I first came across Otto Klemperer in the mid ‘fifties. As a conductor he had a great reputation, and, although he was in his early seventies at the time he certainly lived up to it. He had been director of the Kroll Opera House, Berlin, the Cologne Opera, the Budapest Opera as well as having conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and many more. He also directed many first performances including Janacek’s Katya Kabanova, Zemlinsky’s Der Schweig and Schreker’s Irrelohe.
He was a good looking man, slightly bent, tall with a full head of black hair turning grey and wore large horn-rimmed glasses. He had had a stroke, which affected his speech and also his conducting ability. A manic depressive, he had gone through a lobotomy, which in those days was a grisly procedure. The surgeon made a hole in the skull, inserted a scalpel and then destroyed part of the brain which was deemed to be responsible for the patient’s actions. It never quite succeeded in Klemperer’s case; one day he asked a prominent woodwind player to play in a certain way. Because his speech was so slurred the player couldn’t understand him and didn’t reply: Klemperer shouted “Sind sie stumm?” (are you dumb). There could have been an ugly scene but the player didn’t answer him. It was our mute understanding that he was letting out his own frustration for not being able to speak clearly. He was well versed in musicians’ ways too, because one day the second bassoon was missing and he said in his mixed German and English “Wo ist mein second fagott?” Somebody told him that he was ill, but Klemperer replied “No, I don’t think he is ill, I think he has another job.” And he was right! When he laughed it sounded maniacal.