Must we witness Denmark’s great operatic decline?


One moment sticks in my mind from the 2009 Gramophone Awards. Decca collected a prize for its new seven-DVD Ring cycle filmed at the Royal Danish Opera. Kasper Holten, the house’s young artistic director and the brains behind the cycle, accepted the award looking like a chuffed sixth-former. I was probably the next-happiest person in the room.

Three years previously I’d heard there was a new opera house in Copenhagen, and that it was presenting a Ring. I scraped together some cash, booked a flight and a hotel and reserved standing tickets to Das Rheingold and Die Walküre – they cost as much as my interval drinks. It was my first time in Scandinavia, and the beginning of what you might call an obsession.

The building itself was mind-blowing – the very opposite to the cramped, dark and fusty auditoria that were serving me opera in the UK. The productions were brilliant. ‘I was there’, I said to the Gramophone critic who’d recorded the video endorsement of the Copenhagen Ring for the awards ceremony. I’m still saying it today, every time I lend the DVDs to a friend.

On behalf of Denmark, I was proud of the confidence this small country had shown in the art form. A glorious new architectural centrepiece focussing on opera; a Ring cycle that made our concurrent ENO and Covent Garden productions look dull and routine; an atmosphere inside the building that made you feel welcome and relaxed.

How different things seem today. As of Monday, the Royal Danish Opera finds itself without its music director designate and without its artistic boss Keith Warner. On the surface, the resignations can look like the inevitable symptoms of two over-ambitious and highly-strung creative souls facing swinging (£11.2 million) budget cuts.

But if we’re to believe the facts enshrined in the speech Warner gave to staff this week, transcribed and published by the Danish paper Politiken, there’s a little more in it. Opera is expensive, but Warner claimed to have acknowledged it was costing too much in Copenhagen, asking questions about set-building and orchestra costs (questions he says were ignored). He claims to have accepted, albeit regrettably, that certain elements of the programme would need to be axed. He says he expressed concerns about of the opera’s publicity regime.

Right now, there’s plenty of politics flying round the opera’s umbrella organisation, the Royal Theatres, and it’s seasoned with dollops of rhetoric, artistic flamboyance and bitterness. But if we’re to believe Warner, it’s not lack of money or a surplus of ambition per se that have brought dark clouds over the island of Holmen, but problems of procedure and administration.

So Denmark and its capital have some decisions to make. They’ll have heard it from the arts chiefs before, but I’d like to speak as the 25-year-old who embarked on a pilgrimage to the Ring those years ago, putting a good few thousand kroner into the Danish economy in the process. Copenhagen can still be the international hub of Scandinavian opera, and if it means trimming the number of productions per season (a move I’d never be ideologically opposed to) then so be it.

But the Royal Danish Opera must cherish its ensemble and its home. If it becomes a visible branding presence in the city (which it arguably isn’t at the moment) and builds links with student and other communities, it can surely maximise its audience. If it proves it looked at Warner’s plans to re-structure and cut costs and discarded them for good reason, it can look us in the eye and administer the planned cuts. (And perhaps, in that process, someone could explain why the resident Royal Danish Orchestra needs a standing membership of 120 musicians.)

I travelled to Copenhagen in 2005 because I could tell, even from the website, that the Royal Danish Opera had inspiring ambition and a welcoming and stimulating home. Oslo’s opera is edging towards the same status now, the difference being – my Norwegian friends tell me – you have to beg, borrow or steal to get a ticket there. Yes, Norway is swimming in money, but it gets results through patience and relative thrift. More than that, the Oslo opera is seen as an asset: a driver of tourism and a symbol of national pride.

Copenhagen is still, arguably, even better placed to capitalise on those circumstances. Standards at the Royal Danish Opera remain wonderfully high: Decca’s DVD of another Wagner work from the house, Tannhäuser, was given an accolade in the December issue of Gramophone. The building remains an envy of the operatic world.

To squander these assets would be a bigger act of cultural vandalism than any cut in budget, a slap in the face for anyone who values or works in the arts. In the context of exchequer contributions and tourism, it would make no economic sense either.

The Royal Danish Opera can protect its home and its ensemble if it works hard on alternative funding sources, trims production plans and gets new audiences through the door (your friends in London have led the way on that latter point, and would probably be delighted to help). If it can’t quite provide the money it could before, the Danish state must offer the Royal Theatres all the resources, support and freedom it can.

And while I’m addressing them, here’s a final message for Denmark’s powers of state. I’ll long fight for your country’s superlative place on Europe’s creative map – I spend many hours a week doing just that. But if I have to witness the decline of one of the most imaginative and blessed opera companies in the world while Danish culture gains ever-more prominence in the UK and elsewhere, I and many others will find it extremely hard to forgive you.

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