I'm currently reading a biography of my favourite conductor, Carlos Kleiber, who died in 2004. Anyone familiar with the name will be familiar with the main points of his history: son of the great conductor Erich Kleiber who went on to be considered by many the greatest exponent of his craft who ever lived. Kleiber's performed repertoire was comparatively small but his knowledge immense. A controversial and seemingly contradictory man, he never gave interviews and even rarely answered the phone, facts which makes Alexander Werner's remarkable book of his life even more astounding: he had practically nothing to go on save testimonies from former friends and colleagues.
Ever since I started getting interested in Carlos Kleibers achievements (and personal philosophy) I regretted never having experienced him live. Until today, when I reached page 412 in the German hardback edition and realised that I had, in fact, attended one of his performances. I was a 24 year-old student at the Royal College of Music in London when our Opera Department received a clutch of dress rehearsal tickets to Verdi's Otello at The Royal Opera, Covent Garden. Naturally, I wanted to go. After all, Placido Domingo was singing the title role, Desdemona was to be sung by Katia Ricciarelli and Iago by Justino Diaz. Someone mentioned who was conducting but I didn't retain the name. After all, it was a dress, so there were no programmes.
The performance was electrifying. I don't know why, but it just was. I talked about it soon after with Felix Aprahamian and said 'Domingo's first entrance was spectacular'. He replied that Verdi had a hand in that, too. Fair dibs; I wasn't going to argue with Felix Aprahamian. I do remember an incredible ovation greeting the conductor when he came out but, seeing as this was my first time at Covent Garden, thought that all conducting geniuses were so received.
This afternoon, I found out that the special reception had, in fact, been reserved for Carlos Kleiber. People had stood in the January cold for three days to get tickets to this series of performances, and our dress rehearsal tickets had just sat on the Opera Department Secretary's desk for any old Tom, Dick or Harry to pick up. I've maybe never made such a good decision in complete ignorance, and probably never will, again.
There's not enough time nor space, here, to go into why Carlos Kleiber was so amazing, so I can just heartily recommend Alexander Werner's astonishing biography. It'll probably remain the premier literary document on Kleiber's life and work for ever; his former collaborators are disappearing by the year and his recordings are sadly not numerous. Always conscious of his abilities and market value he never did anything for purely financial gain. His appearances, compared with the jet-set 'maestros' of today, were few and far between and he would cancel even the most lucrative and expensive project at a moment's notice if he felt the music was not being served. He must have been infuriating to deal with, but for us, who just lapped up what music he did release, he was God incarnate.
So now, when I ever get into a conversation about Carlos Kleiber, I'll be able to say: "I was there".