Gustav Mahler came to Leipzig in 1886 after spending one year at the German Theatre in Prague. Max Stägemann, the head to the Leipzig City Theatre, offered him a contract, but when Mahler came to Leipzig and realised that he already had ambitious competition in the form of his colleague Arthur Nikisch, he almost wanted to turn around and return to Prague. Stägemann, however, insisted that Mahler fulfilled the terms of the contract, and Mahler, for his part, became Leipzig City Theatre's second conductor. At his début on 3 August 1886, Mahler conducted Richard Wagner's "Lohengrin".
He very quickly became embroiled in a rivalry with Nikisch. Mahler, 26 years old at the time, was unwilling to accept Nikisch' seniority, given that the latter was only 5 years older. When Nikisch fell ill in February 1887, Mahler had to take over his duties – something he was quite happy to do. It allowed him to conduct 214 theatrical performances and 54 different pieces during the 1887/88 season. It was also during Mahler's time that Leipzig was first introduced to Richard Strauss, whose music premièred on 13 October 1887 in the Gewandhaus. Strauss conducted his 2nd Symphony in F minor, op. 12, himself.
One of the highlights of Mahler's career was the début performance of Car Maria von Weber's "The Three Pintos" on 20 January 1888. Mahler turned the unfinished opera sketches into a unified piece. He reconstructed Weber's work, and added his own touches. Its première was a first-rate event – even Saxony's royal couple was in attendance! Mahler received enthusiastic acclaim.