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.


Kate Connolly in Berlin

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Daniel Barenboim to resign from Berlin State Opera role due to poor health
Conductor and pianist says he can ‘no longer achieve the level of performance required of a general music director’

Kate Connolly in Berlin

06, Jan, 2023 @6:35 PM

Article image
Berlin's opera weekend: tradition, innovation and orientalism
Berlin’s three opera houses united to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall and open their seasons with a trio of new productions by Wagner, Offenbach and Meyerbeer

Martin Kettle

08, Oct, 2015 @10:00 AM

Barenboim saves Berlin opera at cost of 300 jobs

Debt-burdened capital's three opera houses to pool facilities.

John Hooper in Berlin

04, Feb, 2003 @1:31 PM

Article image
Viktor Ullmann's opera written in Nazi concentration camp revived in Berlin

Czech-German composer's satire on Adolf Hitler, The Emperor of Atlantis, to be staged at former SS and Gestapo HQ

Kate Connolly in Berlin

24, May, 2013 @12:08 PM

Article image
Joana Mallwitz is the first woman to lead a Berlin orchestra. And, no, she hasn’t seen Tár
Comparisons to Cate Blanchett’s fictional conductor abound. But for Mallwitz that is irrelevant – her work is the thing

Kate Connolly in Berlin

12, Oct, 2023 @4:00 AM

Berlin giant quits in battle of the batons
Like the giants Fafner and Fasolt fighting for control of the gold in Wagner's Ring cycle, the conductors Daniel Barenboim and Christian Thielemann have battled with one another for months to become unchallenged ruler of Berlin's operatic world.

Martin Kettle

19, May, 2004 @1:11 AM

Article image
Daniel Barenboim opens Berlin music academy for Middle East students
Musician and conductor says school, which will take in 90 new talents from the region each year, is ‘attempt at creating peace through music’

Kate Connolly in Berlin

08, Dec, 2016 @6:10 PM

Article image
The Bayreuth Wagner festival: more soap opera than classical opera
Allegations that joint director Eva Wagner-Pasquier is not allowed even near the festival theatre are the latest twists in a long saga of offstage feuds at Bayreuth

Tom Service

11, Jun, 2015 @8:49 AM

Article image
House music: Andrew Clements' watching and listening picks
This week, Andrew Clements gets his teeth into Barenboim’s festival of new music, looks back in wonder at Wunderlich, and looks forward to looking back to the Proms

Andrew Clements

13, Jul, 2020 @4:38 PM

Article image
Barenboim to take Berlin orchestra to Iran despite protests from Israel
Israeli-Argentinian conductor’s planned September concert postponed as organisers look for a new date in wake of protests from Israeli officials

Saeed Kamali Dehghan Iran correspondent

27, Aug, 2015 @5:56 PM