Playing out behind the sleek, elegant lines of Oslo’s Opera House is a financial crisis so dramatic that it prompted Opera management to close the publicly owned building to the public itself last weekend, in order to rent it out for a “considerable” sum for a private wedding. Now that’s stirring additional drama as well.
Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported how Mozart’s Figaro isn’t the only one involved with a wedding at the Opera House this summer. On Saturday July 2, not only the Opera building and its restaurants were closed but its popular roof was blocked off as well.
Instead, Norway’s largest cultural institution, as measured in terms of its budget and employees, was reserved in its entirety for the wedding of financial analyst Olivia Christine Stolt-Nielsen Holten, part of Norway’s Stolt-Nielsen shipping family, and British businessman Julius Meinl, tied to a British-Austrian family fortune as well.
The wedding, featuring several bridesmaids and other gown-clad guests who could pose for photos on the Opera’s roof themselves, provided a welcome chunk of revenue for the depleted coffers of The Norwegian Opera & Ballet, which has suffered for years from high pension costs. Newspaper Finansavisen reported last week that the Opera & Ballet reported a deficit of NOK 67 million that may well be much higher, because actual pension costs for dancers who can retire at age 41 and singers who can retire at 52, are believed to be higher than what the Opera estimates.
The results for 2015 were much worse than for 2014, and the Opera & Ballet’s chief executive Nils Karstad Lysø confirmed the Opera and Ballet is in a “difficult and serious” economic situation. Lysø blames it entirely on pension costs, claiming that operating results before pension costs were positive and better last year.
Opera staff won’t disclose how much the wedding couple or their families paid for the lavish celebration, and the secrecy was raising more protests on Wednesday. “The Opera is a publicly financed institution, and there should be full openness around the price for leasing out publicly owned buildings,” Georg Arnestad, a researcher and senior adviser at the College of Sogn og Fjordane, told newspaper Dagbladet. Many others agreed, since the building has been financed by state taxpayers.
Kenneth Fredstie, marketing and communications director at the Opera, said the managment refused to reveal the price for the private wedding “because we view that as part of a contract.” He said the amount was “considerable,” and that the money it provided for the Opera can in turn “be channeled into our daily operations and artistic production.”
‘Thought twice’ before renting out
Fredstie had earlier told NRK that management, which is seeking new sources of revenue for the Opera and Ballet to help cover costs, had “thought twice” about leasing out the Opera House itself for the first time. Fredstie didn’t hide the fact that the Opera simply needed the money. “The Opera is in a pressured economic situation and also needs revenue in addition to ticket revenue,” he told NRK. “So we chose to say ‘yes’ this time.”
Fredstie said the wedding project would now be evaluated. “I don’t think this is something we’ll be doing regularly,” he said. “We operate and will continue to operate primarily with opera and ballet.”
NRK reported that wedding guests were met by large floral decorations on their way into the Opera, by more handing decorations inside the Opera’s skylit lobby and by a long table covered with food. Fireworks were set off just before midnight.
‘Cry for help’
Leaders of several other public cultural institutions in Norway, including the National Theater and Munch Museum in Oslo and the Concert House in Kristiansand said they would never rent out to such private events that would block or even restrict public access. Anne-Britt Gran, a professor at the Norwegian Business School BI, doesn’t think publicly supported buildings should be used for private weddings either.
“This can lead those with considerable capital to use the Opera for their own representation,” Gran told NRK, adding that Opera management’s decision to do so can be interpreted as “a cry for help.”
The Opera, classified as Norway’s largest cultural institution in terms of budget and its number of employees, receives more than a half-billion kroner a year (USD 60 million) in state support. It currently has around 600 employees and has been a landmark tourist destination since it opened in 2008. In addition to the high pension costs for dancers and vocalists, the opera’s annual maintenance costs have been much higher than anticipated.
Opera management also came under criticism last month from one of its own directors for allowing an ice cream vendor to set up shop right at the main entrance to the Opera’s outdoor plaza. The kiosk was bashed as “cheapening” the view of the Opera House, but it reportedly was selling lots of ice cream to passers-by.