Life and career
Mitropoulos was born in Athens, the son of Yannis and Angelikē Mitropoulos. His father owned a leather goods shop at 15, St. Mark Street, in downtown Athens. He was musically precocious, demonstrating his abilities at an early age. From the ages of eleven to fourteen, when Mitropoulos was in secondary school, he would host and preside over informal musical gatherings at his house every Saturday afternoon. His earliest acknowledged composition – a sonata for violin and piano, now lost – dates from this period.
He studied music at the Athens Conservatoire as well as in Brussels and Berlin, with Ferruccio Busoni among his teachers. From 1921 to 1925 he assisted Erich Kleiber at the Berlin State Opera and then took a number of posts in Greece. At a 1930 concert with the Berlin Philharmonic, he played the solo part of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 and conducted the orchestra from the keyboard, becoming one of the first to do so.
Mitropoulos made his U.S. debut in 1936 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and he later settled in the country, becoming a citizen in 1946. From 1937 to 1949 he served as principal conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (forerunner of today's Minnesota Orchestra).
In 1949 Mitropoulos began his association with the New York Philharmonic, the peak of his orchestral career. He was initially co-conductor with Leopold Stokowski and became the sole music director in 1951. Mitropoulos recorded extensively with the Philharmonic for Columbia Records and sought to reach new audiences in the city through appearances on television and by conducting a week of performances at the Roxy Theatre, a popular movie theatre. Mitropoulos expanded the Philharmonic's repertoire, commissioning works by new composers and championing the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. In 1958, he was succeeded as the Philharmonic's conductor by a protégé, Leonard Bernstein. In January 1960, he guest conducted the Philharmonic in a performance of Mahler's Fifth Symphony, which was recorded.
Work in opera
In addition to his orchestral career, Mitropoulos was an equally important force in the operatic repertoire. He conducted opera extensively in Italy and from 1954 until his death in 1960 was the principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, although the Met did not officially use that title at the time. His musically incisive and dramatically vivid performances of Puccini, Verdi, Richard Strauss and others remain models of the opera conductor's art. The Met's extensive archive of recorded broadcasts preserves many of these fine performances.
Mitropoulos's series of recordings for Columbia Records with the New York Philharmonic included a rare complete performance of Alban Berg's Wozzeck. Many of these have been reissued by Sony Classics on CD, including most recently his stereo recordings of excerpts from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. He recorded with the Minneapolis Symphony for RCA Victor during the 78-rpm era. He was also represented on the Cetra label, most notably with an early recording of Richard Strauss's Elektra.
Mitropoulos premiered many contemporary works. Examples include the American premieres of Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony (1954) and First Violin Concerto (1956) and the world premieres of Barber's Vanessa (1958), Ernst Krenek's Fourth Symphony (1947), and John J. Becker's Short Symphony (1950).
He was noted for having a photographic memory (which enabled him to conduct without a score, even during rehearsals) and for his monk-like life style due to his deeply religious, Greek Orthodox beliefs.
Mitropoulos never married. He was "quietly known to be homosexual" and "felt no need for a cosmetic marriage". Among his relationships reportedly was one with Leonard Bernstein.
He died in Milan, Italy at the age of 64 of heart failure, while rehearsing Gustav Mahler's 3rd Symphony. One of his very last recorded performances was Verdi's La forza del destino with Giuseppe Di Stefano, Antonietta Stella and Ettore Bastianini at Vienna on 23 September 1960. A recording exists of the performance of Mahler's 3rd Symphony given by Mitropoulos with the Cologne Radio Symphony on 31 October 1960, just two days before his death.