Austrian conductor dies after collapsing onstage in Munich

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Austrian conductor dies after collapsing onstage in Munich
Stefan Soltesz is the fourth conductor to collapse midperformance in Munich since the early 1900s.

by A.J. Goldmann

MUNICH.- Stefan Soltesz, a prominent and in-demand Austrian conductor, died Friday night after collapsing during a performance at Munich’s main opera house.

Soltesz, 73, was conducting the Richard Strauss opera “The Silent Woman” at the Bayerische Staatsoper, or Bavarian State Opera, when he fell from his podium shortly before the end of the first act. He was pronounced dead at a hospital several hours later, said Michael Wuerges, the spokesperson for the company.

“At some point, the music stopped,” said Sebastian Bolz, 35, a research assistant in the music department at Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich, who attended the performance with his wife. He said that they did not see the conductor’s fall shortly before 8 p.m. but that they did hear calls for help from the stage and orchestra pit.

Wuerges said that the theater’s on-site doctor and a heart specialist from the audience attended to Soltesz. Shortly after the conductor’s collapse, the curtain fell on the stage and Tillmann Wiegand, the artistic operations manager of the Bavarian State Opera, announced that there had been an emergency and that there would be an immediate 30-minute intermission.

Once the audience filed back into the auditorium at the end of the break, Bolz said, Wiegand reappeared onstage to announce that the remainder of the performance would be canceled. Shortly before 11 p.m., the Bavarian State Opera’s general manager, Serge Dorny, used Twitter to announce Soltesz’s death. “We are losing a gifted conductor,” he wrote. “I lose a good friend.”

Deaths at the podium are rare, but Soltesz is the fourth conductor to collapse midperformance at the National Theater, the Bavarian State Opera’s main venue, since the early 1900s.

In 1911, Austrian conductor Felix Mottl collapsed at age 56 during his 100th performance of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” and died 11 days later; German maestro Joseph Keilberth died at age 60 at the podium in 1968 during a performance of the same work. Most recently in Munich, in 1989, Italian conductor Giuseppe Patanè collapsed at age 57 during Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” and died hours later at a hospital.

At Berlin’s Deutsche Opera in 2001, Giuseppe Sinopoli, 54, an intensely physical maestro, had a heart attack while conducting Verdi’s “Aida.” He died at a hospital hours later.

Soltesz, who was born in 1949 in Hungary, conducted at major opera houses across Europe over the past four decades. He held musical directorship positions at the State Theater of Brunswick, in Germany, from 1988-93, and at the Flemish Opera in Antwerp and Ghent, in Belgium, from 1992-97. His most recent appointment was in Essen, Germany, where he led that city’s opera house, the Aalto Theater, as well as the Essen Philharmonic from 1997-2013.

“He took this central German theater in Essen and he turned it, in 17 years, into one of the best ensemble houses in Europe, and he turned the Essen Philharmonic into an absolute A-grade orchestra,” Australian opera director Barrie Kosky, who collaborated with Soltesz on four productions at the Aalto Theater in the early 2000s, said Saturday after learning of Soltesz’s death. Kosky was speaking from Salzburg, Austria, where he was rehearsing a new production of Janacek’s “Kat’a Kabanova” that he is directing next month at the Salzburg Festival.

During his career, Soltesz also led performances throughout Asia, and in 1992, he made his U.S. debut with the National Opera with a performance of Verdi’s “Otello” at the Kennedy Center in Washington. Soltesz is survived by his wife, Michaela Selinger, a mezzo-soprano.

“He was a very fine, refined musician, and music, you know, was first. He came second,” Dorny, a Belgian impresario who said he had known Soltesz since the 1990s when he ran the Festival of Flanders, said Saturday.

“He was the perfect diener for the art form,” Dorny added, using the German word for servant.

On Friday night, Soltesz was conducting a revival of Kosky’s 2010 production of Strauss’ rarely performed “The Silent Woman,” as part of the Bavarian State Opera’s summer festival. Soltesz had previously led other revivals of the production. And it was one of several throughout Germany that he and Kosky had worked on together.

“He was an amazing musician,” Kosky said, singling out Soltesz’s interpretations of Strauss for high praise, adding, “He understood the idea of orchestra accompanying, and understood the idea of the architecture of an act — or a three-act opera. He understood that, and he was at home in the pits. That was his home.

“In a world of dilettantes,” Kosky said, “he was the real thing.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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