In the spring of 1996, my wife, Sherry, and I were having dinner with Zubin and Nancy Mehta at their home in Brentwood. For more than 50 years, Zubin has been one of the world’s leading conductors of symphonies and operas. Out of the blue he said to me, “Why don’t you do an opera with me?”

I was surprised. “Zubin, I’ve never seen an opera,” I answered.

“But we’ve talked about opera for years.”

“Yes, I’ve listened to operas on CD, occasionally on the radio, but I’ve never seen a staging.”

“What opera would you direct if you had the chance?” he asked.

I had to think. I knew little about opera, but to put him off I suggested Wozzeck. Wozzeck is one of the great modern German operas, but the operative words are “German” and “modern.” It was written in the early 20th century by Alban Berg and it is largely atonal. In Florence and other Italian cities where Zubin conducted, they hate German opera, especially atonal German opera.

He got up from the table and went to his office, returning a few minutes later with a ledger that was four inches thick. It contained his bookings for the next seven years. He leafed through it carefully, then said, “All right, I’ll do Wozzeck with you in two years at the Maggio Musicale in Florence, if you commit to it now.”

I’d never thought about directing opera and didn’t know what to say. “Oh, go ahead,” Sherry said. “It’ll be fun.”

Over the last 20 years, I’ve directed 15 operas all over the world and worked with some of the best conductors—Mehta twice, Kent Nagano three times, Gianandrea Noseda, James Conlon.

A Different Creative Pecking Order

Though opera, like film, is a collaborative medium, there is a different pecking order, or order of importance among the creative team. In film, the director is the key figure, then the cast, followed by the writer. In opera, the stage director is third on the totem pole. The composer is the most important element (his or her work can be interpreted but not changed, not by so much as a note); next comes the conductor, who determines the tempi and the volume. Conductors are so individual that they can interpret a work, even a familiar one, in a way that makes it sound radically different from the interpretation of another conductor.

All roads lead to Carlos Kleiber, the German-Austrian conductor who died in 2004 at the age of 74. I never worked with Kleiber, but I’ve seen his rehearsal videos and listened to all his recordings. I first heard about him from musicians who played for him at the Bayerische Staatsoper, in Munich, where I directed Salome, then from others at the Vienna Philharmonic when I directed The Tales of Hoffman for the Theater an der Wien. Most of these stories I first heard from these musicians.

In 2011, Kleiber was selected by more than 100 of the world’s most prominent conductors as “the greatest conductor of all time.” This in spite of the fact that he conducted so seldom and made relatively few recordings. “I conduct only when I’m hungry,” he told Herbert von Karajan.

“It’s true,” Karajan said. “He has a deep freeze and when it gets down to a certain level he thinks, Now I must do a concert.” Often he would accept an engagement a year or two beforehand and not show up. This was not out of pique but rather his feeling sometimes that, even after 36 orchestra rehearsals, he was not achieving what he wanted.

The Kleibers at home in 1931: Carlos atop the changing table; his sister, Veronica, on the floor.

His father, Erich Kleiber, was an eminent conductor, and when Carlos was 18, he told his father that he too wanted to conduct. “One Kleiber is enough” was his father’s response. And so, Carlos went off to Zurich to study chemistry. He came back a year later with the same wish. “Well, I can’t stop you” was his father’s only encouragement.

But great as he was to become, Carlos always felt himself in the shadow of his father.

When Carlos was 18, he told his father, an eminent conductor, that he too wanted to conduct. “One Kleiber is enough” was the response.

Sir Peter Jonas, former intendant of the Munich opera, told me that, after Carlos’s concerts there, his mother, an American, would be waiting outside the stage door, yelling at her son, “You’ll never be as good as your father!”

To me, Kleiber’s greatness is in the way he embodied the music, the joy in his face and body language when it was working for him. Most conductors, all those I’ve worked with, will interrupt a rehearsal to correct the tempi, or to have one section play louder or softer. Kleiber rarely gave technical instructions, he spoke only in metaphor. During a rehearsal of Die Fledermaus with the Stuttgart orchestra, he told the musicians that the quavers (eighth notes) needed to have “a little more tar, be a little more poisonous… a little more nicotine in them.” They should be, he said, “not so drunk that they can hardly walk, but so that they can just barely… drive a car.”

“Do you believe in ghosts?” he asks the woodwinds in Stuttgart, during a rehearsal for Der Freischütz. There are murmurs of “yes,” to which he responds, “Great! This is important for the overture. You have to believe it at least for the duration of the overture. [The winds] must march like a clock… They are mathematical spirits.”

At another rehearsal, for Die Fledermaus, he says, “Do it expressively, as if you were courting! Not me, or anyone else, but an imaginary, beautiful woman.” The result was rapturous.

A Little Bounce on the Podium

Most conductors mark every beat. Kleiber’s expressive arms, like angel wings, conducted only the ebb and flow and made the music soar, whether it was a Beethoven symphony or Strauss waltz. There is a sublime moment in the fourth movement of the 1983 concert of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony with the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam where Kleiber is conducting furiously, then suddenly stops, while the full orchestra continues at the same pace for several bars before Kleiber bounces a little on the podium then resumes conducting.

In the rehearsal of Die Fledermaus, he comes to a passage where he stops and says, “Now this next passage, I can’t conduct it, it’s beyond me—you have to learn it for yourselves.” He often praised the musicians in this way, even flattered them, believing they would rise to the occasion if he showed he believed in them.

But none of the major orchestras he conducted lived up to the music he heard in his head, and this was a source of frustration, fear, even panic to him, all of which was reflected in his expressions as he conducted.

For me, his crowning achievement is his recording with the Vienna Philharmonic of Beethoven’s Fifth and Seventh Symphonies in 1975–1976. We’ve all heard these works in whole or in part, but these recordings sound like the music was just written; you hear things you’ve never heard in any previous recordings. The music is more vital and energetic. It roars at you, then whispers, then explodes.

His influence on me was profound. I learned to become a filmmaker by watching films, but, with his use of metaphor as a tool, I ultimately found a way to achieve more with actors by watching Carlos Kleiber conduct.

William Friedkin is the Academy Award–winning director of The French Connection and The Exorcist.