Oslo Opera House meets International criticism

In November a reader´s letter was published in Aftenposten which contained serious criticism against the management of the Norwegian Opera House in Oslo. The signatories were none other than 13 German Opera House directors who are members of the Deutsche Opernkonferenz. A background context for the letter was recent resignation of the administrative Director of the Opera from his position.

In their letter of protest, the 13 sigantories write: "The fact that a managing director of one of the most important artistic institutions leaves his job shortly after taking decisions with dramatic consequences for the future, not only shows a serious lack of accountability, but also sets the Performing Arts in Norway - which is ironically symbolized by Norway's most impressive architectural landmark - in a desperate situation."

They continue to allege that the Opera House´s management is making a bureaucratic maze out of the Opera. A maze that is compromising the artistic work to be done in an Opera house. They conclude the letter with deep worry and an offer of assistance:

"Because we all are seriously concerned about the current situation, we want to offer the Norwegian Opera & Ballet advice and support that can help improve organizational structure, aiming at sustainable artistic production ahead.".

In an interview with Morgenbladet, the President of Deutsche Opernkonferenz Bernd Loebe gives further clarifications. In particular, the administrative leadership structure is seen as problematic. The Opera House has introduced a model where six director positions are directly underlying the main director. Several of them work with areas unrelated to opera or ballet, such as the marketing director and the technical director. However, all of these under directors are equally ranked with regard to decision making in the organization. The German Opera directors feel that the balance of power is too much in favour of finance and administration. The specialization of management and leadership is a barrier to artistic vision and ambition, according to them.

The international criticism against the Opera House is not new. In 2015, it was announced that Opera director Per Boye Hansen would not get his contract renewed after 2017. This sparked a wave of protests from colleagues abroad. A letter with signatories from among others Finland, Sweden and Germany, was delivered to the Minster for Culture Torhild Widvey. Back then, the protests also had an artistic tenor. That letter argued that an interruption of Boye Hansen´s work would be professionally unsound. They claimed that Boye Hansen had worked to build up a clear and skilled artistic profile that now is put into question.

A lack of artistic vision and strategy is obviously what professionals from abroad find lacking in the Opera House´s management. The current Board Director Anne Carine Tanum refuted this criticism in letter of reply in Aftenposten. What´s interesting are her main counter points to the criticism. She writes: "The Norwegian National Opera & Ballet has performed very well in the new opera house in Oslo. Number of performances is doubled, visitor numbers have doubled, and their revenues have tripled. 2015 was a record year. The average age of the audience has decreased. Opera and ballet has never been more popular and had a broader appeal in Norway ".

Undoubtedly, any artist in Opera or ballet would endorse a broadening of the popular appeal for their professions . However, the president of the Deutsche Opernkonferenz reflected to Morgenbladet that: "One must ensure that the Oslo Opera House is not only for the Norwegian people, but an international opera quality, so people travel to Oslo to see performances. This I feel more the case when Per Boye did his job very well." According to Mr. Loebe Boye also tried to change the current organizational structure. Perhaps the non-renewing of his contract can be seen in this light too. Popularity notwithstanding, it is clear that Tanum´s argument relies heavily on the logic of finance and administration, just as the German Opera directors were lamenting.

Further in her reply, the Board´s director Tanum referred to a favorable evaluation report from the Ministry of Culture. Others would perhaps call it a bureaucratic carte blanche. Tanum also stated that as far as the Opera´s organizational structure goes, Opera Houses abroad also have similar models of leadership as criticized by the members of the Deutsche Opernkonferenz . She gave as examples for this Helsingfors, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and the Royal Opera House in London. Her German colleagues, however, would probably beg to differ. Perhaps the Ministry for Culture can evaluate an international comparison in a new report?

- Feven Berhane