On Monday, the Staatsoper Berlin announced its 2019-20 program. Aside from a few potential highlights—René Jacobs leading Scarlatti and a new ballet by Georg Friedrich Haas—the programming reads like a parody of a conservative orchestra season, featuring yet another Beethoven cycle, Brahms cycle, and “Ring.” The soloists are of high quality, but belong firmly to the category “usual suspects” at the Staatsoper. This year, the house simply posted the season details online, instead of holding its traditional press conference. The Staatsoper may be attempting to avoid questions about the relationship between its orchestra, administration, and music director Daniel Barenboim. What’s next for the Staatsoper Berlin? As the dust settles on the Barenboim debate, we attempt to make sense of the discussion and analyze what the Staatsoper can learn from it.
Music is a moral matter.
We broke the story on the “culture of fear” at the Staatsoper on February 6 using anonymous sources. On February 22, the German radio station BR Klassik published on-the-record interviews with three musicians, who talked about the ways they suffered in rehearsals and concerts under Barenboim. The subsequent discussion quickly centered on the nature of the relationship between a conductor and his orchestra. Many arts journalists seemed more comfortable discussing whether they are still “allowed” to listen to Barenboim’s recordings than examining the systemic issues of leadership and labor that his tenure at the Staatsoper raises.
Barenboim’s influence goes beyond aesthetic questions and the Staatsoper’s artistic profile. “He’s in the DNA of the house,” said a former administrative employee. A music director is always a manager and a leader as much as a performer. The way he behaves can determine the entire institutional culture at a place like the Staatsoper. By design, Barenboim’s responsibilities transcend the making of art.
A person who thinks of Barenboim solely as an artist might be tempted to explain or excuse his behavior: as a result of the “Latin-American blood in my body” (his, rather offensive, words) or a tortured genius’s quest for perfection. As a manager, however, he has a clear responsibility toward his employees, both musicians and administrators. A good leader honors boundaries and takes setbacks in stride. Barenboim appears to struggle with both.
How could these management problems become so entrenched at the Staatsoper? Why did politicians show so little interest in finding out the truth behind ubiquitous rumors of misconduct? How can a house develop in the long term when its atmosphere, some employees say, has played a part in their burnout, depression and substance abuse?
Analogous questions are currently being asked in other artistic fields. As Joan Acocella wrote in the New Yorker in February, reflecting on sexual harassment at the New York City Ballet through a quote of George Balanchine, “Dance is a moral matter.” Two months after our first article was published, many commentators seem uninterested in the morals of music-making: subjects such as fair leadership, employee happiness and institutional culture. An employee of the Staatsoper pointed out that feedback meetings have been standard at major corporations for decades. Why shouldn’t a similar system be possible at an orchestra or opera house?
“I learned how I didn’t want to work.”
Throughout last year, orchestra musicians described being systematically humiliated by Barenboim. Employees told us about his unpredictability, anger and even physical aggression.
In the German press, journalists such as Eleonore Büning and Barenboim fellow-travelers like the former Staatsoper artistic director Jürgen Flimm and the tenor Rolando Villazón explained away Barenboim’s behavior by writing that conductors must be allowed to make decisions and demand perfection. This was Barenboim’s own line of defense in several interviews. It is also a straw man argument. None of the musicians or administrators we spoke to—along with none of the performers quoted by BR Klassik in their reporting—proposed voting on whether to play forte or pianissimo, or suggested that sloppy playing was is fine. No one expects art making to be “cuddly” (Die Welt) or all “candy and rainbows” (Villazon, in our rather free translation, writing for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung).
To borrow a bit of rhetoric from the #MeToo debate: If you can’t tell the difference between an intense rehearsal and humiliation, perhaps you shouldn’t be leading the rehearsal in the first place. Anyone who has ever made music in an orchestra knows how difficult it is without confidence and support. The sensitive mechanism of extraordinary achievement runs more smoothly with psychological stability. “I couldn’t breathe, my embouchure was gone,” said a brass player about working under Barenboim.
Extreme pressure is not the only way to motivate employees. And good artistic results are not independent from how they were achieved; the ends don’t justify the means. Calling performers by their instruments, yelling at one person in front of all his colleagues, moods that vary by the minute—it’s not overzealous to say these behaviors are unacceptable.
In fact, large swathes of classical music have already moved on. So many conductors and orchestras are giving fantastic performances without relying on the cult of personality. Young musicians have gotten to know other ways of working, in more informal ensembles and collectives, and are less willing to accept degradation as the price of an orchestral job. The Staatsoper “was an interesting experience, because I learned how I didn’t want to work,” said a former academy member. A more current attitude to art can be found a short subway ride away from the Staatsoper, at the Deutsche Oper under Donald Runnicles. “Conducting the orchestra, making music; that’s my training,” he said in March 2018. “But the necessary psychology, humanity, empathy, modesty that it takes if an opera house is to succeed, where people feel that we’re all learning for one another; that for me is the greatest place to be.”
Orchestras need checks and balances.
“I stopped going on the Divan tours, not because of Barenboim, but because the musicians’ passivity was getting on my nerves,” said a member of the orchestra. “They should raise their voices.” An administrator said in our original article, “If 10 or 20 people got together, they could really send him a message: certain boundaries should be respected. But they are too afraid.” One explanation for Barenboim’s hold on his orchestras could be the bystander effect in psychology, defined as a “perceived diffusion of responsibility” when there are multiple witnesses to an emergency. The timpanist Willi Hilgers recalled wishing that his colleagues would intervene while he was being humiliated by Barenboim.
The Staatsoper has hired an outside firm to speak with employees about Barenboim anonymously. Culture Senator Klaus Lederer is taking the issue seriously, speaking directly with musicians. Meanwhile, multiple sources say, the focus of two meetings artistic director Matthias Schulz held with the orchestra in the wake of our reporting was that musicians shouldn’t speak to the press. (In 2018, an employee brought a complaint to Schulz. Nothing happened.) Instead of acting in an independent role, the orchestra board of the Staatskapelle appears to have permanently picked a side, supporting Barenboim. VAN has obtained emails between the orchestra board and musicians: when musicians make complaints, the board responds by defending “the boss.”
In general, the Staatsoper’s reaction to the accusations has been disastrous. An initial one-sentence statement denied knowledge of Barenboim’s misconduct and emphasized his artistic achievement, though the two are quite obviously not mutually exclusive. Then, our sources were accused of being tattletales. When musicians went on the record to BR Klassik, Barenboim accused them of musical deficiencies. He also made multiple claims of a nefarious campaign to sabotage upcoming contract negotiations. (In fact, VAN contacted all our sources first, and many were reluctant to speak, even anonymously.) We wished that our journalist colleagues had pressed Barenboim for details on this supposed campaign against him. On March 11, Staatsoper artistic director Matthias Schulz declined to speak to VAN about any questions related to Barenboim.
The best thing for the Staatsoper would be a fresh start. At the moment, the artistic profile of the house is vague and bitterly traditional. The recently renovated hall is labyrinthine and tacky, and many of the most interesting recently productions have been relegated to a small, boxy rehearsal space. There is huge potential in the caliber of the orchestra, singers and staff at the Staatsoper. It may take a radical new beginning to unleash it. ¶