Current Events at the Berlin Opera Houses

The future of Berlin's three opera houses: Eleonore Büning in conversation with Daniel Barenboim

Current Events at the Berlin Opera Houses

Much is being written in the German – and the international – press about the future of the Berlin opera houses. Daniel Barenboim, as Artistic Director and General Music Director of the Berliner Staatsoper, is in the thick of the controversy, which has strong artistic and political overtones.

Further information on the latest developments in Berlin can be found on the Berliner Staatskapelle website

Süddeutsche Zeitung

“I haven’t spoken to Herr Thielemann in person, but this is the second time that something like this has come to my notice. I know him relatively well, he was my assistant at the Deutsche Oper and in Bayreuth. He rang me up three years ago. He wanted to speak to me as it was rumoured that he had made some anti-Semitic remarks. He felt that it was important for him to tell me that this wasn’t so. That was the end of the matter. But now it’s here again. For me, the matter is over. Herr Thielemann has already explained all this, and as long as there’s no proof, you can’t go around insinuating things about someone. But people should know: it’s not the first time.

Herr Landowsky rang me up. It was difficult for him to repeat exactly what he had said, but he claimed that he had intended “the Jew Barenboim” as a compliment. I told him that to use the expression “the Jew Barenboim” in such a context was alarming. Ultimately, it’s a matter of indifference whether it’s intended as a compliment or as an insult. For me, anti-Semitism is a sickness. But the people who suffer from it aren’t the Jews who hear these things but the people who say them. I asked him to refer to me in future only as a conductor or pianist and to ignore the issue of Jewishness. Landowsky apologised to me, and with that the matter is over for me.

The unresolved problem. You mustn’t take it personally. It’s alarming that this kind of remark is found in such a context and that it’s so widely discussed. For me, this unfortunately means that many people in Germany have not really come to terms with this problem. I’ve been working in Germany for many years and until now have never been faced by anti-Semitic reactions. And so I’m naturally very sad to find that it’s now so high on the agenda and that it provokes such a response. The whole debate about German art and German culture is so difficult that I don’t know what to say to it.

The Nazi period was a terrible time, and in the fifties it must have been impossible for people to face up to it. Maybe this explains why there was a positively anti-German reaction among the Germans themselves: they felt so ashamed of it that they lumped everything together – Goethe and Hitler.

But the two things mustn’t be confused: for me, the Nazi period was a terrible time in German history, but it’s only a part of German history. This is important and it’s why I’ve done what I can to bring about more understanding between Germans and Jews. After all, I grew up with German culture, it’s part of my very being. I think it’s important not to blame all Germans indiscriminately, but I think it’s equally indispensable that, as a result of their past, the Germans should be particularly sensitive on this point.”

(Translation Stewart Spencer)

ZDF (German Television)

I’d like to welcome you, Daniel Barenboim, as ‘Conductor of the Year’ and as a citizen of the world. Berlin’s minister for the arts, Herr Stölzl, visited you in Chicago, and you feel – is this the right word? – you feel you’ve been treated in an underhand way because he didn’t tell you about the plans that he subsequently announced for making savings and reforming the city’s three opera houses.

I told him quite clearly in Chicago that under no circumstances would I wish to remain Artistic Director of the Staatsoper, which is far too much of an administrative post, a job I’ve done until now because it was absolutely necessary. Perhaps I should explain this in two sentences: being artistic director means accepting artistic responsibility for everything, including the repertory and for every singer who appears every evening, regardless of whether I’m conducting or not. It’s an insane amount of work. I said I didn’t want to do this any longer, but that I’d naturally continue as General Music Director of both the Staatskapelle and the Staatsoper, on condition that the priorities that are indispensably necessary for the orchestra and the opera are put in place. That’s what I told him. But he then came back and said I was leaving Berlin.

Naturally it concerns you personally.

It doesn’t concern me personally. If it’s better for the Staatsoper and Staatskapelle to continue without me, I’ll leave at once. But if I go, the situation will only get worse.

Do you know what will happen if all this goes through?

Seventy-seven jobs will be lost from both orchestras, two orchestras and temporary players, with and without money, everything a kind of pool. The house, the Staatsoper, will be closed for three years for renovation. Everyone knows that the house doesn’t need to be closed for three years. During these three years the Staatsoper staff will all be laid off, everything will then be in the Bismarckstrasse. And then in 2006 or 2007 there’ll be a wonderfully refurbished new building and the Staatsoper will be the pride of Berlin and the pride of Germany. And the entire company of the Staatsoper and the Staatskapelle will have been destroyed and won’t exist any longer. I’ll not be a party to that.

So it does concern you personally. When you came to Berlin ten years ago, one leading newspaper carried the headline “Berlin, rejoice, Daniel Barenboim is coming”. Ten years later, are you still certain that the whole of Berlin is glad you’re here? Or have you now begun to wonder whether there are some people who may in fact no longer want you?

Whenever I stand before my orchestra, I sense that they’re very happy. Whenever I appear in public, I sense that the audience is very happy.

So who are these people?

I didn’t come here to make music for an élite group of politicians. I see myself as an artist, you understand, not as a director. The artist has an obligation to give uncompromising expression to his artistic ideas. If he’s a musician, he will express those ideas in sound. The politician is the exact opposite. He is under an obligation always to seek compromises. If he fails to find a compromise, he is not a politician. If I myself agree to a compromise, I’m not an artist. It’s as simple as that.

Regardless of how they might have turned out, certain decisions have not been taken. Ten years have passed since reunification, which is why decisions are now so difficult and presumably why they are so painful, because no decisions have been taken for too long.

Well, there’s no doubt that the situation that was reinforced following the fall of the Wall in 1989 was not entirely right. This was reinforced. And as far as the Staatsoper is concerned, – you know, German isn’t my language –

You speak it extremely well.

– but I do understand what the word Staatsoper means. It’s not a Stadtoper, a municipal opera, but a State Opera. It involves the state. But the state – the Federal Government – refuses to get involved. This is a very important point in this tale. And there was a clause in the reunification treaty in which it was said that the cultural institutions of the German Democratic Republic, the former GDR, would be maintained. The Staatsoper is one of those institutions.

You mean that, for you, closure would be a violation of this particular term in the treaty?


At that time – forty-eight hours after the fall of the Wall – you gave a benefit concert in the city that many people still remember.

You know, Berlin has always been a symbol for me. Perhaps because I grew up in Israel, I’ve always drawn certain parallels with Jerusalem. Perhaps not all of them are correct, perhaps they are somewhat symbolic, very subjective. Jerusalem, too, is a divided city, I grew up in a city where there was a wall, although in the case of Jerusalem there are two different nations, which isn’t the case here. I was always in favour of German reunification. That’s why I gave that concert. […] People often speak of the former East Berlin. They never speak of the former West Berlin. Why?

Do you think we’re now discovering how difficult it is for what belongs together to grow together? Are we now discovering this from your own example and from the reform plans for the three houses?

To be honest, I don’t think that the reform plans work, and the experts will show this. These plans make no economic or artistic sense, to say nothing of the way they affect us as individuals. But a counterproposal will be made, and this counterproposal will be made by experts who know what has to be done. And so it’s not a problem that what belongs together can’t grow together, but it is in fact a cynical decision or a cynical suggestion that is perhaps the result of a desperate situation.

A brief answer to the question: do you want to remain in Berlin?


Thank you, Herr Barenboim.

(Translation Stewart Spencer)

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

More money doesn’t necessarily make art any better.

The future of Berlin’s three opera houses:
Eleonore Büning in conversation with Daniel Barenboim

Herr Barenboim, a few weeks ago you received a visit from Berlin’s arts minister, Christoph Stölzl. In the course of it he discovered two things that have subsequently given rise to a good deal of confusion. The first is that Barenboim is to remain in Berlin a little longer, the second is that he is going a little. Are you staying or leaving?

There was nothing new in what I told Herr Stölzl. Certainly not that I plan to leave. I’ve been saying the same for years. The only difference now is that this is the third arts minister since last December. I’ve been Artistic Director and, at the same time, General Music Director at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden for eight years. In future I’d prefer to be only General Music Director. I’d like to conduct and to lead the Staatskapelle. Mayor Diepgen has known this, as I say, for at least five years. And I told Herr Stölzl this, too.

So you’ll remain in Berlin, provided that ?

…provided that Diepgen finally keeps his word. In that case, I’d be only too pleased to stay. But I’ve never said that I’d like to leave Berlin. My musicians in the Staatskapelle must finally get the same salaries as those in the Gewandhaus Orchestra and the Dresden Staatskapelle. This increase means that we need around 3.5 million marks more, which Herr Diepgen promised years ago and which he repeatedly confirmed a few months ago. That’s the bottom line for me. I’m not going to argue over this any more. If this sum isn’t there for the orchestra, I’ll go. Why? Because without this increase, I can’t keep my best players any longer. Here, too, Berlin’s politicians must finally decide where their priorities lie. If they want to maintain Germany’s premier orchestra – not just in name, but to a standard where it’s among the finest in the world – they ought to take steps to ensure that the top players, both here and in the Staatskapelle, don’t switch jobs and become professors at the music colleges in Hanover or Freiburg. That’s what’s happening at present, and I think it’s a disgrace. It’s all the result of Berlin’s non-politics, this peculiar mixture of half-truths and total helplessness.

What do you think of Stölzl’s plan to merge Berlin’s opera houses?

It depends on what’s brought together. The companies could very well share many things: the workshops should be merged, as should marketing, administration and possibly the chorus, too – after all, there are lots of repertory operas without a chorus. But above all, all three opera houses should be coordinated in terms of their programmes. But it wouldn’t make sense to combine their orchestras. You’d end up with 280 players. It wouldn’t just mean dismissals, it would also mean the death of both orchestras. Of course, every death may be followed by a rebirth. But people should be honest enough to admit in advance that the Staatskapelle – one of the oldest concert orchestras in Germany, with a tradition dating back more than four centuries – would be swept away by this step. The orchestra of the Deutsche Oper may not be as old but it, too, is a very good orchestra and it, too, would be swept away. There’s a certain deviousness about this debate over a merger: they’re painfully anxious not to abolish anything and not to reduce the size of either of these orchestras or to close any of these houses. And so they speak of a merger as if this sidestepped the issue of closure and dismissals.

What do you think of the alternative idea of a “Kulturforum Mitte”? The synergy of four musical institutions, all of which are only a few minutes away from each other on foot: the Staatsoper, the Schauspielhaus, the Komische Oper and the Hanns Eisler Musikhochschule?

This is an old favourite of mine. It would be a powerful, self-confident amalgamation involving four institutions in the old centre of Berlin, close to each other, in beautiful buildings, based on cooperation, not on a merger. If we take advantage of this geographical proximity, we can have something here like the Lincoln Center in New York. This is one of the models that make artistic and economic sense but which are unfortunately politically impossible, as the Komische Oper is resisting the idea, as is the Schauspielhaus and its orchestra, and so on. What always astonishes me in my many conversations with Berlin’s arts politicians is the fact that what makes economic and artistic sense is evidently impossible from a political point of view. But if they devise a political solution and try to make everyone equally happy, they’ll cause the greatest possible artistic and economic harm.

This is a classic conflict situation. Whatever one does is wrong. And so one does nothing. Is this stalemate typical of the last ten years in Berlin’s non-existent policy towards the arts?

The way in which cultural politics operates in Berlin is really highly unprofessional. The politicians with responsibility for the arts are helpless and indecisive and daren’t act without a kind of reinsurance. I can’t help wondering whether the idea of merging the opera houses isn’t the next step on the road of Berlin’s half-truths. The real truth of the matter is that merging opera houses means dismissals and losses. A merger means that neither the Federal Government nor the City of Berlin is prepared to establish a system of priorities. I just wish they’d come out with it and say that Berlin wants one less opera house, it wants to get rid of the jewel in its crown, the Staatskapelle – and Berlin doesn’t want Barenboim.

What will you do then?

What I’m already doing. I’m playing the piano a lot more at present and working on projects such as the Weimar “Divan” with young musicians. And I’m writing. At the moment I’m writing a book with Edward Said. It still doesn’t have a title, but it deals with parallels and paradoxes. It’s also about the way in which certain processes run along similar lines in different disciplines. The connection between content and speed, for example. The peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians, for example, isn’t working because the speed isn’t right. The process falls apart if it’s too slow. It’s as if I were to play an Allegro as an Andante.

(Translation Stewart Spencer)