Exclusive: Why Franz walked out on Vienna

Conductors take the job of music director at the Vienna Opera in the knowledge that they will have to resign some time. Usually in anger.

All the great directors departed early. Mahler, in 1907, after ten years. Karajan in 1964 after seven. Maazel in 1984 after two. Abbado in 1991 after five years.

When Franz Welser-Möst accepted the chalice in 2007, the first Austrian to do so since Karajan half a century before, he made jokes about longevity. When he started work in 2010, however, in harness with a new intendant Dominique Meyer, the prospects seemed bright. His relations with Meyer were mutually respectful and with the orchestra outstanding. The public and local media were supportive. Last season, ticket sales at the Vienna Opera reached a record 99.67 percent. It couldn’t get much better.

So what went wrong? And why so suddenly?

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There had been, we hear, a dispute over a forthcoming production of Josephslegende, a Richard Strauss ballet, a work for which the conductor has strong feelings. The choreographer and ballet company felt differently. Tensions simmered.

But this was not the reason for the sudden breach.  A meeting was held yesterday in which the music director expressed his views for the company’s medium-term future. They diverged markedly from those of the administration. It was decided that both sides would go home and sleep on the matter.

First thing this morning, Franz came in and submitted his resignation to Meyer with immediate effect. Like Mahler, like Karajan, like Abbado, he will not set foot in the Vienna Opera again. An era is over. Too soon.

 

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          • Karajan did indeed go back at the Staatsoper, conducting Don Carlos, Trovatore, La Boheme, and Nozze di Figaro as already mentioned. This was late 1970s, as, again, mentioned here.

            What is less known is that Karajan was supposed to come back to the Staatsoper as early as 1973 with Tristan and Isolde. But then-Intendant Rudolf Gamsjäger made the childish error of offering the same show to Leonard Bernstein as well: in other words Herbie and Lenny would have shared the conducting duties of Tristan. Naturally both Karajan and Bernstein flet offended and they would not return to the House on the Ring until a new Intendant (Egon Seefehlner, who had two terms, the second one following Lorin Maazel’s sudden resignation) went into place.

            The story has sort of a happy ending since the production was ultimately conducted by a still young pup called carlos Kleiber.

            Oddly enough, Gamsjäger had an important role earlier in Karajan’s career, when he was Director of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. Gamsjäger is also the recipient of a notorious postcard from Karajan from Buenos Aires in which Fluffy says that the Argentinean capital is “city of n…..s”

        • Sorry. For completeness, Herbert von Karajan returned to the Vienna State Opera in 1977 for nine (9) performances: 3 each of Il trovatore (with Leontyne Price and Luciano Pavarotti, no less), Le nozze di Figaro and La bohème. These should not be forgotten, although apparently they were not recorded!

          • I attended a performance a few weeks earlier with Kabaivanska and Bonisolli and the Berlin Philharmonic, in Salzburg.

            It is my belief that HvK during Wien rehearsals triggered a temper tantrum by Bonisolli, so that he could get Domingo.

    • “Over “Josephslegende”? What an idiot!” – You don’t get it, do you? It’s not a question of “just Josephslegende”, but about a music directors prerogatives. If whoever is music director can’t have a saying about his own repertoire and artistical policies, then he better quit – wich is what FWM has done.

      • I have seen little evidence in the years after London critics christened him “Frankly Worse Than Most” to believe that they were wrong and his fawning fans were right.

          • Disagree, I have heard wonderful performances with the VPO. I haver also sat in on 2 rehearsals and he has an excellent rapport with them.

          • I have enjoyed his Schubert and Wagner. He is highly consistent, and this pays dividends in some music.

            The players who complain are usually the British, but they too are consistent!

  • I believe those were with the Philharmonic, in Salzburg, not Vienna. Karajan of course performed and record often with the VPO after the break, at the Musikverein, but not in the opera house.

    • Jack, the ones I listed above in five broken comments were in Vienna, with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra — between the Easter and main festivals, i.e. mostly in May, over the four years 1977 through 1980.

      Of course, he did more work in Salzburg during the same years.

  • This is a classic tale of lack of communication and ‘handbags at dawn’ egos.A great pity and presents Vienna with a huge problem, since there are so very few conductors, if any, with as much operatic experience as W-M. The big question is where he might go instead, since he’s not a natural fit for Concertgebouw, O de Paris, Berlin or LSO. If Thielemann were to go to Berlin of course, Welser-Möst could be a natural fit for Dresden and could then also have a foot in Salzburg with the Easter Festival.

  • I have seen no evidence since London critics christened him “Frankly Worse Than Most” that they were wrong and his fawning fans were right.

  • I have to correct you. The phrase “Frankly Worse Than Most” was not coined by any critic but was quoted by Richard Morrison in The Times. The author? One of the LPO players who had been presented with FW-M’s music directorship as a fait accompli by the then management and board. If I could have a penny for the number of times I’ve been told critics dubbed him “Frankly …..” I’d be a rich man. Of course, the quote spread-like wildfire, but it was the view of one of Welster-Möst’s musicians, not his London critics. As Morrison later, and amusingly damning-with-feint-praise, wrote “Actually he’s a bit better-than-most”. Once again, it’s easy to blame critics for everything, whether it’s true or not.

  • I saw the Karajan Trovatore, Boheme, and Nozze in 1978. Karajan’s fall out with Bonisolli occurred at the public dress rehearsal of Trovatore. The audience was filled with people who had originally bought tickets for a house cast performance of Lucia only to find out they had valuable tickets to hear Karajan. The maestro took a typically glacial tempo for “Ah, si ben mio” and wouldn’t budge as Bonisolli tried to move the tempo ahead. The tenor just could not sustain the lines, and the audience booed the results. As the music continued, Bonisolli thew down his sword in anger, ran off the stage and never reappeared, so the evening offered a tenorless “Di quella pira” causing the audience to begin stirring. (I always thought that the evening’s Ruiz should have picked up the sword and sung his heart out, but it was not to be.) At the scene break, Marcel Prawy came out to calm down the crowd. The evening finished without a Manrico. Domingo was summoned to commute from Milan, where he was singing Manon Lescaut with Sass. He was forced to sing the cabaletta in key, and the video contains a dubbed conclusion. Bonisolli stayed in town, and paraded outside the opera house before each performance to show he was still there and willing to sing.

  • Thank you for that source of attribution but it remains incontrovertible that the London critics – you may well be a shining exception – took up the moniker and used it over and over again. And it has to be said that critical opinion was so savage towards FWM – and your colleagues clearly liked being thus, since they did exactly the same to Sinopoli (I remember Rodney Milnes’ tirades against him on BBC Radio 3) – that he quit after just one term. The LPO never invited him back and the LSO never re-engaged him after a solitary performance with them at the Barbican.

  • Franz will remain with the Cleveland Orch. at least till 2018 and we’re fine with that. The list of his memorable homegrown performances here is rich and long, including last week’s gutsy Brahms’ 4th and the brilliant multi-media Cunning Little Vixen last May.

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