Christian Thielemann picks up baton as director of Berlin State Opera from old rival

The German conductor will take over from Daniel Barenboim who announced his resignation in January

The German conductor Christian Thielemann is to pick up the baton from the world renowned maestro and pianist Daniel Barenboim as general music director of Berlin’s State Opera.

In a move that shocked the classical music world, Barenboim, 80, resigned from the job in January after 30 years at the helm, citing a long-term neurological illness. On Wednesday, as the identity of his successor was revealed, he heaped praise on Thielemann, calling him an “extraordinary musical talent”.

The two cultural veterans have in the past had a fierce artistic and intellectual rivalry that lasted for decades and made headlines around the world. But in a statement, Barenboim said he was confident his successor would build on the strengths of the opera house and in particular the Staatskapelle orchestra, and said he was “full of anticipatory joy as to what is to come”.

Thielemann, 64, who became Barenboim’s assistant at the Deutsche Oper at the age of 19, said he was thrilled by the opportunity to “lead the [opera] house into the future”, and had not expected it to come his way.

Accompanied by his mother, Sybille, at his unveiling as new director, he said: “When you don’t look for something it comes to you … The Greeks call it Kairos … That’s the great thing about life.”

Joe Chialo, Berlin’s cultural senator, called him the “perfect successor” who there “had been no getting round”, adding that he was the orchestra’s own choice.

Thielemann will work out his contract at the Staatskapelle Dresden, where he is chief conductor, until next year before starting in Berlin in September 2024. He said he also intended to honour his full schedule of engagements at venues from Salzburg to Milan.

A native Berliner, Thielemann previously served as the general music director of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, but resigned in 2004 over a funding row that saw 17 top musicians leave the orchestra.

On several occasions he has been shortlisted to lead the Berlin Philharmonic, whose musicians are directly involved in choosing their artistic director, but lost out to other conductors, including Sir Simon Rattle and Kirill Petrenko.

Barenboim and Thielemann’s rivalry reached a peak over the heated political row as to how to fund three opera houses in the reunited and deeply bankrupt German capital, in which both men fiercely fought their corners.

Though rumours of a rift lingered for years, proof that they had resolved their differences was seen to be Barenboim’s request last year for Thielemann to conduct his production of Wagner’s Ring cycle at the Staatsoper which was a runaway success with critics and audiences alike.

Argentina-born Barenboim was credited with reinvigorating the fortunes of the more than 530-year-old Staatskapelle, as well as securing funding for extensive renovation work at the Staatsoper and establishing the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which draws on Israeli and Arab musicians, and the Pierre Boulez Saal, the city’s first recital hall.

He has said he will continue to perform and has taken to the stage regularly since his resignation.

Asked how he planned to bring new audiences into the opera house amid evidence of declining numbers of concert goers, Thielemann said: “As a house we need to ask ourselves if it’s always the case that people should dress up in posh suits to come to a concert, or can they come in their casual clothes, and I can imagine both – hosting lunchtime or afternoon concerts where that’s not a requirement … where, like at the New York Philharmonic, people sometimes come as they like, clutching their plastic bags … and go out thrilled by what they’ve heard.”

He said he would seek to remind the audience how “extremely topical” many operas were, from Tosca to Salome, with varying dramatic outcomes no less entertaining than much modern entertainment. “It’s a case of how you sell them,” he said.

A lover of Strauss, Wagner and Brahms, who propelled the Staatskapelle Dresden to one of the best orchestras in the German-speaking world, Thielemann is next on stage with the Staatskapelle orchestra at the end of November, when he is due to conduct them in Bruckner’s 5th Symphony at the Philharmonie as well as at the Staatsoper.

Contributor

Kate Connolly in Berlin

The GuardianTramp

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