Carlos Kleiber, 74; Brilliant, Reclusive Conductor

Times Staff Writer

Carlos Kleiber, a conductor of tremendous mystique who had the uncanny ability to animate the smallest details in a piece of music yet whose personal elusiveness made him one of the most enigmatic stars of the classical music world, has died. He was 74.

Kleiber died July 13 after a long illness, a relative who did not want to be named told the Associated Press, and was buried Saturday in Konjusica, Slovenia, next to his wife, who was Slovenian and died in December. No information was released on where Kleiber died or the cause of death.

Even in an art form that relies to a considerable degree on conjuring -- the conductor using the power of communication through eyes, body gestures and words to convey to other musicians the essence of sound -- Kleiber was a remarkable magician. A performance by him was like that of no other conductor.


His eyes had a glint that all but hypnotized orchestra musician and audience member alike. His gestures were so precise that they seemed to etch melodies out of thin air. It was as if every fiber in his body was translated into single-minded musical impulse, which he conveyed with a dancer’s grace. But just to make sure the players knew what he meant, he loved to send them individual “Kleibergrams” after rehearsals with reminders.

“He is a wizard,” Placido Domingo, the tenor and Los Angeles Opera general director who sang often with Kleiber, told the Guardian in London in 1987. “He has assimilated the score to such a degree that he can read through the notes to uncover all the drama and feeling of the music, everything the composer imagined.”

But the sheer intensity of Kleiber’s music making, his compulsive perfectionism and his appearing to live the music he conducted also came at a price. He might be able to get a small, obscure oboe solo in an opera such as Verdi’s “Otello” to express as much depth of feeling as a character in the opera, but in so doing, he worked constantly on the edge.

That meant he couldn’t be bothered with the ancillary aspects of performing or fame, which gave him the reputation for being difficult. He had a near-phobia of the limelight. He refused requests for interviews. He insisted that he not be introduced to anyone he didn’t want to meet.

He demanded double or triple the typical number of rehearsals. And he never announced what he would conduct in advance, deciding on repertory when he showed up for rehearsals. That, however, wasn’t as great a problem as it might seem, since, despite what was said to be a vast knowledge of the repertory, he only conducted a handful of symphonies, concertos and operas.

But even when all conditions were met -- and orchestras and opera companies were willing to do just about anything to entice Kleiber onto their podia -- he could still refuse. Or walk out. Or cancel.


Still, every performance was an occasion and nearly every one of his small number of recordings, such as those of Beethoven’s Fifth and Seventh Symphonies and Verdi’s “La Traviata,” is considered a classic.

The son of the famed Austrian conductor, Erich Kleiber, Carlos Kleiber was born in Berlin on July 3, 1930. To escape the war in Europe, the Kleibers emigrated to Buenos Aires where Erich Kleiber conducted at the Teatro Colon. But he discouraged his son from pursuing a career in music, despite a natural talent.

The young musician did, in fact, have thoughts about going into chemistry but he eventually rebelled against his domineering father and slowly worked his way up in small opera houses in Germany. Fighting under the yoke of his father, he used the pseudonym Karl Keller when he made his conducting debut in Potsdam in 1954. But his father continued to publicly criticize his son, saying he would never get the rhythms right in Viennese waltzes.

In 1958, two years after his father died, Kleiber got his first conducting post at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Dusseldorf. In 1964, he moved on to Switzerland at the Zurich Opera for two years, then returned to Germany and conducted opera in Stuttgart for two years.

For the next 10 years, he had a guest contract with the Staatsoper in Munich and his international career blossomed while he conducted celebrated performances of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” in Vienna and at the Bayreuth Festival, and Strauss’ “Rosenkavalier” and “Elektra” at Covent Garden in London.

Kleiber made his American debut conducting Verdi’s “Otello” at the San Francisco Opera in 1977, and he appeared several times at the Metropolitan Opera in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. But the only American orchestra he ever conducted was the Chicago Symphony.


Twice, however, he nearly came to Los Angeles, Ernest Fleischmann, the former general manager of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, recalled Monday. In the mid-’70s, after agreeing in principle to make his American debut in Los Angeles, Kleiber then decided he didn’t want to make the trip from Munich.

The next time, in the ‘80s, Kleiber told then-Philharmonic music director Carlo Maria Giulini that he would conduct in Los Angeles for two weeks if he were given a house here for three months and a school was found for his children. Kleiber said that Fleischmann should call if that could be managed, and he gave Giulini the phone number.

“I made all the arrangements he asked for,” Fleischmann said, “and I called him at the number he had given to Giulini. ‘Mr. Fleischmann, where did you get this number?’ he answered. ‘It’s private.’ And that was the end of the conversation.”

As time went on Kleiber became increasingly reclusive, but even at the best of times, Fleischmann’s experience wasn’t unique. The conductor Herbert von Karajan once said of Kleiber that he “has a genius for conducting, but he doesn’t enjoy doing it. He tells me, ‘I conduct only when I am hungry.’ And it is true. He has a deep-freeze. He fills it up, and cooks for himself, and when it gets down to a certain level, then he thinks, ‘Now I might do a concert.’ ”

By 1994, Kleiber all but quit conducting, apparently needing to fill the deep-freeze only every year or two. His last appearance was in 1999, when he led the Bavarian Radio Symphony at a festival on the Canary Islands.

“He was the last of the great old-school ‘maestro’ type of conductors,” Fleischmann said. “His performances were revelations. He got orchestras to play absolutely above themselves.”


In keeping with Kleiber’s reclusive ways, no information about survivors was released.