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GERMAN BRIEF: OPERA

Thomas Guggeis:

30-year-old conductor feted across Europe

German conductor Thomas Guggeis

June 2023: Thomas Guggeis caused an international sensation when, as a 25-year-old répétiteur (opera coach), he was asked at short notice to step in for conductor Christoph von Dohnányi in the acclaimed new production of Salome at the Berlin State Opera (Staatsoper Berlin). After seeing him at the performance, Bernd Loebe, the artistic director (Intendant) of the Frankfurt Opera, emotionally said he was in no doubt that he had witnessed the birth of a star. Conductor Daniel Barenboim added that it was a truly remarkable performance. “There was no ‘What shall we do now?’ Thomas Guggeis’ future was absolutely clear.”

Being convinced that Thomas Guggeis would become one of Germany’s great conductors, Bernd Loebe persuaded the Frankfurt Opera company to offer the young man the position of General Music Director. Succeeding Sebastian Weigle, Guggeis will take up his role in October 2023. At the signing of the five-year contract, Loebe portrayed Frankfurt’s designated music director as someone who had a musical idea for every task and can easily implement his ideas technically. He also experiences the music with emotion and with empathy for orchestras and soloists. “Many conversations I had with Thomas made me quickly realise that we think similarly, we question ourselves, we take every detail seriously and, above all, we enjoy music.”

“I am delighted to be able to work together with the orchestra, the ensemble and opera choir as well as the management team of the Frankfurt Opera under artistic director Bernd Loebe, so we can continue to create innovative music theatre at the highest level,” Guggeis said following his appointment.

Thomas Guggeis was born in 1993 in Dachau, near Munich. Apart from his uncle, Edgar Guggeis, who was an accomplished percussionist, none of his immediate family can be described as musical. His father was a director of a local brewery while his mother worked in a tax office. But his parents encouraged Thomas to play instruments, including the piano, from a young age. He also sang in several choirs.

After high school, Guggeis studied conducting at the Munich University of Music and Theatre as well as at the Conservatorio Giuseppe Verdi in Milan. He also obtained a degree in physics (specialising in quantum field theory) from the Ludwig Maximilian Universität. He began his professional career as a répétiteur at the Berlin State Opera Unter den Linden, where he became assistant to Daniel Barenboim.

Explaining his decision to study physics alongside music, Guggeis said that he was really interested in the subject and that, at the time, he also wanted to have something “on the safe side”. “One never knows how it works out as a conductor. When I started, if you had asked me, ‘where do you see yourself in 10 years?’ I would have said I don’t know. But I have this other degree, and I can always go back to that.”

May and June 2021 saw his debut at the Frankfurt Opera, first with a livestream performance of Mozart’s Requiem and then with a production of Ariadne auf Naxos. Elsewhere he has conducted Oberon and Peter Grimes at the Theater an der Wien (Vienna), as well as Die tote Stadt and Salome at the Vienna State Opera.

He has served as First Kapellmeister (resident condactor) of the Staatsoper Stuttgart from 2018-2020 and has led productions of Salome, La Bohème, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Madama Butterfly, Der Prinz von Homburg, Der Freischütz, Katja Kabanova, Die Zauberflöte, Lohengrin, Don Giovanni, Falstaff, Jenufa, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Hänsel und Gretel, Samson et Dalila and Elektra.

This year, Thomas Guggeis made his debuts at the Metropolitan Opera and the Santa Fe Opera with Der fliegende Holländer. During the course of the 22/23 season, he also returns to the Wiener Staatsoper to conduct La Traviata and Ariadne auf Naxos and to the Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin) with a new production of Daphne and a revival of Samson et Dalila.

The New York Times described Guggeis as a conductor, in a tradition which is common in Germany, who gained his experience in opera houses rather than concert halls. Guggeis said that his time at the Berlin State Opera as well as in Stuttgart as Kapellmeister had refined his approach at the podium, ‘such as how to manage rehearsals and soloists or wrangle a large-scale work for orchestra and chorus.’ “One can never buy that experience, no matter how talented one is.”

At the Berlin Opera, it took Thomas Guggeis quite some time before he became acquainted with the Opera’s long-reigning conductor Daniel Barenboim even though the maestro recalled that he had been watching the young conductor during rehearsals, immediately thinking he was gifted.

In an interview, Barenboim described Guggeis as a very natural conductor. “He has a rare combination of easiness and comfortable responsibility. He moves his arms in a natural way and is naturally in command.”

Guggeis’ first appearance at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in June 2023 drew mixed reviews. His performance was praised by the New York Times but found wanting by the (New York) Observer and the Classical Review.

New York Times: “The 29-year-old conductor Thomas Guggeis, making his Met debut, added depth to the atmosphere of roiling fantasy. … There were some missed opportunities - such as the dark timbres that color the Act II duet for Senta and the Dutchman  but overall, Guggeis was a confident, sensitive, decisive presence.”

The (New York) Observer: “Just twenty-nine, German conductor Thomas Guggeis has been making quite a name for himself in European opera houses, but his first Met outing leaves a decidedly mixed impression. After an impressively stormy overture, Guggeis leads an uneven Holländer with taut sequences alternating with scattered ones where stage-pit coordination becomes chaotic.”

The New York Classical Review: “The musical performance was well-paced and smooth, but also featureless, like the stage itself. Guggeis seemed to be depending on Wagner to supply all the energy and power, which meant that vigorous music was stimulating, but slower, calmer passages were often dull, with indistinct rhythms and phrases, and the energy from the pit ebbed in these passages.”

Thomas Guggeis is an outstanding musical talent. As a conductor he will be much in demand and many believe he may one day follow in the footsteps of his mentor Daniel Barenboim in Berlin. In the meantime, he is preparing for Frankfurt. As new General Music Director, Guggeis will have his inaugural premiere on 1 October 2023 with Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro. The 30-year-old conductor will also take the podium for the Frankfurt premiere of György Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre.

 

On other pages: Books | Cinema

Coming soon: Nicolò Foron, a 25-year old German-Italian conductor wins Donatella Flick LSO Conducting competition

 

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