Every era has to end. Except, so it seemed, the Daniel Barenboim Era at the Berlin Staatsoper. His legacy for the musical life of Berlin is so monumental precisely because it extends far past the city’s musical life. Instead of merely administering his legacy, the Staatsoper needs a fresh start.
When Daniel Barenboim signed his contract as the new General Music Director of the Berlin Staatsoper on December 30, 1991, Berlin was a very different place. Rents were low and measured in Deutsche Mark. Frank Castorf, famous in music circles for his controversial staging of the “Ring,” had not yet begun his long tenure at the Volksbühne. Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s counterparts on the world stage were Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, François Mitterand, and Mikhail Gorbachev. The techno club Berghain wouldn’t open for over a decade.
Was Berlin an international capital, or a backwater town posing as one? Some Berliners suspected the answer was in the question itself. “The entire city is sitting in the waiting room of history, and while everything that happens here is very real, there is still a sense of unreality,” writes Dutch author Cees Nooteboom of the era in his book Roads to Berlin. “They are waiting for better roads…waiting for a balanced budget and for new buildings on Potsdamer Platz, for the [former GDR leader Erich] Mielke trial and for new immigrants, for work and for revelations, for investments and bankruptcies.” With its wasteland of abandoned industrial buildings and cheap rents, Berlin became an ideal environment for the subculture. But when denizens of this subculture compared themselves to their counterparts in London, Paris, or New York, they found themselves lacking cosmopolitanism, iconic cultural institutions, and a sense of grandeur. There were three opera houses, but none were world-class. A report by critic and director Ivan Nagel concluded that the 250-year-old Staatsoper, which sat as a rundown palace on the thoroughfare Unter den Linden in the GDR years, should be rebuilt as a “repräsentativen Hofoper”—a formidable crown jewel in the new German cultural sector.
Daniel Barenboim—an international star and citizen of the world who had, two years earlier, been fired from his post at the new Bastille Opera in Paris before conducting a single note—was brought in to make the Staatsoper iconic. And he delivered: Under his direction, the Staatskapelle has, in the last 30 years, become one of the most renowned opera and concert orchestras of the world, and one of the best-paid in Germany. While preserving the dark, burnished sound of the orchestra, he made it more nimble and agile and, at least initially, expanded its repertoire.
In Berlin, the former-musical-prodigy-turned-artistic-director increasingly became a cultural politician. In keeping with his self-image, he found his equals at the federal (rather than the state) level. Anyone who appears before the Pope and the United Nations, or who makes history by cofounding (with no less than Edward Said) the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra needn’t waste his time with the petty humiliations of local politics. “His personality and charisma are very effective at the political level,” a Berlin politician who handles cultural issues told VAN in 2019. “He never needed to get involved with local politics. He represents his interests at the federal level, where the money is, which is legitimate and bears fruit for him.”
In his official statement of resignation, the 80-year-old Barenboim thanked former chancellor Angela Merkel and former president Wolfgang Schäuble for “so pleasantly supporting” him during his time as General Music Director. Had Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schröder (who served as Chancellor from 1998 to 2005) not become persona non grata over the last year due to his friendly stance towards Russian interests, he probably would have been thanked as well. In 2000, Schröder helped Barenboim’s Staatskapelle receive the so-called “Chancellor’s Allowance”: €1.8 million in federal funding. At the time, such cultural funding was a novelty.
No classical musician before Barenboim has so immortalized himself in the institutional infrastructure of a city. It’s likely that none after him will be able to do so, either: the Barenboim-Said Academy, the Frank Gehry-designed Pierre Boulez Saal, the Musikkindergarten. In all probability, the long-overdue renovation of the Staatsoper would not have been possible without him, either. The state of Berlin didn’t have the money, so Barenboim quickly arranged for €200 million to be earmarked in the federal budget. “Without Mr. Barenboim’s personal campaigning at the federal level, this certainly wouldn’t have happened,” said former Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit in 2015 during a meeting of the Investigative Committee of the city’s governing body, the Senate, while this committee was discussing the ballooning costs of the renovations.
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The decision to bring Barenboim to the Staatsoper was one of the best in the history of reunified Berlin—a history with more than its share of bad calls. When the news of his resignation broke last Friday, you began to hear about it from friends and family whose knowledge of the artform was otherwise next to nothing. He’s one of the few classical musicians whose life and career seem newsworthy outside of our insular niche. “He’s the only superstar Berlin has,” Wowereit reportedly said in the 2000s.
But at some point, Barenboim’s status in Berlin became so larger-than-life, so untouchable, that nobody dared to think about what would happen when the beacon burned out. When, in 2019, Culture Senator and Left Party member Klaus Lederer extended the conductor’s contract with the Staatsoper through 2027—despite the public discussion about his management style—it was made clear that the only person who could take Barenboim out of the game was Barenboim himself. No politician, it seemed, wanted to go down in history as the one who toppled a monument.
And so, over the past two years, the Barenboim Era threatened to come to an increasingly dissonant end. All we could do was stand by and watch as this seemingly tireless man, notorious for not sparing himself (or others) and demanding full control, reached his physical limits. Barenboim has achieved more than almost anyone else in his field, but, tragically, he still seemed to have more to prove. We began to see him fail, judged by the impossibly high standards he set for himself. The canceled, broken-off, or simply bad performances began to pile up. So did the excuses: First it was his eyes, then his back, finally a case of vasculitis. In 2022, he gave fewer than ten appearances with the Staatsoper. His relationship with the orchestra’s board, who had wanted more say in the artistic decision-making process, was shattered.
When, after a break of several months for health reasons, he conducted this year’s New Year’s concert of Beethoven’s Ninth, some hailed the nearly-90-minute interpretation as a masterpiece, burnished by age and wisdom. They hoped for a miraculous comeback. For his part, Barenboim must have seen this performance—taken alongside his obligations for the Staatsoper over the next few months—as a sign that pure willpower was no longer enough in the face of physical limitations.
While his resignation didn’t come out of nowhere, it still came as a surprise to many. Barenboim himself had spoken of retiring when his strength began to give out or when he was no longer wanted. Despite this, many held hope that he would continue to the very end, no matter the cost. Yet, as much as this decision may have been predicated upon forces beyond his control, it has also given Barenboim back his destiny. Now, he’ll determine his own future, instead of being beholden to his various posts and overflowing schedule.
A majority of the Staatskapelle are gunning for Christian Thielemann to take over as Barenboim’s successor, sources say. He’s saved several concerts over the last few months from Barenboim’s cancellations. The company’s “Ring” Cycle and subsequent Asian tour were both musical and—reportedly—interpersonal successes. The orchestra wants a sense of continuity, a place on both the national and international stage, and sold-out performances. Not many conductors can guarantee all three. Thielemann’s core repertoire is also a favorite of the Staatskapelle’s, and it works well with their late-romantic sound.
Many critics also view Thielemann as the logical and legitimate heir to Barenboim’s throne. After all, Barenboim himself offered Thielemann the “Ring” in a phone call from his sick bed, thus anointing him the new guardian of the Grail. Behind this move was Barenboim’s own desire for continuity, the seamless passing of a quasi-dynastic mantle. But it’s only at first glance that Thielemann seems a likely heir apparent: In addition to their shared repertoire, Barenboim also—in the early years, at least—conducted Elliott Carter, Pierre Boulez, and Russian and French operas. He has always been a more curious musician than Thielemann, whose programs become more unimaginative and predictable with each year. It’s not necessary for a music director to be able to conduct everything—or even want to do so. But they should be able to do a bit more than just Beethoven, Bruckner, Strauss, and Wagner. Especially at a symbolically- and culturally-charged place like the Berlin Staatsoper.
Besides, no one knows if Thielemann even wants the job. Thielemann, a self-proclaimed fan of Prussian history, might appreciate the proximity of the Staatsoper to the Berliner Schloss, the seat of the noble family that ruled the country from the early 18th century to the end of World War I. Thielemann’s conservatism and interest in Prussia history make him an uncomfortable fit in the current political climate, however. German Culture Minister Claudia Roth is planning to remove the word “Prussia” from the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, a network of prestigious museums, and the Foreign Ministry is changing the name of its Bismarck Hall. It’s hard to see how Thielemann, who collects Prussian furniture and art in his Emperor Wilhelm-era villa, gels with those priorities.
According to sources in the Staatsoper and among Berlin’s cultural administrators, the die is not yet cast for Barenboim’s successor. The process will take effort and critical thinking, they say, adding that they will not be rushed and are going about the process deliberately and methodically. It’s hard to believe that, after Barenboim, the cultural politicians of Berlin would want to deal with Thielemann—who courts dispute everywhere he goes, whether it’s Nuremberg, Berlin, Munich, or Salzburg. Even in conservative Dresden he was seen as too “old-fashioned.”
In the long-term, the Staatsoper would do better to think about change, about how to create new beginnings and new momentum. At such historical institution, the danger is less a disappearing legacy than artistic stagnation. There will never be anyone like Barenboim, anyway. As he goes, the Staatsoper can also bid farewell to the rule of absolute power and a management style that was intolerant of debate and was often toxic for its employees. Barenboim came from a time in which authoritarianism, erratic behavior, and unpredictability were part and parcel of being a “maestro.” In the end, Barenboim began to seem more and more like the last dinosaur of a lost world. Keep his musical curiosity, but bring in someone who can also be a team player, continue the change of workplace culture that has already begun behind the scenes, and open up the at-times hermetic opera house to new audiences. Do they really need another established, “big” name? What if they dared to grow together? When the Berlin Philharmonic chose Kirill Petrenko as its new music director, he wasn’t the most obvious choice to guarantee sold-out shows, either.
Whoever succeeds Barenboim will have to live with his shadow just as they work to free themselves from it, regardless of how often the chief-conductor-for-life is actually in the house. A good example of what happens when the patriarch abdicates but still shows up can be found in soccer: On May 8, 2013, Sir Alex Ferguson retired as the manager of Manchester United after 27 years. He had turned the club from the mean-tempered black sheep of the English Premiere League to one of the most successful and wealthiest soccer clubs in the world: 38 trophies, including two Champions Leagues and 13 league titles. The son of a Scottish shipyard worker, he once described his management style as “power and control.” His “hairdryer treatment”—yelling at a disappointing player from a short distance, thus delivering the volume and heat of a hairdryer—became a cliché in England. After retiring, Ferguson became a board member and club ambassador. From time to time, he still takes his usual place in the Director’s Box of Old Trafford Stadium, Block STH223, Row F, Seat 128. The North Stand was renamed in his honor. A larger-than-life statue was built in his likeness. Whenever he arrives, the entire stadium rises to its feet and calls out his name. In the nine years since his retirement, Manchester United has gone through seven managers. They haven’t won a single championship. ¶
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