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Interview with Christian Thielemann

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The last time you appeared at the MET was more than ten years ago, in Herbert Wernicke’s staging of Die Frau ohne Schatten.

Yes. Though the MET is a very big theatre, you do hear very well as a conductor in the pit. It’s probably the best theatre I know. Vienna (State Opera) is also quite good. Here in Dresden, it’s ok. In Bayreuth it’s terrible.

There was no problem in getting the MET orchestra adjusted for Die Frau ohne Schatten. It never sounded too loud. It is a very good orchestra.

Thielemann flanked by legendary singers Blanche Thebom and Georges Thill, currently on display at the MET’s hall of fame.

Why have you not returned to New York since?

Because I already have so much to do here. I now have this position in Dresden; before that I was the director of the Munich Philharmonic. I have been on tour with this orchestra in the U.S.

Nowadays I have to limit my guest-conducting. I haven’t returned to Covent Garden, the Philharmonia, or the Santa Cecilia. The only orchestras I’ve guest-conducted in the last ten years are the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic, and the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra (since 2000). Now that I have my position here, I simply have no time. And don’t forget that the whole summer I’m in Bayreuth, and that means I have no vacation!

Guest-conducting is very exhausting, with jetlag and all. Vienna is ok for me because I know their orchestra well enough, and the city is close enough to home.

I would love to conduct at the MET again, but Dresden needs somebody to take care of. And it’s a very big programme we have here. We have enough to do here; there’s no time left.

© Matthias Creutziger

Was your mentor Herbert von Karajan a difficult man to work with?

He was a surprisingly easy man to work with, somebody with great “simplicity”. He was not only normal, but relaxed when he was at work. People think he kept everybody involved under fire, under great tension. Yes, he did that. But he himself always remained very relaxed. He was able to transmit great excitement when he himself was in this relaxed mode, which is obviously a high-class artistry. I always had this impression that he was very gracious with everybody; he wanted to work with the musicians; he was always very nice and calm. Apparently that is not the kind of image you get from the press.

In our days there’s great public interest in knowing what famous people do in their private lives, which I find utterly ridiculous. I for one am certainly not interested in what my colleagues do in their private lives. I cannot care for that.

Karajan was a real leader.


Karajan only did one single studio recording with the Semperoper, right?

Yes, it’s Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. They had planned for more to come, but nothing materialized.

Karajan liked the orchestra very much. There was also a very sentimental reason behind for him: in 1943 when Karl Böhm left Dresden for Vienna, Karajan wanted the job; but at the end Karl Elmendorff got the position.

Years later he did come here for guest-conducting. He even took the orchestra to the Salzburg Festival, back in the 1960’s. Their concerts there have been preserved in their archive. I think there’s a Schumann fourth, also a Shostakovich (symphony), and there’s a piano concerto with Géza Anda playing Bartók, I think.


Name a few musicians from the past you would love to work with.

I would love to work with Maria Callas. She’s someone who not only knew so much about the repertoire (of which I know but not so well), but had the imagination, and the hysteria for it as well.

Pianist? I would take Edwin Fischer.

It’s like hiring an electrician to fix things at home. I am not able to do it myself; otherwise I’ll get zapped! You need a specialist. I would love to learn; otherwise, one would be doing the same thing over and over.


Am I correct to recall that years ago you even conducted Rossini?

I conducted several overtures by Rossini. I even did a few early Verdi operas when I was a young Kapellmeister. And then the whole Wagner/Strauss thing came, and I began to get invited to do the things that I made the first good impression with. For instance, I’ve been invited three times to the MET, and three times with Strauss operas: Der Rosenkavalier, Arabella, and Die Frau ohne Schatten.

You can call it boring. But I didn’t find it so. It’s the market (demand). Labeling is good, but at certain point one has to go against that.

There are pianists who are Beethoven players, but perform Chopin occasionally. Why not? Sometimes you associate certain performers with certain repertoire; but over time, we are astonished that they can do something else. But why? There’s nothing wrong with it.

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