Four maestros die in the same spot, and a fifth nearby

Four maestros die in the same spot, and a fifth nearby


norman lebrecht

July 24, 2022

It s mercifully rare for a conductor to die in mid-performance. In a century and a half of conducting history, we can count the tragic instances on the fingers of two hands.

All the more astonishing, then, that four of these tragedies have occurred in the orchestra pit of the National Theatre in Munich.

On June 21 1911, the Wagnerian conductor Felix Mottl collapsed with a heart attack in the same place during a performance of Tristan und Isolde. He died 10 days later.

Josef Keilberth died, also during Tristan on July 20, 1968.

The Italian conductor Giuseppe Patanè had a heart attack there during Rossini’s Barber of Seville on May 29, 1989 and died that same night.

This weekend, Hungarian conductor Stefan Soltész collapsed in the same spot while conducting Richard Strauss’s Die Schweigsame Frau.

A fifth conductor, the Swiss Marcello Viotti, suffered a blood clot in Munich while rehearsing Massenet’s Manon with the radio orchestra in February 2005. He never emerged from the coma and died a week later in hospital.

Mottl was 54, Keilberth 60, Patanè 58, Soltesz 73, Viotti 50. None had a previously known condition.

After Keilberth’s shocking death in 1968, Herbert von Karajan ordered research to be carried out into maestros dying during Tristan, with a view to the health and safety of the profession. No conclusions were ever published.

From the facts now before us it appears that Munich in summer is a singularly high-risk venue. Why would that be? Heat and poor ventilation would the the first causes for investigation. A responsible management would conduct an immediate survey.


Other maestro fatalities include the Swiss Armin Jordan, who suffered a heart attack on September, 15 2006 while conducting Prokofiev’s Love of Three Oranges in Basle and died five days later; and the Italian Giuseppe Sinopoli, who collpased in Berlin during Aida on April 20, 2001 and was pronounced dead the following day.


  • Schnitz says:

    You forget to mention Marcello Viotti, also in Munich

  • Novo says:

    Patanè died on 29 May 1989, not 1968!

  • Gustavo says:

    Despite the socio-cultural shock for those left behind, what wonderful circumstances for sudden death!

    Better than on a German autobahn or in an old-peoples home.

    • Una says:

      Not if the deaths are proved they were unnecessary deaths due to a substandard Munich theatre in some way. Very strange so many have died in that one theatre in the last fifty or so years, and so recently.

      • Sheila McLaren says:

        A number of years ago András Schiff wrote (I think I read it on Facebook) very strongly that “Munich needs a new concert Hall”, adding a clause to the effect that the present hall was a disgrace. Have often wondered whether or not anything had been done about it. (I live nowhere near Europe.)

  • Tamino says:

    Viotti is a different case medically, but all the 4 heart attack cases in the Munich Staatsoper pit occured in summer months or late May. (lack of) air conditioning a contributing factor?

  • Lester Wilson says:

    How far into Tristan did they get?

  • A.L. says:

    Surprising that a tragic event such as these hasn’t happened on the pit of the Festspielhaus, Bayreuth. What with the intense heat and all.

    • Tamino says:

      Was thinking the same, but no need to wear a tux and bow tie in the Bayreuth pit for the conductor… much better for blood circulation

    • Imbrod says:

      When I visited the Bayreuth pit in 2012 there was a portable AC unit next to the conductor’s podium.

  • phf655 says:

    As an American, and a New Yorker, I am astonished by the conditions in major theaters that are not air-conditioned. My experiences in the Bayerische Staatsoper in summer were perhaps the worst, though Bayreuth, Vienna and Munich’s Prinzregententheater were pretty terrible. The air conditioning in Salzburg’s Festspielhaus is inadequate, and it is always much too warm inside, especially for the overdressed festival audiences. On the day of the tragic passing of Maestro Soltesz the temperature in Munich was 31 celsius, and earlier that week there were a few days when the temperature exceeded 35. In each of the aforementioned theaters, and in Vienna’s Konzerthaus too, I have seen members or the audience and/or chorus pass out and have to be removed by medical personnel.

    • William Osborne says:

      It is much hotter in Italy, Spain, and Greece, so we might ask what the death rate per performances is there? Or do they take things in a more relaxed manner? Might there be a difference in the “Anstrebung” at the proud “National Theater” in Munich that leads to anxiety and overexertion.

      I think of the Munich Philharmonic which had three suicides during Celibache’s 17 year reign–a ratio magnitudes higher than the deaths of conductors at the Staatsoper.

      • Sheila McLaren says:

        In the hotter European countries such as Italy, Spain and Greece, they would surely have air conditioning and more-than-adequate ventilation in halls filled with people. Without these, audiences and players would simply die during performances. In Australia we would not even dream of having a public venue without such facilities. Which is one reason why our concert halls are an unmitigated pleasure.

  • william osborne says:

    Hmmm. 1968, 1989, 2005, 2022. These are fairly wide intervals. During that 54 year period there were probably at least 15,000 performances (calculated at a conservative estimate of 280 per year.) Deaths of conductors would thus come to 0.026% of the performances. Or one death for every 3750 performances.

    Another factor might be that Munich has a penchant for very long operas and jet-setting conductors. Try standing and waving your arms for four hours in front of 2000 people and hundred bored and irritable orchestra musicians, combined with the exhaustion of travel and jetlag. It seems like a formula for heart attacks and embolisms.

    Better ventilation, a conductor’s stool, smaller gestures, a division of labor by giving more responsibility to prompters, and a more regular use of resident conductors who do not have to travel might be sensible.

  • Andrew Constantine says:

    Giuseppe Sinopoli almost succumbed in the same way there in the summer of 1992. After the opening night of Carmen he was totally dehydrated and collapsed when he came off stage. He had to be given vitamins (I think) through a saline drip. A scary night!

    • Amos says:

      Electrolytes and glucose.

      • Andrew Constantine says:

        Thank you, that’s it! I have to say, I was rather distracted at the time – it was like a scene from the Godfather in his dressing room!

        • Tamino says:

          And you do know that Sinopoli eventually died tragically in the pit in Deutsche Oper Berlin during Aida April 20th 2001.
          His other scheduled performance two days later was saved by – Marcello Viotti – who then himself died „on duty“ in 2005.

  • No longer surprised says:

    On first glance, this seems like interesting, well-researched content. Right?

    BUT, in reality, what you did here is – you simply rephrased the New York Times article on the same topic and then posted it here.

    Ha! “Creative” journalism!

    • Violinophile says:

      To no longer surprised: In Norman’s defence, not everyone in his online family is a New Yorker,
      ( though it sometimes seems so.) We don’t all get that paper, shocking as that might seem. So we are happy for the info, in any case. The facts are the facts. The coincidence does seem extreme. Perhaps that hall is haunted. The logical theories just don’t quite feel adequate. Same opera, same page?

  • Malcolm James says:

    This is a classic case of peppering a target randomly and then drawing a bulls-eye around the area where a lot of them hit. There are frequently clusters of rare events and these need be due to nothing more than chance.

    • Terence says:

      People don’t understand randomness.

      I know of an organisation which moved out of a building because of a so-cal cancer cluster which was proven to be no more than a chance occurrence.

      Superstition still reigns.

    • Violinophile says:

      That would be defense, not defence. Sorry, Norman. By the way, the actual % of New Yorkers in your audience is only 39%, according to my estimate.

  • Lachera says:

    In spite of dying 57 years apart, Mottl and Keilberth died about in the same place in the score, in a quiet moment during the Act II duet in Tristan. The Konzertmeister marked the spot of Keilberth’s death in his part, but it is a bit indeterminate as it is in a long pause for the 1st violins.

  • Concordia says:

    Mitropoulos also died with his boots on, conducting Mahler’s 3rd in rehearsal.

  • David Spence says:

    Marcello Viotti took Sinopoli’s place for the other night of a two-night (?) run of Verdi’s Aida at Deutsche Oper Berlin, fatal to Sinopoli the first night. I had never heard the story of the1992 Carmen before, but I find it entirely credible.

  • David Spence says:

    There is also, fictional, a great musicus interruptus moment in the great classic Luis Bunuel movie L’;Age d’Or (1930) – during the Liebestod – but not to make fun of or trivialize the horrible tragedy, tragedies of what all has occurred.

  • Gustav Mahler says:

    Obviously conducting was somehow dangerous right from the beginning. Think of Jean-Babtiste Lully…

  • Talia says:

    Conductor Israel Yinon died after collapsing onstage during a youth concert at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Switzerland. He was 59.

  • Talia says:

    Belgian conductor Patrick Davin has died at the age of 58 on September 9, 2020, after suffering a heart attack before one of the rehearsals of the Jean-Luc Fafchamps’ pop-requiem “Is This the End?” at La Monnaie Opera House in Brussels.

  • Stephen R Gould says:

    Mariss Jansons’ father Arvid died while conducting the Hallé in Manchester.

  • Back desk 2nd violinist says:

    Was there a defibrillator available in or near the orchestra pit when this tragic event occurred?

  • Rabengeraun says:

    If it’s down to a lack of air-conditioning it’s a wonder there have been no deaths in the pit at Bayreuth (correct me if I’m wrong)

  • Jan says:

    The fantastic Kyrill Kondrashin?

    • Mathias Broucek says:

      I think Kondrashin died AFTER a concert where he stood in at the last minute. It was Mahler 1 – there was even an “official” release on EMI which I bought before I knew the background… (In truth, it’s a bit scrappy.)

  • Edoardo Saccenti says:

    Sinopoli died during Aida, not Barbiere

  • Edoardo Saccenti says:

    Dimitri Mitropoulos died during a rehearsal of Mahler’s Third in Milan

  • Kenneth Morris says:

    something to do with the movement of the arms while conducting? Just a thought.