Christian Thielemann succeeds ailing Daniel Barenboim at Berlin state opera

Wagner specialist had first refusal on one of Germany’s most prestigious classical appointments and signed five-year contract

Berlin has appointed Christian Thielemann as the next music director at the city’s State Opera, inheriting the baton from an ailing Daniel Barenboim.

A Wagner specialist, Thielemann had first refusal on one of Germany’s most prestigious classical jobs after he parachuted in a year ago to helm a new state opera Berlin Ring cycle.

After ecstatic reviews and months of discreet negotiations, Berlin’s cultural senator Joe Chialo announced on Wednesday that Thielemann had signed a contract for five years from 2024, when the 64-year-old finishes at the Semper Opera in Dresden.

Thielemann said he was anxious to shake things up at the state opera and orchestra which, with almost 600 employees and an €81 million annual budget, is widely seen as programming and playing Berlin’s safest repertoire.


“The orchestra should play everything, from Christmas oratorios to happenings,” said Thielemann, a Berlin native. “I am very pleased to be returning to my hometown and leading the house into the future.”

Ending a run as music director that began in 1992, Daniel Barenboim described Thielemann, a former assistant, as his “logical successor ... at the head of these very special musical institutions”.

“I am sure that under the leadership of Christian Thielemann they will continue to maintain and expand their exceptional position in Berlin and international musical life,” said the 80-year-old in a written statement, read out by Mr Chialo.

Wagner festival

Thielemann began his career as an assistant to legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan and has served as music director of the Deutschen Oper Berlin and artistic director of the Salzburg festival and Wagner festival in Bayreuth. Since his debut there in 2000, he has conducted 185 performances and is considered a leading interpreter of Wagner’s music.

Initial reaction in Berlin to the news was positive but muted, noting that Thielemann has left several previous jobs under clouds of controversy.

“Thielemann is an extraordinary conductor, at least for the small range of repertoire that interests him, namely late German romantic,” said Rainer Pöllmann, critic at Deutschlandfunk Kultur radio. “Christian Thielemann the traditionalist stands for status quo, he is someone who believes in himself and in whom his audience believes.”

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin