At the beginning of Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage,” we meet Marianne and Johan, a couple being interviewed for a magazine story about successful relationships. In the next scene, Marianne asks Johan, “Do you believe two people can spend a lifetime together?”
“It’s a ridiculous convention passed down from God knows where,” he answers.
“A five-year contract would be ideal. Or an agreement subject to renewal.”
“Would that apply to us too?”
“We’re the exception that proves the rule.”
“So you think we’ll stay together?”
“Now, that’s a strange question.”
In 2000, Daniel Barenboim was named chief conductor for life of the Staatskapelle Berlin, the orchestra of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden. The decision seemed like the guarantee of a golden age, both financially and artistically, for the company. The same year, during a brutal battle over the suggested fusion of the Staatsoper and the Deutsche Oper (two of Berlin’s three publicly-funded opera houses), Barenboim preserved his ensemble’s independence while securing $2 million per year in federal funding known as the Kanzlerzulage, or “Chancellor’s bonus.” Since 2018, a funding mechanism through which the national government supports cultural activities in Berlin has provided the Staatskapelle with an additional $1.3 million per year. Barenboim has regularly negotiated raises for his musicians, fulfilling his promise to make the Staatskapelle one of the best-paid German orchestras. Musically, Barenboim burnished the dark, rich sound of the ensemble while making it more agile. He expanded its repertoire—at least at first—and brought the ensemble on prestigious tours, which enhanced its reputation both abroad and back in Berlin. Staatskapelle guest concerts helmed by Barenboim still sell out. When Barenboim was named conductor for life, the local newspaper BZ ran the headline: “Yesterday’s Most Beautiful ‘Yes’ Was Spoken in Berlin.” In 2021, the Austrian newspaper Der Standard titled a review of a Staatskapelle concert “Wonderful Scenes from an Orchestral Marriage.”
In Bergman’s miniseries, Johan and Marianne’s marriage is actually on the verge of collapse. “People saw us as a perfect couple,” Johan tells the journalist. In the relationship between orchestra and music director, too, it can be easy to hide deep-seated problems behind the veneer of a well-managed performance. With Barenboim and the Staatskapelle, the cracks first became visible to the outside world in February 2019, when current and former musicians and employees of the Staatsoper Berlin told VAN of Barenboim’s alleged systematic humiliation and crossing of boundaries. Many described a “climate of fear” at the institution.
In the three years since, the cracks in the relationship between Barenboim and his orchestra have widened; now they gape. Over the last several months, VAN obtained confidential documents and emails, and spoke with both Staatskapelle musicians and others familiar with internal processes at the opera house. These documents and conversations show how divided and tense the situation there is. For decades, Barenboim and the Staatskapelle shared common interests. Now, “til death do us part” has become a burden. Complicating the dynamics of this stagnant marriage is a third party: Berlin’s Culture Department, led by Culture Senator and Left Party member Klaus Lederer. Tasked with overseeing the city’s artistic funding, these officials seem unable to intervene in the quagmire at the Staatsoper.
In February 2019, after the allegations of Barenboim’s behavior at the Staatsoper became public, the Senate (Berlin’s governing body) established an ombudsman position at the institution. This position was filled by a mediation agency, Kanzlei für Verhandlung und Mediation, represented by Constantin Olbrisch and Eva Eschenbruch. According to information obtained by VAN, Olbrisch and Eschenbruch spoke with 43 former musicians and staff members from the Staatsoper, both former and current, who volunteered to be interviewed over the course of three weeks. These interviews, conducted using a standardized methodology, were summarized in a report presented to Lederer and the leadership of the Staatsoper in the spring of 2019. Employees were allowed to see a shortened version of the report.
Echoing language used in VAN’s investigation, Olbrisch and Eschenbruch found that interviewees felt “under high psychological stress” working at the Staatsoper. The report described an “atmosphere of distrust” and a “climate of fear” at the institution. For musicians and employees, it was imperative to improve the working relationship both with Barenboim and among themselves.
These conclusions contradict Barenboim’s own statements. Responding in February 2019 to reporting by VAN, as well as the radio station Bayerischer Rundfunk, Barenboim claimed that the allegations were a “campaign to prevent [him] from staying on in Berlin.” In July 2020, Barenboim told the newspaper BZ that the allegations were “a monument of lies.” He added, “There’s been no fighting at the Staatskapelle. Ask the journalists where they got their information.” In an interview from earlier this month, he said that the discussion about the atmosphere at the Staatsoper “was not worth mentioning.”
In a statement to VAN, Barenboim said, “I would like to make clear that the internal processes which have been put in motion have already led to many positive things. The understanding we have developed together, as well as the defined rules of collaboration, are an important step to an open and transparent cooperation, and I participate in this with joy. Along with the artistic director and the chief financial officer, I don’t see the necessity of accompanying internal processes with media reports, especially concerning the protection of all employees of the house.”
Despite the allegations against Barenboim, on June 4, 2019 in the Staatsoper’s grand, neo-baroque Apollo Hall, his contract as music director of the Staatskapelle was renewed. Previously engaged until 2022, he would now stay on as music director until at least 2027. At the press conference, Lederer responded to a question about the complaints made to the ombudsman by saying that none involved “legal liability.” Staatsoper artistic director Matthias Schulz would use a similar phrase when, in September 2019, VAN published a story about an incident where Barenboim allegedly grabbed, shook, and screamed in the face of former Staatskapelle orchestral manager Laura Eisen. Then, Schulz said that this alleged incident didn’t constitute “criminal liability.”
After the June 2019 press conference, the Staatskapelle held a meeting with Lederer and the entire orchestra. The Culture Senator assured the orchestra that he would take charge of the issue personally. “He said that although the contract had been renewed, he was now in the loop: ‘I’m here for you, we’ll plan for the future,’” said a Staatskapelle musician who was present at the meeting.
Olbrisch and Eschenbruch’s report found that interviewees felt “under high psychological stress” working at the Staatsoper.
“It was good that the discussion happened publicly but then died down, so that things could develop internally,” another musician told VAN. On February 28, 2019, three weeks after that public discussion began, an email signed by Schulz, Barenboim, and Staatskapelle Chief Financial Officer Ronny Unganz went out to the orchestra. According to a copy obtained by VAN, the Staatsoper leadership assured employees that Olbrisch and Eschenbruch’s report would be used to “create collegial relationships and additional impulses for a pleasant atmosphere.” In June 2019, with the report completed, the house began an internal “dialogue process” under the direction of the two mediators.
In an initial meeting, employees agreed on a series of topics for further discussion in workshops. Between June 2019 and May 2020, some 70 musicians took part in these breakout sessions; many attended all of them. “Most people participated in workshops centered around ‘interacting with one another and with the music director’ and ‘guest conductors and finding a successor to the music director,’” recalled one orchestra musician. “That’s where we felt the most strain and the most urgent need for action.” A steering committee—consisting of the mediators, Schulz, Unganz, the orchestra board (which represents the orchestra), three additional delegates of the orchestra, and orchestral director Annekatrin Fojuth—was formed to implement the feedback from the workshops into working life at the Staatsoper.
Sources say Barenboim got frustrated and left the discussion early, threatening to quit the Staatsoper.
In 2019, it seemed that Barenboim had agreed to participate in the steering committee. However, it appears he only attended one meeting, in September 2020. He also allegedly declined to participate in the “dialogue process.” Multiple sources report that, contradicting the understanding of the committee, Barenboim insisted that the allegations made in February 2019 were baseless attacks on him personally. He was also reportedly unwilling to engage in a discussion about the orchestra’s wishes or entertain suggestions for an improved working environment. Instead, sources say Barenboim got frustrated and left the discussion early, threatening to quit the Staatsoper.
In early 2021, Olbrisch and Eschenbruch put together a final report summarizing the results of the dialogue process, including Barenboim’s alleged refusal to take part. The orchestra was informed of this: a humbling result after nearly two years of internal soul-searching. The mediators strongly recommended that the Staatsoper continue to employ external mediation in order to stabilize a fragile situation. Sources say that the leadership of the Staatsoper, as well as Culture Senator Lederer, received the report. So far, no further mediation has taken place.
Schulz’s statement to VAN is published in full below this article. When asked by VAN why the Staatsoper decided not to pursue further external mediation, a spokesperson for Lederer said, “Senator Lederer fundamentally welcomes measures in our cultural institutions which reflect on the use of power. The process set in motion at the Staatsoper is supported by the foundation [the umbrella organization for Berlin’s three opera houses, the foundation Stiftung Oper in Berlin–Ed.] and its board, has concrete results, is being evaluated, and will continue.”
Barenboim seems to have shown strong reservations about working with external moderators in particular. He reportedly suggested multiple times continuing the workshops without Olbrisch and Eschenbruch. Some musicians agreed with him. “They said that we don’t need help from outside, that we can do it ourselves,” one musician with the Staatskapelle said. Another Staatskapelle member reported that Barenboim’s allies in the orchestra told colleagues that the mediator’s role was to “bully” the conductor until he left.
In the internal email list, proponents of both perspectives trade accusations: of wanting to divide the orchestra, of spying on and manipulating their colleagues, of not having the best interest of the whole ensemble at heart.
It’s an example of the polarization in the orchestra, which has only grown in the last three years. On the one side are musicians who want to emancipate themselves from their chief conductor: to collaborate as equals, to shape the artistic direction of the orchestra, and to prepare for the post-Barenboim era. On the other are the Staatskapelle performers who, aware of Barenboim’s importance for the institution, feel that they owe him their loyalty. In the internal email list, proponents of both perspectives trade accusations: of wanting to divide the orchestra, of spying on and manipulating their colleagues, of not having the best interests of the whole ensemble at heart.
A further sign of the polarization in the Staatskapelle is the relationship between Barenboim and the new five-member orchestra board, which was elected with strong support on November 18, 2020. The previous iteration of the board had stood unambiguously behind their music director. In a public statement published in the wake of the February 2019 debate, they said, “The Staatskapelle and its music director have celebrated regular artistic successes thanks to mutual trust and close cooperation. Especially now, this trust has not been shaken.” The new board, in contrast, has taken a more critical approach to Barenboim’s behavior and the decision-making processes and power structures that result from it.
As a pianist, writer, politician, and educator, Barenboim has always been more than his job as music director of the Staatsoper. Yet, in the last 30 years, the orchestra has been primarily associated with Barenboim. The new board “also wants to look out for the orchestra and more to the future,” one musician said. “They also want some decisions to be in our hands.” While a majority of the orchestra appears to stand behind the board, some musicians accuse it of wanting to tear down Barenboim’s legacy, rather than improving the relationship. In March 2021, following an orchestra assembly, a musician wrote in an email to the whole ensemble, “Could you please let the board do its job in peace? There’s a section of the orchestra which seems to care mostly about ‘tripping up’ the board.”
The average age of the conductors who will lead the orchestra in its eight subscription concerts in the 2021–2022 season is 77.5 years old.
A March 2021 meeting between Lederer, the orchestra board, and artistic director Schulz shows the extent of the breakdown in communication. Lederer wanted to be informed about the results of the dialogue process and the most recent developments in the orchestra. On his request, the board put together a written statement. It alleged that Barenboim was unwilling to compromise, and accused him of ignoring his agreement to allow the orchestra to have its say in artistic issues. One particular sticking point, echoing the popularity of the guest conductors workshop, was inviting younger guest conductors to perform with the Staatskapelle. The orchestra plays just eight subscription instrumental concerts per year in addition to its opera performances, and these orchestra concerts are important opportunities to work with conductors who might be able to succeed Barenboim. The average age of the conductors who will lead the orchestra in its eight subscription concerts in the 2021–2022 season is 77.5 years old.
Three weeks after the meeting with Lederer, on April 3, 2021, Barenboim wrote an email to the entire Staatskapelle. According to a copy which VAN obtained, he expressed his frustration: He hadn’t been invited to the meeting, informed of the topics discussed, or received the written statement made by the board. “Many of the accusations made by the board are simply false,” Barenboim wrote. That included his reported lack of willingness to compromise. “For me, this is all a sign of a breakdown in trust between me and the board,” he wrote. In the future, Barenboim continued, he would only speak directly with individual musicians, or with the entire orchestra in assemblies.
A member of the Staatskapelle responded that the board members were the duly-elected representatives of the orchestra and the first point of contact for the music director: “It would be very confusing if you held important conversations with unelected musicians or those who are no longer members of the board.” Issues of trust were not surprising, the musician added, “in view of sadly-confirmed physical and verbal attacks on a member of the orchestra, which personally shocked me.”
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The musician was referring to an incident which allegedly took place at the beginning of December 2020. During a rehearsal break, Barenboim reportedly approached a musician and orchestra board member, at close distance, ripped off his mask, held both of her hands, and spoke to her loudly and aggressively for a significant period of time. The reason for Barenboim’s actions was not immediately obvious, and Schulz invited those involved in the incident to a deescalation meeting. But the fact that Barenboim continued to cross boundaries with individual musicians and employees–in another instance, in the fall of 2020, he allegedly ripped the mask off an employee’s face–has contributed to the polarized atmosphere in the orchestra. “In front of the whole orchestra, he’s like a lamb,” a musician said. “But as soon as he feels secure, it starts up again. He needs to blow off steam.”
Lederer’s spokesperson said, “In his capacity as head of the board of the Foundation Stiftung Oper in Berlin, Senator Lederer was informed immediately of two incidents in the second half of 2020, and the Staatsoper’s reaction, by the artistic director.”
The Staatskapelle has to some extent freed itself from its learned victimhood.
Three years ago, such incidents were swept under the rug. That has changed. In the wake of public discussion about Barenboim’s leadership style and the subsequent internal mediation, the Staatskapelle has to an extent freed itself from its learned victimhood. Some musicians have become aware of their own participation in upholding the structures at the heart of their complaints. “For so many decades, we’ve had a culture of unquestioningly accepting the decisions that came from above,” a musician said. “Now we interact more as equals.” A result of that change is a document of “internal agreements” approved after the dialogue process, which VAN obtained. The document says that the Staatskapelle as an orchestra “will share its own ideas and perspectives, have influence, and take part in the decision-making process concerning artistic issues, the invitation of guest conductors, the choice of music director, in program planning, in the hiring process for orchestra-related positions in management, and in the presentation of the orchestra to the outside word.”
Schulz has always supported Barenboim in public. Reached for comment in advance of VAN’s first story on the allegations against Barenboim, he said, “At no time have we been made aware of problematic behavior by Daniel Barenboim, who performs at the highest level.” A member of the Staatsoper said it was Schulz’s support which saved Barenboim back then. For a long time, employees considered Schulz a weak and ineffectual leader. In the last three years, however, he has grown into a new role as conflict manager and mediator. He has reportedly attempted to support the dialogue process, negotiate between Barenboim and the orchestra, and guarantee more autonomy for employees–a decision which in turn damaged his relationship with the conductor. “You have to have a thick skin to survive as artistic director next to Barenboim,” as one musician said.
In theory, Schulz is Barenboim’s boss. In practice, the artistic director of the Staatsoper serves at Barenboim’s pleasure. Sources in the orchestra say that, in a June 2020 meeting between Barenboim and Lederer, the conductor requested that Schulz’s contract not be renewed when it expired in 2022. Lederer decided to renew Schulz’s contract, though not, as allegedly intended, for another five years, but just for another two. (Lederer declined to comment on this matter, citing the confidentiality of personnel issues.) In December 2021, the Zurich Opera announced that the 44-year-old Schulz would begin a new post at the company in the 2025-26 season. That makes him the fifth artistic director to leave the Staatsoper during Barenboim’s tenure.
The conflict at the Staatsoper is about more than Daniel Barenboim. It is about an institution shaped by decades of autocratic leadership and unpredictability, and the passivity, indifference, and resignation that can cause in its employees. For the fragile progress taking place at the institution, Schulz’s move to Zurich is a setback. “The house needs somebody to balance Barenboim out,” one musician said. In Schulz’s absence, the danger many now fear is that the workplace culture at the Staatsoper simply reverts back: “Another artistic director is leaving, and Barenboim will go on as if nothing happened.”
The aesthetic future of the Staatsoper and its orchestra is on shaky footing too, with its artistic director leaving and a music director who appears to have difficulty making way for a successor. In interviews, Barenboim often says that he’ll quit immediately if he is unfit or if the orchestra doesn’t want him anymore. “But that’s crazy: There has to be a transition,” said one musician in response. In fact, time is running out. When Barenboim’s contract ends in 2027, he’ll be 85 years old. For opera houses, which plan far in advance, a successor needs to be named by 2025 at the latest. Adding to the urgency of the situation are accusations–not new–that Barenboim is distracted. That, considering the density of his concert commitments, he physically cannot give his best every single time.
Some employees worry that the next artistic director will be one of Barenboim’s choosing.
The Staatsoper will need a new artistic director soon, and that person will be charged with the difficult task of shaping the post-Barenboim era. Now that the building has been renovated, they will also be responsible for rejuvenating the opera house’s artistic profile. The new artistic director will have to be willing to enter into conflict with Barenboim to realize their vision. But at the Staatsoper, some employees worry that the next artistic director will be handpicked by Barenboim. Two names are currently circulating among Staatskapelle musicians. One is Elisabeth Sobotka, who was opera director at the Staatsoper between 2002 and 2007, and is currently serving as artistic director of Austria’s Bregenz Festival until 2024. The other is singer Rolando Villazón, who is currently artistic director at the Mozartwoche in Salzburg until 2023, and who published a fiery defense of Barenboim in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in 2019. Sources say Sobotka was recommended in a meeting with Lederer as a possible substitute for Schulz in 2020. (Lederer declined to comment on whether Sobotka was suggested.) Those same sources believe that Barenboim is preparing to reassert complete control at the Staatsoper once Schulz is gone. It’s a worry encouraged by the information that Barenboim’s contract, negotiated by his lawyer, eminent Left Party figure Gregor Gysi, reportedly includes a clause allowing Barenboim to veto any choice of artistic director.
For those who have followed Barenboim and the Staatsoper, the developments over the last three years can hardly come as a surprise. The sheer number of complaints handled by the ombudsman in 2019 show the prevalence of psychological distress at the institution. The incidents may not have included, as Lederer put it, anything for which Barenboim was legally liable. But they were serious enough to create a genuine climate of fear.
When Barenboim’s contract was renewed, it was clear that he would not immediately and fundamentally change his behavior. Even in 2019, it did not take much foresight to see that the artist who controlled the Staatsoper with an iron fist would suddenly take interest in a “change process” with external mediators.
The danger is that the Barenboim era–in many ways a triumphant one–ends on a dissonant chord.
This year, Barenboim will celebrate both his 80th birthday and his 30th anniversary as music director of the Staatsoper. It would have been an excellent opportunity for the institution to both celebrate the successes of the era and conclude it on a positive note. Berlin’s cultural officials, especially Lederer, clearly lack the courage to do so. Barenboim’s oft-repeated threat to leave the city has left them paralyzed. In the meantime, his legacy has become so monumental that it seems untouchable. Instead of shaping the future, politicians are playing for time. It’s a strategy that seems unlikely to lead to real progress. At the beginning of the new legislative period, Lederer has handed himself an entrenched conflict with thorny interpersonal and structural problems. And Barenboim threatens to tarnish his own legacy. The danger is that the Barenboim era–in many ways a triumphant one–ends on a dissonant chord.
In “Scenes from a Marriage,” the only way Marianne and Johan can save themselves from one another is by separating. After they divorce and take new partners, they meet again in Denmark for a tryst and discover that their relationship, unburdened by forced permanency, suddenly works. “You’re better this way,” Marianne says. ¶
Full statement by Staatsoper artistic director Matthias Schulz and Chief Financial Officer Ronny Unganz:
I ask for your understanding that I cannot make public statements regarding personnel issues in our opera house. That is forbidden by the welfare of the affected persons and my confidentiality agreement concerning my employees. Aggressive behavior is not tolerated. There are now clear mechanisms with which to approach it broadly. You have also approached the Culture Senator, with whom I am in close contact on important processes. He may decide himself to what extent he will answer your questions.
I am happy to make a statement concerning why we decided not to continue the external mediation process. Over several months of intensive, partially externally-mediated conversations with everyone involved, we have gained a broad overview of the situation at the Staatsoper and begun making positive changes. The internal processes which have been put in motion have already led to many positive things, including concrete goals and agreements (concerning dealing with conflicts and more participation, among other issues) between me as artistic director, the music director, the chief financial officer, and the orchestra board. These have created a good and stable basis for cooperation in the future. Now, we need a chance to live this together. We are open for further external mediation if we encounter difficulties on our common path. I am working on the implementation, supported by the newly elected orchestra board, the employees in the house, and in collaboration with the music director.
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