After a surprise debut, conductor Thomas Guggeis is rising fast

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After a surprise debut, conductor Thomas Guggeis is rising fast
The conductor Thomas Guggeis rehearses at the Metropolitan Opera, where he will make his North American debut conducting Wagner’s “Der Fliegende Holländer,” in New York, May 12, 2023. Not yet 30, Guggeis already leads a major opera house and has conducted the “Ring” in Berlin. (Ava Pellor/The New York Times)

by Joshua Barone

BERLIN.- Thomas Guggeis was a young repetiteur at the Berlin State Opera five years ago when he was asked a career-changing question: Could he conduct “Salome”?

He had worked with the singers, but this new production of Strauss’ opera was meant to be led by veteran maestro Christoph von Dohnányi — until a dispute with the director led him to back out mere hours before the final dress rehearsal. So Guggeis went on in his place. And he was back in the pit on opening night.

“This was a situation of ‘a star is born,’” said Bernd Loebe, general manager of Frankfurt Opera, who saw Guggeis lead that performance.

It wouldn’t be the last time Guggeis, now 29, stepped into a high-pressure situation. Earlier this season, as the State Opera’s kapellmeister, or house conductor, he picked up rehearsals and two runs of a new “Ring” cycle after Daniel Barenboim withdrew because of illness. And Tuesday, he will make his North American debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, leading a revival of Wagner’s “Der Fliegende Holländer,” taking over from Jaap van Zweden.

Things are happening quickly — Guggeis starts as general music director of the Frankfurt Opera this fall — but he is trying to maintain a steady development that some of his peers have abandoned in favor of peripatetic celebrity.

“There was a question of how to go on,” he said in an interview at the State Opera here. “Do you jump on the moving train or do you stay on track? Together with my agent, I decided to keep calm. If an opportunity is meant to be, there will still be interest and possibility in two or three years.”

Apart from an uncle, accomplished percussionist Edgar Guggeis, Guggeis grew up in a nonmusical family in Bavaria. His father was the director of a brewery, and his mother was a tax clerk. But he played instruments from a young age, and sang in choirs.

Guggeis followed those interests to the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Munich. He studied conducting but, aware of the precarious life it promised, also picked up a degree in quantum physics.

“I was really interested in the subject,” he said, “and I just wanted to have something on the safe side. You never know how it works out as a conductor. When I started, if you asked me, ‘Where do you see yourself in 10 years?’ I would say, ‘I don’t know. But I will have this other degree, and I can always go back to that.’”

Now, Guggeis might read about a discovery related to something he remembers studying in school. But his specialty was theoretical particle physics, which is impossible to follow on a part-time or casual basis. So, he has stopped keeping up with the field.

During his time in Munich, Guggeis was often at the Bavarian State Opera while it was under the music directorships of Kent Nagano and Kirill Petrenko. Between classes one day, he sat in on a rehearsal of Strauss’ “Die Frau Ohne Schatten” led by Petrenko. By the second act, he decided to skip school and stay. He was hooked and saw nearly everything the house had to offer in what amounted to a parallel education. “To see those conductors,” he said, “was amazing, but also so formative.”

Guggeis continued to study conducting in Milan, then returned to Germany to serve as a repetiteur in Berlin. He coached singers from the piano but almost never spoke with the house’s long-reigning maestro, Daniel Barenboim. “It was hard to get close to him,” Guggeis said, “because everyone wants something from him there.” But slowly, the two built a relationship.

For his part, Barenboim didn’t need much time at all. He recalled watching the young conductor lead a rehearsal and immediately thinking he was gifted.

“You can see these things straight away with somebody,” Barenboim said. “And he was obviously a very natural conductor. He had a rare combination of easiness and comfortable responsibility. He moved his arms in a natural way and was naturally in command. From the very beginning.”

Their bond deepened. “It felt like family,” Guggeis said. “He was generous, supportive, kind and always there when I had questions about career.” They talked about music, art and philosophy, or gossiped about Pierre Boulez. Between those conversations and the rehearsals Guggeis would watch and later ask about, Barenboim became, he said, “the most influential mentor for me.”

Guggeis belongs to a class of conductors — more common in Germany — that comes up through opera houses rather than concert halls, even if their careers eventually balance both. He said that the repertoire he learned as a repetiteur has stuck “deeply in my head and guts” and that his time at the State Opera in Berlin, as well as in Stuttgart and Berlin as a kapellmeister, has defined his approach to the podium, such as how to manage rehearsals and soloists or wrangle a large-scale work for orchestra and chorus.

“You can never buy that experience,” he said, “no matter how talented you are.”

He has also tried to test out pieces such as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony away from public stages such as the Philharmonie in Berlin or the Musikverein in Vienna. He has conducted the Beethoven, but in Italy, in a five-concert series with the Milan Symphony Orchestra, following advice he once heard attributed to Herbert von Karajan, that regardless of where you lead this work, the first 15 times won’t be good; so start early.

When Guggeis shares memories such as that, he sounds like a conductor looking back on a career rather than forward. His mix of confidence and self-awareness was part of what endeared him to Barenboim, who said: “He’s very talented, but he knows that he has a lot to learn. He has a great curiosity, and that will go until the end of his life.”

Curiosity, but also the courage to take on classics by Wagner and Strauss in front of the boo-happy audience at the Berlin State Opera. (Reviews during his time as kapellmeister have tended to be positive.) So, when he stepped into the pit for “Salome,” it was just another day on the job. He was supported by Dohnányi, who remains a mentor — and gave him most of his score library — and stunned Barenboim.

“It was remarkable,” Barenboim said. “There was no ‘What shall we do now?’ His future was absolutely clear.”

Loebe was similarly struck by this 24-year-old conductor he had never heard of before. “I wanted to know more,” he said. “So, I saw him many more times, and we started to have many meetings.” Loebe was looking for a new music director, and Guggeis was “the only guy I wanted.”

Frankfurt’s orchestra, Loebe added, was used to having two or three choices, but he insisted on Guggeis, who formed a quick bond with the musicians. During the pandemic, he led them in a streamed performance of Mozart’s “Requiem” — one of the few videos online of his conducting — that reveals his clear direction, level head and sense of shape. Then, in 2021, he was named their new music director.

Mozart is how Guggeis will begin his tenure next season, with a new production of “Le Nozze di Figaro” premiering Oct. 1. He will also lead Ligeti’s “Le Grand Macabre,” Wagner’s “Tannhäuser,” Verdi’s “Don Carlo” and Strauss’ “Elektra,” in addition to concert programs.

Guggeis’ inaugural season in Frankfurt took shape as he was wrapping up his time as kapellmeister in Berlin. There, he was working with Barenboim on a new production of Wagner’s four-opera “Ring” that was unveiled all at once in October, a virtually unheard-of undertaking for a repertory house. It was years in the making, but Barenboim’s health rapidly declined that summer, and the planned four cycles were split between Guggeis and Christian Thielemann.

When his condition permitted, Barenboim shared his wisdom with Guggeis about, for example, which notoriously tricky passages in the operas’ 16 hours of music should be the focus of rehearsals. They still speak; Guggeis values his advice, seeing it as the equivalent of singers working with coaches long into their careers.

Guggeis was also in constant contact with Thielemann, an experienced hand in Wagner. “We were working out problems together,” he said. “It was very interesting. But then he would also say things like not to worry about ‘Ride of the Valkyries,’ because it’s self-going, it will become loud by itself. All this was really fantastic for me.”

This month, Guggeis said goodbye to Berlin, for now; his tenure as kapellmeister ends this season. He led two concerts with the Staatskapelle, the opera house’s storied orchestra, and was on a plane to New York for “Holländer” rehearsals the next day.

“The little bird is now flying from its nest,” he said in an interview at the Met. “I’m conducting professionally since five years, more or less.

“I was with this fabulous orchestra and now I’m here working at this tremendous place. To be here is something I never would have expected, and couldn’t ever wish for.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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