Gustav Mahler and the Vienna Court Opera

The Vienna Court Opera was the carefully planned highlight of Gustav Mahler’s career as a conductor. On the 11th of May, 1897 he debuted initially as a chapelmaster with Richard Wagner’s “Lohengrin” (with Hermann Winkelmann as Lohengrin and Louise Ehrenstein as Elsa). Half a year later, on 8 October, he became the director of the Vienna Court Opera and held this position until 1907.

The years at the Vienna Court Opera are the most productive of Mahler’s artistic career: as director and conductor he reformed the performance system, and in the summer months, the symphonies 4-8, his major compositional work was born.

Gustav Mahler conducted over 300 performances in the first four seasons, including 25 premieres or first performances. The focus of his repertoire as a conductor was Richard Wagner’s oeuvre: “Der Ring des Nibelungen” in 1898 was one of the first artistic highlights. New singers were engaged, like the sopranos Selma Kurz and Anna Mildenburg and the heroic tenor Erik Schmedes, who followed Mahler in his artistic ideas and soon became the audience’s favorites.


Selma Kurz (1874–1933), Austrian vocalist, photograph of Baron Nathaniel Rothschild, Vienna, about 1900. Public Domain

At the turn of the century, a rejuvenation of the ensemble began. Among the new singers were the soprano Marie Gutheil-Schoder and the important tenor Leo Slezak.

Among the new productions of these years, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (Tristan: Erik Schmedes, Isolde: Anna von Mildenburg) was particularly significant. It was the first collaboration with the painter and co-founder of the Vienna Secession, Alfred Roller. With Roller at his side, Mahler set standards for new stage aesthetics. After Tristan und Isolde in 1903, Fidelio (1904), Das Rheingold (1905), Don Giovanni (1905) and Iphigenia in Aulis (1907) followed.

Erik Schmedes, Wikipedia, public domain

Erik Schmedes i Wagners Tristan och Isolde, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Public Domain

The last years of the Mahler era were marked by exemplary performances in collaboration with Alfred Roller as well as increasing attacks and conflicts. Although Mahler conducted around 150 performances in his last four seasons, his temporary absence as a conductor of his own work was criticised. Conflicts with singers or with the bureaucracy and an anti-Semitic press against Mahler weakened his position. Mahler resigned in 1907. On 15 October, 1907, he conducted his final performance at the Vienna Court Opera: Beethoven’s Fidelio (with Anna Mildenburg as Leonore and Georg Maikl as Florestan); in December 1907 he left to take up his engagement at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Mahler’s departure finally indicated a turning point for the musical life of Vienna.

Have a look at the Online-Exhibition: The Ensemble of the Court Opera Vienna during the tenure of Gustav Mahler – in German.

Mediathek CC BY-SA Gustav Mahler was the director of the Vienna Court Opera from 1897 to 1907. Mediathek CC BY-SA

The exhibition includes sound recordings with singers from the outstanding ensemble of the Vienna Court Opera: shellac recordings from 1902 to 1912 with Leo Slezak, Anna von Mildenburg, Selma Kurz and many others.

Listen to examples of these recordings on Soundcloud:

by the Österreichische Mediathek

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