Charles Mackerras, a gifted musician who conducted some of the world's leading orchestras, has died at the age of 84 after suffering from cancer, his agent said on Thursday (July 15).

Born in New York state to Australian parents, Mackerras was raised in Sydney but spent large parts of his adult life in Britain where he conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra and was music director at the English National Opera.

He returned to Sydney for the opening concert in the new Sydney Opera House in 1973 in which he conducted the Sydney Symphony with soprano Birgit Nilsson.

"Australia has lost a living treasure with the death overnight of conductor Sir Charles Mackerras," Sydney Symphony Managing Director Rory Jeffes said in a statement.

Mackerras was an authority on the music of Mozart and helped to popularize the music of Czech composer Leos Janacek.

A much-traveled figure, Mackerras made frequent appearances at the San Francisco Opera and also had a long association with the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

"Conducting is persuading every musician in the orchestra to play it your way and with enthusiasm and willingness," Mackerras told the BBC in a recent interview.

His agent Robert Rattray said he was a giant of classical music who retained his ability to inspire fellow conductors and musicians into his later life.

"His knowledge and his enthusiasm was something he not only could convey to these orchestral players but to some of the most eminent figures in the classical music world."