Like a panel of elementary-school teachers, music critics weren’t mad—just disappointed yesterday. That was when the Staatsoper Unter den Linden announced that conductor Christian Thielemann would replace Daniel Barenboim as music director starting with the 2024-25 season. Stern and badly-spelled I expected better of yous rang out across the land, directed at the city’s center-right government, incoming Staatsoper artistic director Elisabeth Sobotka, and the house’s orchestra, the Staatskapelle.
At first glance, he seems like a good fit for the post. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Thielemann, 64, is one of the great interpreters of Wagner, Bruckner, and Richard Strauss. Music that can otherwise plod sounds liquid and luminous in his hands. The Staatskapelle, which Barenboim transformed from an East German relic to one of the country’s great orchestras, was strongly in favor of Thielemann, a born-and-bred Berliner and one of the few artists with a standing to match Barenboim’s. Reviewers perceived real chemistry between the conductor and the ensemble when Thielemann took over two cycles of last year’s “Ring.” In possession of this good fortune, what is Thielemann in want of?
You already know exactly what repertoire Thielemann will lead at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden if you read the second sentence of the previous paragraph. Great maestros often show a barely-cursory interest in music beyond the obvious masterpieces. But Thielemann’s personal canon consists of a handful of German-speaking composers, mostly from the mid-19th to the early-20th centuries, all of whose music benefited massively from the invention of the volume knob. It’s not just that we can’t expect Saariaho from Thielemann; even non-German composers like Janáček and Debussy, whose operas have real musical similarities with Thielemann’s Big Three, seem a stretch. (Scroll through his albums on Spotify if you don’t believe me.) That parochialism is an odd fit for Berlin, a city with its own provincialism, but whose residents speak over 120 mother tongues.
As András Schiff said in VAN, no musician has to do everything, and it’s not inherently disqualifying that Thielemann does a narrow, important repertoire extremely well. But the music director of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden is not just responsible for his own concerts, and leadership means delegating productively and with the right priorities. On the podium, Barenboim has rarely been an incisive interpreter of contemporary music. Nonetheless, with the Pierre Boulez Concert Hall, he created one of Germany’s best venues for its performance. Thielemann has left no such legacy in his previous positions. “Whether in Nuremberg, at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, in Munich or Salzburg, Thielemann cultivated his German mini-repertoire,” Hartmut Welscher wrote in VAN earlier this year. “He was too conservative even for Dresden.” For context, Dresden is a city where I once received the following comment after jaywalking with my boyfriend: “Bad enough they’re two men holding hands. Now they’re crossing the street when the light is red!”
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Barenboim was a consummate politician, but the boss from hell. Thielemann’s political instincts are shakier, and he isn’t exactly a natural leader of men either. As the critic Robert Braunmüller wrote on X aka Twitter, “By now EVERYBODY outside of Berlin knows that he’ll stick his nose everywhere, but never take care of anything.” The mere fact that Thielemann allegedly bullied musicians and burned bridges at Bayreuth—the only place between Spandau and Valhalla where his limited repertoire is no limit—tells me he’s not ready to work in the querulous, confident capital.
One of Thielemann’s favorite sayings goes: “D Major isn’t political, thank God.” The conductor has been accused of right-wing sympathies. His politics are maybe better understood as those of a cringe conservative uncle, but one with whom you start to find common ground after a couple drinks. He represents an upper-middle-class, conservative, educated—yet still artistic—old West Berlin milieu worlds away from the city’s current hipsterdom. He’s fascinated by the history and ephemera of the Prussian Empire, in which the Staatsoper Unter den Linden played a significant role. (“I love Otto von Bismarck.” “You mean you’re interested in him.” “Oh, yes, he is a monster.”) In 2015, a Die Zeit reporter went out for Turkish food with Thielemann in Dresden. Apparently, the conductor found it so spicy he got a nosebleed.
Aloofness can be an asset for a conductor’s musical work. But as a leader, Thielemann will also have to connect with audiences in a very different Berlin than the one that produced him. His preference for heavy meat and potatoes—in his food, in his repertoire—is just that: a personal preference. As the figurehead of the Staatsoper Berlin, these preferences function as a bat signal for some uncomfortable allies. The conservative newspaper Die Welt crowed of the appointment:
In times where filling a creative leadership role seems like an exercise in box-ticking, for the right gender, the right political positions, possibly the right skin color and the right sexual orientation, Thielemann didn’t tick the boxes. But: The kind of person who they were probably dreaming of doesn’t exist. The sensational trans conductor who fled the West Bank to Germany and who uses her free time to volunteer with the homeless and holds a voluntary position with the musicians’ union is just a construct of the zeitgeist.
Soon, I’ll go hear some Wagner, or Bruckner, or Richard Strauss with Thielemann at the Staatsoper. Undoubtedly, it will be excellent, but I might think a little harder about who I’m sitting next to. ¶
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