Gyger with Pavarotti in 1983. Photo supplied by Elliott Gyger
David and Alison continued the newspaper jointly as an independent concern for some three decades, until 2007. Opera Australia was unique in the extensive coverage it was able to provide, including feature articles, interviews with singers, conductors, directors and other opera professionals, and reviews filed by correspondents around the country and occasionally from abroad. It covered not only mainstage programming but also suburban and regional productions and cast-changes, with sufficient space for lengthy and detailed reviews mentioning even performers in quite minor roles – thus providing many young singers with their first notice in the press. It played a significant role in the ecology of the opera community, one which has not really been filled before or since.
While David always had a reputation as a sympathetic and encouraging reviewer, he was not afraid to express a strong opinion when warranted. He wrote a particularly aggrieved editorial when the national opera company stole the paper’s name in 1996, forcing him to rename it Opera~Opera.
In later years David and Alison found more and more opportunities for international travel, almost always centred on opera performances. They also moved from the North Shore to Circular Quay, principally to cut out the commute between home and the Opera House. More recently advancing age and infirmity gradually restricted David’s movements, but he was still to be seen at occasional concert and opera performances until the last few months of his life.
David will be remembered as a gentle and softly-spoken man, often shy and reticent, but roused to heights of eloquent enthusiasm if the conversation turned to his home territory. He possessed a quirky sense of humour and a deeply ingrained sense of compassion, fairness and responsibility that informed his personal interactions and his attitude to world events. Although, like many journalists, he had early ambitions to be a novelist, he found his true calling as a generous and articulate listener – responding to, reflecting on and encouraging the work of others.