Opera turns five amidst drama

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Norway’s national Opera House quietly marked its fifth birthday on Friday amidst drama over budget concerns, looming personnel cuts and criticism over its cultural program. The building itself, however, has become a major landmark in Oslo and popular gathering place all year round.

Norway's Opera House in Oslo marked its fifth birthday on Friday, while development of the surrounding area at Bjørvika goes on. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Norway’s Opera House in Oslo marked its fifth birthday on Friday, while development of the surrounding area at Bjørvika goes on. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Asked to describe The Norwegian Opera & Ballet’s last five years, Opera Director Tom Remlov responded with one word: “Demanding.” He told newspaper Aftenposten, though, that it’s also been “unusually joyful. There have been a lot of tough artistic and professional decisions to make, but mostly organizational and economic.”

The Opera House was built after  decades of political quarreling and at a cost of NOK 4.7 billion (about USD 810 million), double its original budget. It became an instant attraction, not least with visitors swarming all over its roof and plaza, and demand for tickets exploded upon its opening on April 12, 2008.

The high demand versus number of performances, though, has disappointed many fans who find it much harder to secure seats at the new Opera House than at the old one at Youngstorget in downtown Oslo. The annual release of tickets for the next season has attracted huge crowds, over-burdened the reservations system and left many opera and ballet fans walking away empty-handed because events sell out so quickly.

Norway's relatively new Opera House in Oslo is showing signs of wear and tear after just four years. Algae stains the marble, some of which also has fallen off the building, and state officials are struggling to clean up after all the millions of visitors who are attracted to the waterfront landmark. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Walking on the Opera House roof remains popular, but crowds and waterfront wear and tear have been bursting maintenance budgets. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Remlov claims the Opera increased its number of performances last year “quite considerably” and will “stabilize at an even higher number” over the next two years. “We now have a goal of 220 evenings of opera, ballet and concerts every year,” Remlov told Aftenposten, up 10 percent from the new Opera House’s first few years.

Operating budget overruns have been among the biggest concerns: The new Opera House simply costs much more to operate and maintain than expected. Just when it should be celebrating its fifth birthday, uncertainty swirls over looming staff cuts and other savings measures, even though state support for the opera and ballet have increased. Remlov calls the state building department Statsbygg’s initial cost estimates “absurdly wrong,” meaning that most of the funding increases go towards building maintenance and operation, not artistic production.

The Opera & Ballet management has also opted to rent out the building for major events, like last year’s premier of the film Kon-Tiki, a meeting for grocery store chain Rema 1000 and the annual conferences for employers’ organization NHO. Remlov notes that Rema 1000 is a sponsor of the Opera & Ballet and he defends the income-generating activity. Events like NHO’s annual conference also cement the Opera House’s role, he believes, as an important gathering place and an arena for debate.

Remlov claims they’re doing the best they can with available resources and working hard to ensure artistic development. He and his staff opted against spending any money on a fifth anniversary celebration on Friday, concentrating instead on a ballet premier. They will mount a special exhibit this summer, though, about the last five years.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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