Curtain falls over drama at the Opera

All the top officials at Norway’s state-owned Opera & Ballet have put a lid on the latest management drama that’s already resulted in the looming departure of music director Karl-Heinz Steffens. They’re clamming up after incoming opera director Annilese Miskimmon, the target of Steffens’ ire, finally responded to Steffens’ criticism late last week.

“I’m sorry that Karl-Heinz Steffens and I have not developed a common platform for artistic development, despite my best efforts,” Miskimmon wrote in a response to questions from newspaper Aftenposten. “He has chosen not to support my vision for The Norwegian Opera.”

Aftenposten reported that Miskimmon, who is currently tied up with rehearsals for a production in London, said she didn’t think it was appropriate to take part in an ongoing media debate regarding her conflict with Steffens.

“This is an internal matter that I will handle with my colleagues in the Opera House,” Miskimmon wrote. “I thank the board (of the Norwegian Opera & Ballet) for their support and look forward to start working for the company in August 2017.”

She has, however, set off serious conflicts long before she officially takes on her post, first with the Opera’s soloists, over her decision to only employ singers on short-term contracts, and then with Steffens. It’s been the latest in a series of problems at the opera regarding pensions, budgets and whether the board has control over the Opera & Ballet’s management.

Opera board ‘incompetent’

Bjørn Simensen, the former newspaper editor and head of the Opera, told Aftenposten late last week that he thinks the current board is “incompetent” and should be replaced by the government’s Ministry of Culture, which is ultimately responsible for the Opera & Ballet. He noted how the board has employed five opera chiefs and four opera directors in just the past 10 years. The headhunters who recommended them can be blamed, but the board, Simensen said, is responsible. The current board is headed by Anne Carine Tanum, who also has been criticized over her work as board leader of Norway’s biggest bank, DNB.

Tanum defended the Opera & Ballet board’s work and its top management model, which consists of a chief executive and three directors supposedly of equal ranking who are in charge of the opera, the ballet and the music respectively. Others in top artistic management roles have claimed that’s a poor model because of its unclear lines of responsibility. Munch Museum director Svein Olav Henrichsen joined the debate over the weekend by writing in Aftenposten that the Opera & Ballet needs one strong administrative leader with a mandate from the board to in turn lead the three artistic leaders, and make sure that they all have the same visions and goals.

Now the chief executive who has that job, Nils Are Karstad Lysø, has agreed with Miskimmon that he no longer wants to discuss such issues publicly either. He met with Steffens over the weekend and wrote in an email to Aftenposten that “we discussed all the media attention of the past week and how the employees are caught up in it. I haven’t muzzled anyone. It’s up to each individual to to evaluate whether he or she wants to express themselves, but I don’t have any desire to escalate this issue in the media.” He said he intended to meet with Opera & Ballet employees, “to discuss the path further.”

Lysø himself is due to resign later this year, leaving the conflict for his successor, Geir Bergkastet, to deal with when he takes over on August 1. Bergkastet wrote in an email to newspaper Dagsavisen that he “doesn’t want to comment on this now.”

‘Management structure designed to create conflict’

The current opera director, Per Boye Hansen, seemed to agree with Henrichsen and Simensen that there’s a great need for changes in how the Opera & Ballet are run. Boye Hansen ran into a conflict himself during his tenure, and his contract was not renewed. “The conflicts that have occurred have, in my view, a lot to do with today’s divided management,” Boye Hansen told Aftenposten. “It’s a management structure that’s designed to create conflict, and what’s happening now is an example of that.”

At least one leader of the Opera & Ballet, former ballerina Ingrid Lorentzen who is responsible for the ballet, seems successful in her position and defended Miskimmon. Lorentzen wrote in a text message to Aftenposten that she has cooperated well with Boye Hansen and is positive to his successor.

“I have had a very good impression of Annilese Miskimmon after I got to know her,” Lorentzen wrote. Lysø has also described Miskimmon as “very open and cooperative.” Tanum also stressed that the board “fully supports” Miskimmon, even though the soloists and music director don’t. Berglund
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