NEWS ANALYSIS: The Norwegian Opera & Ballet is caught in an economic and personnel drama just seven years after its new landmark Opera House opened on Oslo’s waterfront. Heads are rolling as costs pile up, while a conflict over pension plans that are out of control remains unresolved.
The trouble at the mostly state-financed opera seems ironic, after the state finally invested billions in the cultural institution. The new Opera House quickly proved, though, to be far more expensive to maintain than anyone had anticipated, and now it’s the soaring costs of the early pensions given to dancers and singers that have rendered the Opera & Ballet technically insolvent. Management has warned in its budget application to the state ministry of culture that it will need to cut the number of performances from 450 to 280, to save NOK 25 million, unless it gets additional budget allocations.
Opera chief Per Boye Hansen was effectively fired last Friday, just before the long pinse holiday weekend, and on Tuesday, the government minister in charge of culture, Thorhild Widvey of the Conservative Party, replaced nearly the entire board of the Opera & Ballet. Gone are board leader Ellen Horn, who once held Widvey’s job herself in a Labour Party government, and all the other board members except one: Monica Salthella, a partner in the finance firm Formuesforvaltning Vest.
The new board leader is Anne Carine Tanum, who also serves as chairman of Norway’s biggest bank, DNB. Her deputy will be Jan Petersen, a former foreign minister for Widvey’s Conservative Party who recently ended a term as Norway’s ambassador in Vienna. Petersen is known as an avid opera fan. Other new board members include Päivi Kärkkäinen, director of Finland’s Nationalopera, and Harald Espedal, a former managing director of investment firm Skagen.
The board’s, management’s and Hansen’s reluctance to answer questions, following a cryptic announcement that Hansen’s contract would not be renewed, set off massive speculation over what’s going on backstage at the Opera & Ballet. Most of it centered on the opera and ballet company’s huge financial challenges. The opera’s managing director, though, Nils Are Karstad Lysø, remains in place and so far seems to have survived the storm. That set off more speculation about disagreement between Lysø and Hansen.
“I wanted to stay,” Hansen wrote in an email to newspaper Dagsavisen. “The managing director didn’t.” Hansen wrote that it had been “demanding and inspiring” to lead the opera company and that he would, over the two remaining years of his contract, “do all I can so that the opera company can continue the artistic growth period it’s in and lay a foundation for the future.”
Donatella de Paoli, an assistant professor at Norwegian Business School BI who specializes in culture and leadership, told Dagsavisen on Thursday that it was “very unfortunate” that Lysø wouldn’t comment on why Hansen has to leave his job. “The opera is financed with tax money and people expect to know what’s happening there,” said de Paoli. “The opera is in a crisis situation.”
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported Wednesday that Hansen never got the financial resources that he’d expected. He arrived just three years ago, in 2012, with good credentials from his work at the opera in Berlin and as head of the annual arts festival in Bergen. DN wrote that he fought for large and expensive opera productions that he viewed as critical for artistic success. Because of tight budgets, and not least the pension costs that have risen 50 percent just since 2013, the economic framework for the opera changed, though, “and Hansen had to go,” DN wrote.
According to the official announcement, translated directly from Norwegian: “After conversations and negotiations with the managing director (Lysø) and our (old) board, there’s been no success in reaching a common understanding of what’s necessary for a renewed long-term cooperation (with Hansen).”
Others, including the cultural commentator for Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Agnes Moxnes, cited Hansen’s short temper that reportedly has caused some people to run out of meetings with him. Newspaper Aftenposten described Hansen as an “authoritarian leader with sky-high artistic ambitions” who had problems cooperating with others. That’s not necessarily unusual, though, in an organization like an opera and ballet with what many call a “high prima donna factor.” Hansen also was viewed as competent and highly visible and a leader who attracted attention to the opera.
“This whole issue is a question of leadership, and then it’s Nils Are Lysø who decides what kind of leadership the house will have,” John Henrik Neergaard, who represents many of the employees at the Norwegian Opera & Ballet, told Aftenposten. He claimed Boye Hansen’s involuntary departure wasn’t very dramatic among staff “but it is of course dramatic for Per, who hadn’t expected it.”
Others have pointed to the leadership model at the Opera & Ballet, which involves the board, a managing director (Lysø) and bosses for both the opera (Hansen) and the ballet (currently former lead dancer Ingrid Lorentzen). Hansen himself criticized the model when he came on board but supported it under former managing director Tom Remlov. “I know from experience that artistic priorities hang together with access to money,” Hansen told DN at the time. “Those who must make the important decisions should also have competence.”
‘No direct link’ to economic issues
Lysø succeeded Remlov, who’d hired Hansen, and he came from the proudly quirky Norwegian clothing retailer Moods of Norway. Lysø himself won’t comment on whether Hansen’s leadership style played a role in his looming contract termination in 2017. He has repeatedly referred to an “overall evaluation,” and then told Aftenposten that “we have had many conversations with him (Hansen), but I won’t go into individual issues in the case.”
Lysø did claim that economic resources and the division of them were not part of the evaluation. “We have a strained economic situation at the opera, that’s no secret, but there is no direct link between the economy and (Hansen’s) contract not being extended,” Lysø said. He also said there was no disagreement over the Opera & Ballet’s management model. In a new message to Dagsavisen published Thursday, Hansen seemed to confirm that budget issues were not part of a conflict with Lysø: “I can deny that I have made any demands on increased resources, either on my own or the opera company’s behalf.”
The opera had to announce the pending termination of Hansen’s contract now, because of the long lead time needed in finding his replacement and setting up future productions. The Opera & Ballet also, meanwhile, is looking for a new conductor and music chief as it adjusts to a new board and continues to tackle the challenge of its pension obligations. Negotiations with labour unions and even the threat of a strike by dancers, singers and musicians ended at an impasse earlier this month. Employees claim they’re willing to accept a “hybrid” pension plan that would combine some of the aspects of their current pensions that allow them to retire as early as in their early 40s. Management wants to move them over to pension plans that would shift more risk from employer to employee. Expensive pension plans are also threatening other cultural institutions including Norway’s National Theater, which must drastically cut budgets and performances if pension costs aren’t cut.