NEW YORK - For Daniel Barenboim, music and politics meld together.
Set to make his long-awaited Metropolitan Opera debut Friday night in Richard Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde," the 66-year-old Jewish former wunderkind is known as much for his championing of Palestinian rights as he is for his work as a conductor and pianist.
So when he appeared at the Met for a round-table discussion on Nov. 18, talk quickly turned to Barack Obama's election as president and Barenboim's predictions of events in the Middle East.
"I think the Palestinian-Israeli conflict can be solved only by the Israelis and the Palestinians, but it has to have the backing of the rest of the world. It cannot be an initiative from the outside," he said.
Born in Argentina, Barenboim grew up in Israel, became a famous child pianist and made his Carnegie Hall debut at 14. His conducting debut wasn't until 1967, but he became so noted for his work on the podium that he was hired as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1991-2006 and music director of Berlin's Staatsoper Unter den Linden in 1992, a position he still holds. He also is principal guest conductor of Milan's Teatro alla Scala.
Yet, for many, his most noted actions came in 2001, when he conducted "Tristan" excerpts in Israel, breaking an unofficial ban on Wagner, whose music and anti-Semitic writings influenced Adolf Hitler; and last January, when he accepted honorary Palestinian citizenship.
So, given his ties with both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, he tries not to expect Obama to come up with immediate solutions.
"I'm thrilled and delighted that he has been elected, but I think it's unrealistic to hope that he will achieve a solution to all these problems," Barenboim said.
Part of his reaction to Obama's election stems from his own experiences in the United States.
"I read with my own eyes at the entrance of a golf club in Miami in 1958 ... a sign that said: "No Jews, no blacks and no dogs allowed." So there is quite a development in all that," he said.
He views politics and finance similarly to music, citing the need for leaders in all three fields to recognize "everything is interdependent." As a metaphor, he cites that one cannot be only a rhythmical, melodic or harmonic musician.
He said the world wouldn't have seen the current economic crisis if financial leaders realized "that everything is connected."
He mentions his work with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which he founded with the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said in 1999. It includes Israeli and Arab musicians along with many from other countries.
Barenboim recounted a story from the first night the orchestra members met.
"The Syrians sat at one table, the Israelis sat at a separate table and the Egyptians. There was no contact among the different Arabs, either," he said. "And the poor Palestinians, this was actually very typical, didn't know which table to go to. ... 'I think in the end they went and ate in the kitchen. I'm not joking."
Near the end, talk finally turned to "Tristan." Barenboim will become the first conductor other than music director James Levine to lead the opera at the Met since Erich Leinsdorf in 1974.
"Life is not the same after 'Tristan.' Musical life, musical works, everything, after 'Tristan' has to be seen through 'Tristan's eyes. And even the music before 'Tristan' is looked at differently. It is one of those pivotal works, like the 'Well-Tempered Clavier' has been of Bach," he said. "The harmonic language is stretched to the maximum, like an elastic, and there was no beyond that, and therefore new had to come."
He does not, however, view it as a love story.
"Tristan is an opera about death. And it is that death, the fear of death and the looking for death as the only possible way to solve the entanglement in which they find, this is, if you want, the locomotive, the motor of the opera," he said. "There is nothing more democratic in the world than death. In the end, it comes to everyone, rich and poor, good and bad, and is one of the things that we all have to deal with. ... He who spends his life without thinking about death misses out on one of the most forceful dimensions of human existence."