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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

The rise and fall of Michael Kaiser


By Norman Lebrecht / September 12, 2000

A FEW days after Michael Kaiser's arrival as executive director in 1998, he and I had breakfast at the Waldorf Hotel. "This is a group of people that has gone through a war," he said, "and I want to give them hope."

There was something admirable about his optimism, in view of the company's rampant unpopularity. Kaiser was brisk and businesslike, courteous and attentive, yet he appeared self-effacing to the point that I could hardly identify a single personality trait. My mystification was widely shared. Casting around the American opera and orchestral sectors and their attendant media, I found that hardly anyone had heard of Kaiser, and the few who had met him knew nothing about him.

Kaiser himself admitted to no attachments. He had a dog, which he left in New York. His greatest joy in life, he said, was to make things work. But there was more to Kaiser than a good bedside manner and a willingness to tell people what they wanted to hear. Kaiser's approach to problems was not to cover up or deny but to admit the difficulty and promise, "we'll fix it."

Within weeks, the press had turned from sour to supportive. Suddenly, everyone was willing him to succeed. The Guardian headlined him "The Turnaround King of Opera", and the catchphrase caught on. Soon after, The New York Times reported that "Mr Turnaround" had become his nickname. Kaiser made no objection. "It does help to come from the outside," he said, "because my experience of troubled organisations is that when you are in the midst of all the problems, everyone is focused on the past. They point fingers at each other, the staff blames the board, the board blames the staff. And no one is saying, 'Where do we go from here?' "

The refurbished Opera House was widely acclaimed when it reopened, and despite a series of technical problems with scene-shifting machinery, it seemed that Covent Garden was back on course. But all was not well at the top.

In the summer of 2000, relations between the board and executive director reached breaking point. Sir Colin Southgate seemed to resent the credit given to Kaiser for restoring the company, while Kaiser resisted having his every decision questioned and second-guessed by the chairman. The final straw was the appointment of Peter Hemmings, retired manager of Scottish Opera and Los Angeles Opera and a man whose professional skills ran parallel to Kaiser's. Hemmings was there, potentially, to shadow the boss. "This is not a board I can work with," Kaiser told an American colleague.

In the first week of June he crossed the Atlantic to pitch for top jobs at the Kennedy Center in Washington and the Lincoln Center in New York. On June 19, he announced his resignation from the Royal Opera House. "For personal reasons," said Kaiser, "it is time for me to return home."

He had not settled well in London, missing his Manhattan friends and his dog. But the principal reason for his departure was neither social nor personal, but structural. The imbalanced relationship between the board and its executive director had rendered the company effectively unmanageable.

Although Kaiser had never been expected to stay for life, his rapid exit provoked a plummeting of morale and a sense of foreboding among the incoming opera and ballet chiefs, Antonio Pappano and Ross Streeter. The ROH remained conspicuously on the sick-list and in need of urgent reconstruction.

Hand in glove with the Arts Council

Soon after taking office as Arts Council chairman in 1953, the art historian Kenneth Clark stumbled across a highly irregular arrangement. The Council and the ROH were employing the same accountant and company secretary. Douglas Peter Lund worked mornings for the provider of grants and afternoons for the receiver.

Insiders joked that he would write a strong letter to himself demanding financial information, and then carry it from St James's Square to Floral Street on his lunchtime walk to save postage, before replying in equally robust terms. In fact, exchanges between Covent Garden and the Arts Council were always conducted and signed by the secretary-general and general administrator. Lund, said colleagues, merely drafted the letters, in both directions.

The ROH chairman, Lord Waverley, dismissed Clark's fears as niceties. So Lund was allowed to continue working for both organisations, staying with the Arts Council until 1965 and with Covent Garden until his statutory retirement in 1972. He earned more than either of his chief executives.

  • Norman Lebrecht 2000. From 'Covent Garden', published by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd on September 18 at £25. Available at the special price of £21 from Telegraph Books Direct, 24 Seward Street, London EC1V 3GB, or call 0870 1557222. Please quote ref NB1016 when ordering.

    The anti-homosexual campaign
    The press critic who was on the House payroll

    11 September 2000: Margot and Rudi: were they lovers? [part two of the serialisation]
    9 September 2000: How the Garden lost its glory [part one of the serialisation]
    20 July 2000: [International] Washington post for Royal Opera chief Kaiser
    20 June 2000: [UK News] ROH in turmoil as chief resigns
    19 June 2000: [UK News] Opera Kaiser may bow out
    24 January 2000: After this Royal Opera catastrophe, it can only get better - can't it?
    18 December 1998: [UK News] Royal Opera House thrown cash lifeline by Arts Council

    Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




  • (c) La Scena Musicale 1999