Photo: Clemens Bilan/EPA
Conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim has announced his resignation as music director of the Berlin Opera due to his declining health.
The 80-year-old has headed the Staatsoper since 1992 and in a statement expressed his gratitude for 30 years of collaboration, “which in every way, both musically and personally, has allowed us to fly,” he said.
Barenboim, who is one of the most distinguished conductors in the world, was the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Orchester de Paris and La Scala in Milan. But his lifelong love affair with German music and his intense interest in reunifying the country after the end of the Cold War led him to become passionately attached to Berlin.
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He is credited with reviving the Staatskapelle, an opera orchestra on the Unter den Linden boulevard in former East Berlin, which had sunk into relative oblivion under communism. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he took him to new artistic heights and international fame.
He has also earned a reputation as a staunch defender of culture in Germany, repeatedly battling politicians – most notably by opposing the threat of a merger between the Staatsoper in the east of Berlin and the Deutsche Oper in the west. Barenboim said the move “will not destroy the building … but the people inside”, as well as the unique sound of the Staatskapelle developed under its former artistic director Richard Strauss.
He described the sound as “based on a set of values that are a bit out of fashion today … harmony [and] legato, over brilliance values … a more soulful and less athletic way of playing.”
In an interview with the Guardian in 2000, the ardent Barenboim said that the politicians who supported the merger were accomplishing nothing more than a “Western takeover” of the Staatsoper, one of East Germany’s most valuable cultural assets, in the same way that West Germany took over over companies, universities and almost every other aspect of the former German Democratic Republic. Ultimately, he won the fight.
He recently secured political support for the construction of Berlin’s first recital venue, the Pierre Boulez Saal, which opened in 2017. He was also responsible for establishing the Barenboim-Said Akademie, a foundation aimed at promoting collaboration between aspiring musicians from the Middle East and North Africa, and an orchestra advocate for young Arab and Israeli musicians.
Barenboim, who was the first to hold both Israeli and Palestinian passports, has long been a vocal critic of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.
Born in Buenos Aires to a family of Jewish professional pianists, he made his first public appearance at the age of seven, made his first international appearance at the age of 10, and embarked on a glittering career, first as a pianist and then as a conductor, starting in London on the South Bank in 1968 year.
In 1966, he married the British cellist Jacqueline du Pré, one of the most famous relationships in the world of classical music. Du Pré died of multiple sclerosis in 1987 at the age of 42. In 1988, Barenboim married Russian pianist Elena Bashkirova.
Last October, Barenboim announced he was retiring from performing after being diagnosed with the neurological condition vasculitis, a term for rheumatic conditions that cause painful inflammation of the blood vessels.
In his Friday statement, he said: “Unfortunately, my health has deteriorated significantly over the last year. I can no longer achieve the level of performance that is rightfully required of a general music director. Therefore, please understand that I will resign from this function as of January 31, 2023.” He said he had asked the Berlin senator for culture to release him from his contract.
In the past few months, Barenboim has been forced to cancel several shows, including a new production of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle. At his request, the conductor Christian Thielemann took over his role.
In his statement, Barenboim expressed pride in what he and the Staatsoper had achieved. “I believe that the Staatsoper and I were very lucky to have met. I am especially happy and proud that the Staatskapelle has chosen me as its lifelong chief conductor. Over the years we have become a musical family and will always be so.”
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Barenboim said he plans to continue conducting whenever possible. “Of course, as long as I live, I will remain closely associated with music and I am ready to conduct, especially with the Staatskapelle.”
The Berlin Philharmonic announced that Barenboim will conduct three concerts as planned this weekend. Earlier this week, he conducted two sold-out New Year’s concerts of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the Staatsoper, which were also broadcast on screens to crowds outside the opera.
Matthias Schulz, director of the Staatsoper, said the house was “eternally grateful” to Barenboim and had “great respect” for his decisions.
“For more than 30 years, he has allowed his inexhaustible strength as a world-renowned artistic personality to benefit this house and its Staatskapelle Berlin,” he said. “One can only imagine how difficult it must have been for Daniel Barenboim to take this step. We all wish him the best.”