Around 11:20 on the morning of Saturday March 17, 2018, Laura Eisen, the orchestral manager of the Staatskapelle Berlin, visited Daniel Barenboim in his dressing room, which looks out onto the imposing Bebelplatz. She planned to discuss a personnel change, in the flutes, for an upcoming rehearsal of Verdi’s opera “Falstaff.” According to a statement Eisen wrote in June 2019 and endorsed in August as a sworn declaration, Barenboim was already angry with her when she came in. “He screamed at me that I should leave the room and that he can’t trust me anymore,” she wrote. “As I was going to respond to him, he came toward me, grabbed me with both hands on my upper body (between my shoulders and throat) and shook me. As he did so, he screamed at me that I should disappear/leave the room. I was shocked and took two steps back toward the door and left. My last memory of the encounter was the expression on Mr. Barenboim’s face. In the moment I shrunk back, he seemed shocked by his own actions.” After work that evening, Eisen told VAN, she felt “terrible.” “I thought, ‘I can’t believe this happened.’ It was completely inappropriate. But mostly I was angry that it happened to me, and that I let it happen.”

Laura Eisen • Photo © Christina Stoll
Laura Eisen • Photo © Christina Stoll

The reason for Barenboim’s alleged outburst appeared to be an administrative misunderstanding. “He said I was allotting his instruments behind his back,” Eisen wrote. Each April, the pianist Elena Bashkirova, Barenboim’s wife, presents a chamber music festival called “intonations” at Berlin’s Jewish Museum. In past years, the Jewish Museum borrowed a Steinway Model D from the Staatsoper for the concerts. In early 2018, Eisen received the usual email from an employee of the Jewish Museum asking about the availability of the Staatsoper’s pianos. She checked the house’s schedule and realized that they didn’t have a regular Steinway to spare. (Just months prior, the Staatsoper had moved from the Schiller Theater back to its historic home, on the thoroughfare Unter den Linden, and the transition left the house at reduced capacity.) Eisen said she was just trying to do her job and avoid inconveniencing Barenboim. “I wrote that, because it’s Mrs. Bashkirova’s festival, she could ask Mr. Barenboim if she could use one of the pianos that are made especially for him, which we store at the Staatsoper,” Eisen said. “He thought that I was going around lending his pianos to random people. But it was just an idea I had because we were talking about his wife’s festival.”

Barenboim and Eisen were alone in his dressing room during the alleged altercation. But Eisen told two friends, Viola Eckert and Mara Nolte, what happened in the days following the incident. Eckert recalled Eisen saying Barenboim had “pushed her.” They had plans to meet for brunch Sunday, March 18, but Eisen canceled. “She seemed drained, like it was weighing heavily on her,” Eckert said. Nolte, who works as a freelance journalist, said she was supposed to celebrate her birthday with Eisen the same evening, March 18, by having drinks, but Eisen decided to stay home, saying things weren’t going well at work. “It was noticeable, because Laura is normally very sociable,” Nolte said. Eisen later confided in her about being “pushed” by Barenboim. (Eisen’s sworn statement also matches her account from February 2019, when she spoke to VAN anonymously for our article “The Titan’s Shadow,” about the “climate of fear” under Barenboim at the Staatsoper Berlin.)

After the alleged incident, Eisen said that she returned to her office, which she shared with her colleague Alexandra Uhlig. According to Eisen, Uhlig noticed that something seemed wrong and asked if she was OK. “Then I told her and my superior, [orchestral director] Annekatrin Fojuth, who was in the adjacent office, what happened,” wrote Eisen in her statement. Fojuth said that they should discuss the issue with Staatsoper artistic director Matthias Schulz. (Reached by phone, Uhlig declined to comment. Fojuth didn’t respond to several phone calls or an emailed request for comment.) On March 19, 2018, Eisen met with Schulz and Fojuth. Schulz “expressed his regret, said that he would do everything in his power to make sure it never happened again, and promised me to speak to Daniel Barenboim,” Eisen wrote in her statement. “He also promised a conversation with Barenboim to clear the air.” Fojuth agreed to handle most contact with Barenboim until a trusting work relationship could be restored.

In February 2019, when asked for comment by VAN in advance of our first story on Barenboim and the Staatsoper, Schulz wrote in a statement, “At no time have we been made aware of problematic behavior by Daniel Barenboim, who performs at the highest level.” For this story, VAN asked Schulz if he knew about the alleged incident between Barenboim and Eisen in March 2018 at the time of his first statement. If so, we asked, did he consider the incident not to be “problematic behavior”? In a new statement, Schulz wrote, “Concerning Daniel Barenboim, we were not made aware of anything for which he could have been criminally liable. This was confirmed by the investigation into the allegations through the external and independent ombudsman.” (Barenboim didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

However, there are other rules besides criminal liability governing behavior at opera houses. A code of conduct published in June 2018 by the German Bühnenverein—an association of theaters, opera houses, and orchestras—and signed by the Staatsoper, stipulated that employees in the industry “refrain from all forms of gestural, verbal and physical abuse.” (The organization defines physical abuse as “unwanted physical contact.”) “The management and administrative/artistic directors of each theatre and orchestra have a special duty of care towards their employees,” the report reads.  

After the alleged altercation in March 2018, Eisen tried to avoid one-on-one contact with Barenboim.  “I was afraid that it was going to happen again in the meantime,” she said.  “I was in touch with him, but only for the most pressing issues, and without much communication (setting scores aside, holding doors, etc.).” Fojuth and Antje Werkmeister, Barenboim’s personal assistant, helped mediate on organizational questions—until, Eisen hoped, Barenboim apologized. He never did. “I often asked Mr. Schulz when the conversation to clear the air would be taking place,” Eisen said. “I wanted to talk about it as soon as possible, so that Mr. Barenboim and I could reestablish a trusting relationship, and so that I could do my job well. I was interested in a solution, but from that moment on it was impossible to communicate with Daniel Barenboim.” Eisen, who was hired at the Staatsoper from her previous position at the Nationaltheater in Mannheim in May 2017, had heard via musicians’ networks that the Staatsoper could be a difficult place to work. But Barenboim’s aggression was a turning point for her. “I found myself thinking, ‘It’s not so bad.’ But then it is actually pretty bad,” she said. “So it happened: OK. But what happened after was completely not OK.”

The conversation between Laura Eisen, Matthias Schulz, and Daniel Barenboim took place in early May 2018. The Staatskapelle Berlin was on tour in Vienna, and the three met in Barenboim’s green room at the famous Musikverein. But, according to Eisen, the altercation didn’t come up in the conversation:

It was focused on how I was adjusting to my position and whether I was handling the heavy workload. Mr. Barenboim told me that it was obvious how much pressure I was under. I answered that the workload was heavy, but that I believed I was handling the stress and thought that things would improve. The events of March 17, 2018 were mentioned neither by Mr. Barenboim nor Mr. Schulz. After Mr. Barenboim left the room, I stayed behind with Matthias Schulz. I asked him why he didn’t mention the assault in March. I thought that would be the subject of the conversation. He replied that I had just had the opportunity to confront Mr. Barenboim.

Eisen felt blindsided. She was expecting Schulz to focus on the incident in the meeting, and for Barenboim to apologize. Because of Barenboim’s anger and unchallenged power at the Staatsoper, she felt uncomfortable confronting him about it directly. And, at least nominally, Schulz is the manager in charge of artistic personnel. “It’s Schulz’s job to protect his employees,” Eisen said.

On October 15, 2018, Schulz had another meeting with Eisen, announcing that he would not renew her contract past the end of the 2018-19 season. Eisen, who guessed that she was likely be let go, exercised her right to have a union representative present; the representative took notes on the meaning, which VAN obtained. According to the document, Schulz took issue with Eisen’s “overall approach,” saying, “Some structures aren’t like those of other, normal theaters (due to people like Daniel Barenboim, Simon Rattle, René Jacobs).” He told Eisen, “You’re allowed to say no, but it matters how. You have to show Daniel Barenboim that you’ve tried everything,” and added that “Daniel Barenboim asks a lot and is very impatient; he doesn’t leave anyone in their comfort zone…[Eisen] should learn not to complain, but to affect change with a positive attitude.”

Eisen countered that there is “a climate of fear at the Staatsoper, an atmosphere that originates with [Barenboim],” and that she “felt like a human lightning rod.” Schulz concluded by saying that although Eisen’s supervisor Annekatrin Fojuth was satisfied with her performance, Barenboim and the orchestra board of the Staatskapelle were against her contract being renewed.

In a statement from late February 2019 to the Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel, Schulz said the sources in our original story were making “anonymous denunciations,” adding that he and Barenboim wouldn’t respond to complaints made by unnamed employees. That statement, and the fact that Schulz denied any knowledge of Barenboim’s “problematic behavior,” made Eisen feel that her complaint had never been taken seriously. “I found that very painful,” she said. “I was interested in finding a solution to the conflict. Otherwise I would have simply quit.”

In February 2019, in the wake of growing public pressure following reporting by VAN and the Bayerischer Rundfunk, the Staatsoper hired an external mediator, Betriebs-Partner GmbH & Co. KG, led by Dr. Constantin Olbrisch. On February 28, 2019, Schulz wrote in an email to staff, “We would like to use the knowledge we gain to create additional impulses for a pleasant work atmosphere and collegial interactions.” He encouraged his employees to contact Olbrisch, and said they were free to be critical. The email was signed by Schulz, Barenboim, and Ronny Unganz, the chief financial officer of the Staatsoper. Eisen was one of the staff members who contacted the mediator, telling Olbrisch about the altercation with Barenboim and her dissatisfaction with the subsequent meeting. Other, former employees told VAN they also contacted Olbrisch.

Olbrisch finished his investigation in early June 2019. When Eisen asked to see a copy of his findings, Unganz told her that the full report was presented to management verbally, but offered her the opportunity to read a summary. To Eisen’s surprise, the summary was only two pages long. It described no specific complaints against Barenboim. Though the report acknowledged shortcomings in the working culture of the Staatsoper, it reached the conclusion that Barenboim had not abused his power. Eisen quoted a line from memory: “The accusations of the abuse of power by Mr. Barenboim were not supported by legally relevant accusations.” (Reached by phone, Olbrisch declined to comment, citing his non-disclosure agreement with the Staatsoper, which still employs him.)

At a press conference on June 4, 2019, in the neo-baroque Apollosaal of the Staatsoper, Berlin Culture Senator Klaus Lederer announced that Barenboim’s contract with the house would be renewed until 2027. In response to a question from VAN, he noted that the accusations against Barenboim were not “legally relevant.” At this time, Lederer had only read the two-page summary of the report—according to his spokesman Daniel Bartsch, Lederer was not aware of any specific complaint. As Bartsch noted, Lederer sent a letter to all publicly funded cultural institutions in Berlin, including the Staatsoper, on October 12, 2018. The letter requested that leadership “make the prevention of and battle against abuse of power, discrimination, and sexual harassment a top priority.”

Eisen worked at the Staatsoper until the end of July 2019. In her last months, she helped train her replacement. In a July 14 interview with the radio station RBB, Schulz said, “We’re happy that this situation is now settled. We put a lot of effort into this and we will continue to work with everyone involved on having a wonderful working climate. We have been reminded how grateful we are to have Daniel Barenboim. The rest will be settled between him and the orchestra.” Olbrisch led three coaching sessions between February and June 2019, on communication and organizational culture, but the relationship between Staatsoper artists and staff and Barenboim wasn’t a focus of the sessions. According to a musician who was present, the conductor only attended the first 15 minutes of the first meeting.

For Eisen, the situation is far from settled. When she began at the Staatsoper, she hoped to improve communication and organization at the house. “Starting out, I had a ton of respect for the job, the Staatskapelle, and Mr. Barenboim himself,” she said. “I also knew that the going could be tough and I would have to give it my all. I wanted to help modernize the institution, but it was hard to find much enthusiasm for that goal.” She acknowledged that poor working conditions are not unique to the Staatsoper: “The fact that different moral rules apply to geniuses and stars is at the root of many problems in classical music.” Her goal is not revenge against Barenboim personally or the institution of the Staatsoper, but to tell the truth in the face of what she sees as ongoing obfuscation of the real issues. “The Staatsoper is an excellent institution. I was happy to work there, until the cost became too high,” she said. “But I still hope that things will change.” ¶

Updated September 3, 2019 to clarify the nature of Eisen’s sworn declaration.

… has been an editor at VAN since 2015. He’s the author of The Life and Music of Gérard Grisey: Delirium and Form (Boydell & Brewer), and his journalism has appeared in The Baffler, the New York...

... earned degrees in development studies, Asian studies, and cultural anthropology from universities in Berlin, Seoul, Edinburgh, and London. He is a founder of VAN, where he serves as publisher and editor-in-chief.