Disharmony at the Norwegian National Opera & Ballet has now risen to fever pitch, after its brand-new music director, Karl-Heinz Steffens, announced that he’s already decided to leave his post next year. Steffens was popular and had been viewed as a unifying force in an organization riddled with conflict, but he claims he simply hasn’t found a good tone with the Opera’s incoming and embattled Artistic Director, Annilese Miskimmon.
Steffens, a German conductor who plays the clarinet, wrote in an open letter published on newspaper Aftenposten’s website that he “unfortunately” had been unable to establish a “fruitful dialogue” with Miskimmon, an Irish-British music and opera manager now working in Denmark who’s due to assume her post in August.
Steffens, who has conducted at the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Symphony and La Scala Milan among many others, went on to write that he believes Miskimmon lacks “fundamental respect” for either the position of the music director or the influence that position should have on the opera’s artistic development. He said he viewed any long-term cooperation with Miskimmon as “impossible,” and that it was “best” he withdraw as music director when his first two-year contract expires in 2018.
Miskimmon had already run into trouble, even before she officially begins work in Oslo, with the opera’s full-time singers because she only wants to hire new singers on short-term contracts. Miskimmon was herself hired around the same time as Steffens was last year, but now the two co-directors are clearly caught in conflict as well.
Aftenposten reported that neither Steffens nor Miskimmon responded to requests for comment or elaboration of Steffens’ letter, which hit the Opera & Ballet like another bomb on Tuesday. Tenor Henrik Engelsviken, who’s been leading the soloists’ uproar against Miskimmon, told Aftenposten that they think it’s “very sad that such a clever and competent music director chooses to quit. We have a good impression of him, and hope he will reevaluate his decision.”
Nils Are Karstad Lysø, the Opera & Ballet’s chief executive who’s resigning as well later this year, confirmed Steffens was quitting because of “artistic disagreements” and conflicts over how Steffens and Miskimmon should divide their duties.
“I regret his decision, and I think it’s sad that this is happening so early, before Opera Director Annilese Miskimmon formally takes over (on August 1),” Lysø told Aftenposten. Lysø claimed he has viewed Miskimmon as “very open and willing to cooperate. It’s absolutely my impression that she is both inclusive and listens.” Lysø said he had hoped the two would resolve their differences, “but Steffens feels he hasn’t received the influence he wants.”
Agnes Moxnes, cultural commentator for Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) called it “extremely unfortunate” that the state-owned and operated Opera & Ballet was losing yet another talented director. “This is a music chief who is loved by musicians and highly competent,” Moxnes said. “He’s only been here for eight months and the Opera has a need for his qualities beyond his two-year contract.”
Moxnes claimed Steffens has been “a unifying figure” at a time when the Opera has been weathering some of its worst storms. The organization faces huge budget challenges because of expensive pension obligations and maintenance costs, and has seen several top managers come and go over the years. Miskimmon herself was hired to replace Per Boye Hansen, whose contract was not renewed by the Opera’s board following personnel conflicts. Steffens wrote that he also regretted Boye Hansen’s looming departure.
“Miskimmon will now face an Opera House where she doesn’t only have the soloists against her, but the entire musical milieu,” Moxnes said, adding that all the conflicts raise serious questions about the top leadership’s ability to steer an ambitious Opera House in Oslo.
“I think most people who care about the Opera’s well-being are getting extremely tired of a costly Opera House that faces one conflict after another,” Moxnes said.