More drama at the Norwegian Opera

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Norway’s Opera House in Oslo has become a national landmark, but sour notes are sounding once again inside the state-funded building that houses both the Norwegian Opera & Ballet. Soloists have demanded an urgent meeting with the Parliament’s committee on cultural affairs, while a revolt tunes up against the Opera’s new top administrator even before she starts in the job.

Norway’s waterfront Opera House in Oslo has become a battleground between its solotists and management. This photo was taken when the Opera was staging “War Requiem” last year. PHOTO: Facebook

Budget problems have plagued the Opera and Ballet since the building finally opened in April 2008 after years of political debate over its construction. It became an immediate success with the public but proved much more expensive to maintain than expected, not least because of all the visitors it attracts both day and night. The Opera House, designed by Oslo-based architecture firm Snøhetta, remains a magnet for tourists and locals alike who can walk all around the structure and up on its roof, to admire views over the city and fjord.

Inside the glass-, wood and marble structure, the budget problems have been greatly exacerbated by the costs of pensions for both singers and dancers, who generally need to retire early because of the nature of their work. Even though nearly all performances inside the Opera House are packed, ticket revenues and state funding allocations haven’t been enough to cover pension liabilities that have rendered the organization technically bankrupt. Opera managers have resorted to leasing out the Opera to private interests, even for a wealthy couple’s wedding last year, and selling off costumes to raise funds.

Executives and administrators have come and gone over the past nine years, caught in disputes with the artists intent on retaining benefits they’ve had for years. Now it’s the new incoming Irish-British Annilese Miskimmon who faces serious personnel challenges even before she officially takes over as Opera chief in Oslo. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported this week that she has already sparked fury among the Opera’s soloists because she allegedly wants to eliminate their “permanent until retirement” positions and transfer them over to short-term contracts. That threatens their pension rights.

Opera singer Henrik Engelsviken has launched a major protest action against the Norwegian Opera’s management, and aired his complaints on NRK’s nightly national newscast on Monday. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Their representative, opera singer and soloist Henrik Engelsviken, grew so frustrated that he established a new Facebook page over the weekend entitled Pensjonsranet på Operaen (The Pension Robbery at the Opera) and it’s been getting brisk traffic. Engelsviken also appeared on NRK’s nightly national newscast Dagsrevyen Monday evening and blasted both Miskimmon and the rest of the Opera & Ballet’s management.

“Now we’ve reached a point where we can’t sit still longer and not say anything, we have to stand together on this,” Engelsviken told NRK. “We are outraged. We fear for the future, not necessarily our own but for the next opera generation of talent and singers.”

It’s been two years since conflicts with the Opera’s earlier chief, Per Boye Hansen, became so serious that he did not get his own contract renewed. That led to the appointment of Annilese Miskimmon, currently the head of Den Jyske Opera in Denmark and former chief of the Opera Theatre Company Ireland.

‘I know many of you may feel very unhappy…’
Even though she’s not due to start in her new job until this summer, NRK reported that Miskimmon sent an email to the soloists last week that has been posted on the new Facebook protest page. “I am absolutely aware of the fact … that the management does not want to continue with the ‘permanent until retirement’ Ensemble contracts,” Miskimmon wrote, adding that “I know many of you may feel very unhappy that future Ensemble contracts will be term contracts.” Both NRK and newspaper Aftenposten reported Tuesday that she otherwise wasn’t available for comment.

“Miskimmon has earlier raved about the ‘Norwegian model’ and how we resolve issues here, she has talked about how much she looks forward to working in such a place,” Engelsviken said on national TV Monday night. “Then in the blink of an eye, she takes steps to break local labour laws.”

The new conflict stems from an agreement last year over how many permanent soloists the Opera should have. It calls for 15, but the soloists themselves went along with a management plea to reduce that to 10 to save money. The full 15 were supposed to be restored this year, but then the Opera got a new boss.

Engelsviken claimed “it is illegal” to refuse to offer permanent jobs when management “lacks an agreement with us.” Now he claims that Opera & Ballet employees are fighting a war on two fronts, both against the government ministry for cultural affairs (which controls state funding) and the Opera & Ballet’s management.

Nils Are Lysø, chief executive of both the Opera & Ballet since 2014, told NRK that he supports Miskimmon. “Our desire to go over to term contracts instead of life-long contracts is based on artistic considerations.” Asked what the advantage is for the Opera, Lysø said that “we think we get better solutions over time with a mix of long- and short-term contracts, but that assumes we get a new agreement with our soloists.”

That seems unlikely now and Lysø, a former partner in consulting firm McKinsey who went on to become chief executive for clothing chain Moods of Norway, is leaving the Opera as well. He announced his resignation last October, saying he wanted to return to private business. He’ll be leaving this summer, just as Miskimmon begins, and will be replaced by Geir Bergkastet, currently the director of the College of Lillehammer. He’s a former chief executive of Oslo Kino AS and has been a director at the National Theater in Oslo and Rogaland Teater in Stavanger. Berglund