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Daniel Barenboim resigns as Berlin State Opera director

Gaby Reucher
January 6, 2023

The world-renowned conductor, pianist and peace activist is stepping down as general musical director of the Berlin State Opera because of persistent health problems.

Daniel Barenboim conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
Daniel Barenboim conducting the Vienna Philharmonic OrchestraImage: NIKOLAY KRUSSER

Daniel Barenboim resigns as Berlin State Opera director

Daniel Barenboim announced on Friday that he would no longer remain the general musical director of the Berlin State Opera because of persistent health problems.

"Unfortunately my health condition significantly worsened in the last year," the conductor said in a statement. "I can no longer deliver the performance rightly expected of a general musical director."

He had held the position since 1992; his resignation will be effective January 31.

In his statement, the 80-year-old conductor added that his years at one of Berlin's three premiere opera houses had been "musically and personally inspiring in every way." 

The venue's Staatskapelle orchestra had also elected him chief conductor for life, which made him "especially pleased and proud," he said.

Always on the move

In October, Barenboim revealed on social media that a "serious neurological condition" was forcing him to take a step back. "I must now focus on my physical well-being as much as possible," he wrote on Twitter.

Taking this step must not have been easy for a classical music conductor who was as much in demand as Barenboim.

He was used to traveling across the globe for his concerts as pianist and conductor, and has received many awards for his engagement within the world of music and beyond.

"He has always lived five lives at the same time: as a conductor, as a pianist, as an initiator of projects like the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, as a family man and as a global art personality," director-general Matthias Schulz said in a statement by the Berlin State Opera for Barenboim's 80th birthday, on November 16.

A photo of Daniel Barenboim looking at the camera in a pin-striped sports coat
Barenboim looks back at an exceptional careerImage: Annette Riedl/dpa/picture alliance

Barenboim and his orchestra

Barenboim founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in 1999 together with the US-Palestinian literary scholar and public intellectual Edward Said, who died in 2003. Both wanted a peaceful solution to the Middle East crisis.

The ensemble brings together musicians from Israel and other Arab countries. In 2016, Barenboim founded the Barenboim-Said Academy, which trains young musicians from the Middle East in music and in the humanities.

A musical childhood

Barenboim's Jewish grandparents came from Belarus and Ukraine. They fled antisemitic pogroms to Argentina in the beginning of the 20th century, the conductor told the audience in March 2022, during a concert of the Staatskapelle for Ukrainian refugees.

Conductors Daniel Barenboim and Zubin Mehta stand together, slightly bowed
Barenboim connected with many other musical greats, such as conductor Zubin MehtaImage: picture alliance / Maurizio Gambarini/dpa

Barenboim was born on November 15, 1942, in Buenos Aires. His father began giving him piano lessons when he was five and two years later, he gave his own concert. "Music was always a source of joy to me, never a duty," he wrote in the weekly Zeit about his childhood.

In 1952, his family moved to Israel, partly because his father wanted Barenboim to be introduced to European music. Contemporary musical maestros at the time, including pianist Arthur Rubinstein and conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler were fascinated by the young pianist's talent.

Furtwängler became a role model for Barenboim. Speaking about the conductor in the DW documentary "Music under the Swastika," Barenboim said the conductor's music had a "freedom of tempo" and gave listeners the feeling that he was composing while conducting.

Daniel Barenboim at a piano in 1954, wearing a tie in this black-and-white photo
Barenboim, pictured here in 1954, was a piano prodigy Image: Imago/United Archives International

An exceptional talent

Barenboim was considered an exceptional talent from early on. As a young man, he studied in Rome at the academy of the pianist and music teacher, Carlo Zecci.

At age 15, he played with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and, five years later, he conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in New York — the world was his oyster.

Be it the Orchestre de Paris, Chicago Symphony Orchestra or La Scala in Milan, Barenboim was not to be stopped. He was as welcome at Salzburg's annual music festival, as he was with the philharmonic orchestras in Berlin and Vienna.

At the Bayreuth Festival, he regularly conducted Wagner's operas and, in 2020, conducted the "Ring of the Nibelung" reinterpreted by Harry Kupfer.

For his 80th birthday, Barenboim had planned to conduct Wagner's Ring Cycle with the Staatskapelle Berlin, but could only conduct the first three parts. The last performance was conducted by Christian Thielemann.

An enfant terrible

Barenboim is a musician with all his heart and soul, but the conductor is also interested in social and political issues, as can be witnessed in his writing, lectures and his speeches at concerts. He has, for example, praised the courage of Ukrainians and spoken about the COVID-19 pandemic as a chance for more social interaction.

Barenboim conducts an orchestra in 1991 in Argentina in this black-and-white photo
During his career, Barenboim has conducted many of the world's leading orchestrasImage: United Archives/picture alliance

Understandably, his attitude towards some issues is controversial.

In 2001, there was heavy criticism in Israel after Barenboim played Wagner's music in an encore following a concert with the Staatskapelle Berlin. The 19th-century composer was known to be antisemitic and had also written incendiary texts targeting Jews, which is why his music is not welcome in Israel.

In 2004, Barenboim caused a scandal when he criticized the occupation of Palestinian territories by Israel.

There were complaints against his person as well. In 2019, former employees of the Staatsoper in Berlin complained to the online magazine Van about Barenboim's tone of conversation and his authoritarian style. Barenboim disagreed with the accusations and saw the episode as a background of his contractual discussions for the position of director of the Staatsoper, which were taking place at the time. His contract was extended to 2027 despite the accusations.

A photo of Daniel Barenboim in the Staatsoper Berlin theater wearing a black coat
Barenboim holds Argentine, Spanish and Israeli passports and has had honorary Palestinian citizenship since January 2008Image: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture alliance

Barenboim, who has been described as "classical music's most influential star," will undoubtedly remain true to his passion for music even after stepping back from his professional duties: "Music has always been and continues to be an essential and lasting part of my life," he once wrote on Twitter. "I have lived all my life in and through music. ... Looking back and ahead, I am not only content, but deeply fulfilled."

This article was translated from German.

Update: This profile was first published for Daniel Barenboim's 80th birthday, on November 11, 2022. It was updated with the news of his resignation as general musical director of Berlin's State Opera on January 6, 2023.