For months, the Berlin State Opera, one of the most important opera houses in the world, has been in a state of limbo. Its respected leader, conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim, resigned in January after 30 years in charge due to health problems. Musicians and cultural leaders wondered if anyone could match his impact and influence.
But on Wednesday, German officials said they had found their maestro: acclaimed Wagner Christian Thielemann, the chief conductor of Dresden’s Staatskapelle orchestra, who will take over as general music director of the Berlin State Opera in September 2024.
“With Christian Thielemann, we are not only acquiring a world-class conductor, but also the logical successor to the great maestro and honorary citizen of Berlin, Daniel Barenboim,” Joe Chialo, Berlin’s senator for culture, said in a statement.
Thielemann, 64, heir to legendary maestros such as Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, for whom he once served as an assistant, praised the opera house’s “long and illustrious tradition” and thanked Barenboim for “his wonderful work and continued support.” ”
“I am therefore very happy to return to my hometown and lead the house into the future,” he said in a statement.
Barenboim, who has known Thielemann since he was 19, said that “his musical talent was evident even then and he has since developed into one of the outstanding conductors of our time.” He said he was happy to take over the helm of the opera and its famous orchestra, the Staatskapelle Berlin.
“I have been at the helm of these very special music institutions for more than 30 years and I am sure that, under the leadership of Christian Thielemann, they will continue to maintain and expand their exceptional position in Berlin and the international music scene,” he said. said in a statement.
Thielemann, who is from Berlin and led the Deutsche Oper there from 1997 to 2004, will face major challenges at the State Opera, including restoring a sense of stability after a tumultuous period.
The institute has been in flux in recent years as Barenboim, 80, a towering figure in classical music who built an artistic empire in Berlin and helped define German culture after reunification, struggled with health problems. He was diagnosed with a serious neurological condition last year, and said in January that the disease made it impossible for him to perform his duties.
The uncertainty about his condition put pressure on the opera house. It continued to look for replacements for Barenboim, including for a long-awaited new production of Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cycle last year, for which Barenboim approached Thielemann at the last minute.
Thielemann and Barenboim have a complicated history. While at the Deutsche Oper, Thielemann publicly complained about the low level of government support compared to the Barenboim State Opera. At the same time, accusations spread that Thielemann had made anti-Semitic comments about Barenboim, who is Jewish. The two men never broke up and have spoken and met regularly over the years.
When he joined Barenboim last year, Thielemann deepened his bond with the Staatskapelle Berlin and became a favorite among the orchestra’s players, who were influential in his selection.
Thielemann rose to prominence in his twenties, taking on posts at German opera houses, including in Düsseldorf and Nuremberg. He led the Munich Philharmonic from 2004 to 2011, leaving amid disagreements with the orchestra’s managers. From 2015 to 2020, he was music director of the Bayreuth Festival in Germany, a showcase for Wagner’s work. From 2013 to last year he was artistic director of the Salzburg Easter Festival in Austria, founded by von Karajan.
Although once a regular in the United States, he has significantly reduced his commitments there in recent decades. But last year he made a triumphant return, taking the Chicago Symphony Orchestra stage for the first time since 1995 during performances of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony.
Succeeding Barenboim will not be easy. During his tenure, he took the Staatskapelle to new heights, led international tours and secured hundreds of millions in government grants to finance his ambitions. He convinced officials to build the Pierre Boulez Saal, a Frank Gehry-designed hall that was housed in the same building as a music academy. And he pushed for a costly renovation of the opera house’s main theater, which was completed in 2017. Last year, the State Opera had 587 employees and a budget of roughly 81.4 million euros, or about $85.9 million.
Barenboim maintained his grip on power despite occasional problems. In 2019, members of the Staatskapelle accused him of bullying; Later that year, however, the opera house extended his contract, saying it could not verify the allegations.
When his health deteriorated last year, Barenboim initially resisted being fired, telling friends and family that he planned to return to the stage. But even as he continued to make some appearances, attend rehearsals and teach classes in Berlin, it became increasingly clear that he could no longer manage the opera house full-time.