MADNESS & MAESTROS: Carlos Kleiber

Erich Kleiber
The Beginnings: A Patriarchal Consternation

“Ein Kleiber ist genug.” (One Kleiber is enough) - Erich Kleiber, to his son Carlos

Oh, how Erich Kleiber would come to eat his words.

Veronika Kleiber, daughter of Erich and sister of the irrepressible Carlos has gone on record to reveal a very real undercurrent of push-and-shove in the relationship between father and son within the Kleiber home. In what can only be described as an avaricious display of fatherly support, the elder Kleiber infamously denounced the plea of his only son to become a pupil of and enter into the realm of Conducting, an artform he was already dedicating his future to - at least in mind. The elder Kleiber outright dismissed his son’s lofty request and promptly shipped him out to Zurich to study Chemistry instead:

When Carlos was about 18, he went to his father and said ‘I want to be a conductor.’  His father replied ‘One Kleiber is Enough!’ “ - Michael Geilen

Lucky for Carlos, and especially lucky for us, a living made in the scientific sector was not to be. Carlos, after spending much time away from his father in Zurich doing anything but studying (instead fancying himself quite the playboy as he held a slew of affairs with the fairer sex),  continued to dream big. He and Veronika, along with Matriarch Ruth Kleiber (née Goodrich), had already seen much of the world and much fanfare with Erich at the Podium. Carlos loved the lifestyle, the music, and above all, he revered his father - as a conductor, and likely, as a man.* He would find himself unfulfilled and uninspired in Zurich and eventually back before his father in Argentina, making a case for his true calling. Eventually, having seen and heard Carlos, and after having tried and failed to redirect his aspirations elsewhere, the elder Kleiber relented, and gave Carlos a somewhat muted blessing: “Well, don’t let me stop you!” Could this shift in dynamic be the result of some sort of Oedipal complex, wherein the father finally has no choice but to begrudgingly yield to the superseding, guilt-ridden son?

In a rare series of letters to a then-budding conductor Charles Barber, some of which have since been published in a biography titled Corresponding with Carlos by the author of the same name, Kleiber fans and connoisseurs  are treated to a highly personalized and pseudo-psychological profile of the ambiguous relationship between father and son:

"Erich was a monumental figure in his life, controlling and compelling, inescapable, and central to his whole way of perceiving music...” - Charles Barber

Carlos Kleiber, the Prodigal Son.

It seems Carlos held his conductor father’s symphonic and operatic output in the highest regard, often referring to the Senior Kleiber's performances as the pinnacle of perfection:

“He had this blind veneration for his father. I spent hours telling him what I thought he did better than his father, but it was all to no avail..he wouldn’t budge an inch in his adoration.“ - Otto Schenk

An example of this adulation can be found in a letter Carlos penned to his physician and confidante, Otto Staindl: “This is the “Rosenkavalier,”  unmatched, uncut, FABULOUS, unique, stupendous, echt (authentically) Viennese down to the last demisemiquaver and the last word! And the waltzes! Unbeatable!...We’ll never see it’s like again!” - Carlos Kleiber

Unfortunately, this goggle-eyed reverence had an unsurprising negative impact on the legend. To my taste, and to many Kleiber ‘aficionados’, Carlos not only actually eclipsed his father in terms of talent, sensitivity and nuance - his glory years in the late 1970‘s crowned him amongst operatic circles the greatest living conductor - perhaps ever. There is something about Kleiber’s approach that is ethereal in nature. Far from the heavy handed approach of contemporary giant Herbert von Karajan, Kleibers touch was muted, softer..delicate - and existed in perfect tandem with what one imagines the composer of each work was trying to convey.  With Carlos on the dais, the music, score, and composer become one - and the listener is catapulted far beyond the reaches of the stratosphere where only celestial enigmas dance and play amongst the blinding light of the sun.

Unrecognized Genius: The Timid Recluse

Carlos Kleiber
Respected conductor Paavo Järvi  relates a particularly revealing anecdote detailing Conductor Leonard Bernstein’s awe at listening to the maestro live:

“ What’s interesting was that Carlos Kleiber showed up and, as he was walking in, he got a standing ovation from the audience. The ovation was longer than most performances got after the opera is over...just as the house went dark, somebody came down the aisle and was speaking quite loudly and everybody looked back and there was a seat right behind me that was empty - it was Bernstein. And, Bernstein of course, liked to make an entrance. There was a really high note when Violetta was singing, one of those amazing diminuendos on a high note, and you could hear a pin drop, literally. It was the quietest moment I can remember. Then Lenny behind me said, “Wow,man.” I will never forget that, and it was quite loud.” - conductor Paavo Järvi paints an amusing picture at a production of Verdi’s La Traviata with Kleiber at the helm.

In Corresponding with Carlos, Barber details of a cautionary halo that surrounded the Conductor:

"...he suffered a fundamental antagonism toward his father, one of mysterious origin and implacable coldness. During our correspondence I was several times warned by others who knew Carlos that I should never - not once - raise the name or subject of his father, or he'll cut you off forever.' " - Charles Barber

Conductor Leonard Bernstein
revered Carlos,
even getting down on bended 

knee to kiss the maestro's hands
at a backstage production!
Ever careful to avoid comparisons or false praise, Carlos repeatedly beat the would-be critics (not that there were many of them) to the finishing punch-line by being the first to contrast his father’s recordings against his own, and always from a personally diminutive perspective. In the eyes and mind of the tortured Carlos, he could never begin to compare to his fathers’ untouchable conducting repertoire. It can be reasonably argued that Erich’s early lack of faith in his son’s aspirations and further feigning support brewed in his son a sort of talent 'dysmorphia' - one in which Kleiber would, until his dying day, leave him unable to revel in his own heightened state of otherwise accomplished acumen in what was his father's enclave.

When it comes to Carlos’ output, the final tally is very clear: there simply wasn’t much of it (a total of 96 concerts and 400 operatic performances in his 74 years - a tiny fraction of contemporary conductors performances). What is less clear is whether that small yield was as a result of an acute sense of awareness of his own genius (Kleiber famously quipped that he would perform “only when I’m hungry” (an indication, he told Karajan, that the food in his deep-freeze was running low) and infamously conducted with a promise of an Audi as payment - suggesting he was doing just fine financially, living off the spoils from the payment of his last exorbitant fee). It very well could be, as revealed in his letters to Barber and through his notorious shunning of any kind of media interview, that Carlos didn’t perform often (and when he could be found in rehearsals, he was kind* yet Obsessive Compulsive in his need for perfection) as he simply didn’t believe he was up to the standards placed on him by a demanding yet adoring public.

If this is indeed the case, the elder Kleiber would take with him his iron-fisted grip on Carlos’ psyche to his grave - leaving his son to continue to exist in a state of perpetual doubt as to whether or not he was good enough, and, more crucially, whether he had made his father proud.

*Perhaps to avoid embarrassing the Musician/singer
in question, or to avoid confrontation and critique,
Kleiber often left ‘friendly notes’ to performers on
how to improve or to correct a mistake.
These personal demons would congregate at Erich’s side in January of 1956, when a young Carlos found his father in the tub, his body covered in blood. Was it suicide? The patriarch was rumored to have been depressed prior to his death after being turned down as music director of the Vienna State Opera. Carlos, who rarely gave interviews, allegedly acknowledged the state of his father’s body, yet never officially went on record to deny or confirm this suggestion.

In the documentary “Traces to Nowhere: The Conductor Carlos Kleiber” by Erik Schulz, Veronika Kleiber drops a very telling bit of insight into the mind of the patriarch. In a rare interview, she exclusively reveals that her elderly father had finally come to recognize in his son an undeniable aptitude for the art of conducting. Whether Carlos had been made aware of this before his own demise some forty eight years later in July 2004, is unclear.

In the early 1990‘s Carlos sent a shock wave through the Operatic world when he announced his retirement (in a short note: “I am off into the blue”). He had given the world so much, yet so much more was desired of him (just imagine what he could have done with Verdi’s Requiem!) Shortly after the death of his wife, ‘Stanka’, an ex-ballerina he shared an open yet fiercely loving marriage of many years with until her passing, Carlos retreated to his private residence in his wife’s hometown of Konjšica in Slovenia, where the life so resolutely yet so timidly lived began to fade away as he refused treatment for a controllable case of prostate cancer. So famous for being a recluse, the world was not informed or even made aware of his death until 6 days later, when his daughter found his body on a visit to his home he shared with his wife, now resting in a grave adjacent to the domicile, high up in the hills of Konjšica. Did Carlos commit suicide, as it is suggested (yet unconfirmed) his father had, nearly sixty years ago? Did his demons come home to roost while biding his remaining time in between those four walls in which he confined himself - unable to stop the record of fleeting love and seemingly unyielding dis-concern from his father from playing in his head? A mind now otherwise undistracted thanks to the absence of his wife whom he cherished more than life itself? Certainly, Carlos had a lot of reasons to grieve.

A Pensive Carlos.
Perhaps the questions into the state of mind of Carlos Kleiber will never be known and assumptions never fully realized. Indeed, it can be argued conversely that Kleiber was unflinchingly aware of his own genius, that he acted in defiance and in spite of his father, and that perhaps, he died, naturally, peacefully...fulfilled.

In the end, what really happened to Carlos, and the truth concerning the circumstances surrounding his father Erich’s death some forty eight years prior, can be summed up thusly : Veni, Vidi, Vici. (I came, I saw, I conquered).

And if Veronika’s recollection of her father’s revelation prior to his death is to be believed, the elder Kleiber eventually came to realize what the rest of the world already knew to be undeniable: “he is talented..I must admit... I must admit it, I must admit it...” - Erich Kleiber, before death, reminiscing about his Son Carlos.

READ MORE OF MY POSTS ON CARLOS KLEIBER in the Kleiber archives here.


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