Conductor Dies During Performance in Munich

Stefan Soltesz Exits to the Music of Richard Strauss

By: - Jul 25, 2022

It has been a very warm week in Munich, yet a lovely one. Occasionally walking along Maximilian Street in the center of town, a breeze catches up and cools. The Munich State Opera, unquestionably the lead opera company in the world, is holding its annual July Festival, a chance to catch up with interesting productions from the last decade. Concerts too attract.  Munich regular Jonas Kaufman will return for his first post Covid appearance.  Marlis Petersen will show off her latest stuff.  

The Nose is directed on Zoom by Russian dissident Kirill Serebrennikow who is not allowed to leave Russia. Will Ocean City’s Ailyn Perez give us new clues to her magic as she sings Mimi? Richard Strauss’ seldom performed Die schweigsame Frau will be reprised: Barrie Kosky’s production premiered a little over a decade ago. This seldom performed Richard Strauss’ opera is a marvel, ripe for revival. In the US, by chance,  Leon Botstein and the Bard Summer Festival will premiere Die schweigsame Frau this same evening.

The librettist Stefan Zweig had newly joined forces with his friend Richard Strauss. Strauss’ customary collaborator Hugo von Hoffsmanthal had died. It was Zweig who suggested Ben Jonson’s madcap play, The Silent Woman.  Neither artist knew that Edgar Elgar had the same play under consideration for operatic treatment. (Elgar would choose Jonson’s The Devil is an Ass instead and never write an opera).  

Strauss was attracted to the plot of the play. An old man cannot stand noise. He is induced to marry a woman who does not speak. Always Strauss looked at the interface of words and music, and the silence from which both emerge.

Zweig marveled at the discipline and the rapidity with which Strauss adapted the plot outline he offered. The tale of Strauss’ quarrel with the  new Nazi regime over publishing Zweig’s name in a credit for the premiere was settled in Strauss’ favor. The name appeared. Nazi censors found nothing about the opera itself a problem. 

The first production only had four performances. The score is notoriously difficult to sing, but it is hard to believe this is the only reason it was shut down. Zweig left Germany and would finally commit joint suicide with his wife in Brazil. In 1942, he despaired about the future of European culture. “I think it better to conclude in good time …a life in which intellectual labor meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on Earth.”

The Zweig-Strauss collaboration is a sad one to see truncated.

What to make of the opera? A score gives you a taste, but a live production at the National Theater, like all live music, will bring an added understanding and pleasure.  Director Barrie Kosky is the son of Jewish grandparents who immigrated to Australia.  Early on he staged Jewish works.  He would end up being the first Jew to direct at Bayreuth. The subject of Nazism and Jews still haunts Strauss, who clearly was not an anti-Semite in his personal and professional life.  

The cast for this production reports having a grand time in rehearsals.  Stefan Soltesz is fun to work with, a promising sign for the madcap evening to follow. 

Walking up the theater’s steps in the early evening light  in Germany, the structure gleams.  

The opera starts as expected. 

Brenda Rae leads the women as Amina, the saucy wife. When the opera company (a circus troupe in Jonson) arrives, the stage fills with voices, costumes and hilarity.

Toward the end of the Act, there is a crash. Singers and audience near the stage signal for help. A simple black curtain finally drops over the curtainless stage.

The audience leaves for intermission, which goes on and on and on.  Outside the window near the stage entrance, a fire engine waits. Was there a fire?

Finally the company has made their decisions. We are admitted back into the theater and Soltesz’s illness is announced. Why does the first violinist not take over?  This is opera and members of the cast had a very good time preparing the show. They knew that Soltesz’s fall was deathly serious. The show cannot go on.

His death was announced later that evening.  

Director Barrie Kosky would say: I  am deeply saddened by the sudden death of my friend and artistic partner Stefan Soltész. During the 10 years of my tenure, Stefan conducted numerous wonderful and exciting performances at the Komische Opera Berlin. Whether Schreker, Offenbach, Kalmán, Mozart, Johann or Richard Strauss – Stefan always approached various repertoire with cleverness, musicality and a unique theater instinct. He loved singers, he loved the art form opera and he expanded the boundaries of musical theater.

The Munich podium has seen death.  

Felix Molti had a heart attack during the second act of Tristan and Isolde in Munich.  Joseph Kelberth died conducting Tristan here. Giuseppe Patane died in Munich conducting Barber of Seville.  

Yet death on the podium is not common. 

The reason may be that conducting is one of the best forms of exercise there is. The conductor’s rehearsals and performances strengthen the heart, improve muscle tone, and relieve stress. Not to recommend this difficult work for all comers. Its successful practitioners are few and far between.

These exercises can’t always overcome physical illness, but they extend life beyond its statistical probability. Stefan Soltesz died doing what he loved.  Now he is silent too. A shocking evening in Munich.