The music world is reeling at the shock announcement that Stefan Soltesz died on Friday night at the age of 73. Considered by many to be the final custodian of the Kapellmeister tradition, Soltesz collapsed on the podium during a performance of Die Schweigsame Frau at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich. The renowned Austrian conductor was immediately taken to hospital, however the company’s Director of Communications Michael Wuerges announced his passing a few hours later.

Stefan Soltesz © Jonas Holthaus

A versatile conductor, Soltesz was as much at home with the music of Verdi as he was with Mozart, Reimann or Wagner. This writer had the privilege of witnessing the authority with which Soltesz conducted Antony McDonald’s production of Lohengrin in 2014 and Mariusz Treliński’s staging of Tristan und Isolde in 2016 at the Polish National Opera.

Born in the north-eastern Hungarian city of Nyíregyháza in 1949, Soltesz moved to Austria as a child. He joined the Vienna Boys’ Choir before studying at the Vienna Academy of Music under Hans Swarowsky, whose other students included Claudio Abbado and Zubin Mehta. Through his tutelage under Swarowsky, a direct line can be drawn between Soltesz and the great conductors Felix Weingartner and Richard Strauss.

At the time of his death, Soltesz was conducting Barrie Kosky’s staging of Strauss’s Die Schweigsame Frau. Speaking to The New York Times, Barrie Kosky praised the conductor’s interpretation of Strauss’s music, his understanding of the orchestra’s role as accompanist, and “the idea of the architecture of an act – or a three-act opera”.

This appreciation of dramatic structure led to a fruitful relationship between Soltesz and Kosky and they collaborated on several productions in Germany, including Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer in 2006 and Tristan und Isolde in 2007. Both productions were staged at the Aalto Theater in Essen, where Soltesz was Artistic Director from 1997 to 2013, while also serving as Chief Conductor of the Essener Philharmoniker.

Other Australian artists who worked with Soltesz included the highly sought-after tenor Michael Smallwood and celebrated bass Richard Curtin. In 2023, Soltesz was scheduled to conduct Simon Stone’s staging of Tristan und Isolde in Luxembourg.

During his early career Soltesz enjoyed engagements with Theater an der Wien as Kapellmeister, as well as the Wiener Staatsoper and Oper Graz. He also worked as musical assistant to Karl Böhm, Christoph von Dohnányi and Herbert von Karajan at the Salzburg Festival, before becoming a favourite himself at international festivals such as Glyndebourne, Aix-en-Provence and Baden-Baden.

Soltesz was a regular conductor with the Hamburg State Opera from 1983 until 1985, and then with the Deutsche Oper Berlin for a further 12 years. From 1998, he served as General Music Director with the State Theatre of Brunswick, before commencing another five-year engagement in 1992 as Chief Conductor of the Flemish Opera in Antwerp and Ghent. He was also a frequent guest conductor at houses around the world including the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, the Paris Opera, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, to name but a few.

Over the years, Soltesz conducted many recordings and his 2010 album Appassionatamente plus Lulu-Suite with coloratura soprano Julia Bauer and the Essener Philharmoniker was nominated for a Grammy Award.

He is survived by his wife, mezzo-soprano Michaela Selinger.

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