Internal mismanagement is real reason for Keith Warner leaving Royal Danish Opera

Keith Warner and Jakub Hrusa, artistic director and music director-designate of Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen, have resigned their posts, ostensibly because of government budget slashing.

But, in reading through Warner’s public resignation speech, it’s clear that budget cuts are only part of the story. It’s hard to believe that the English theatre director had only been in the job for six months.

In announcing Warner’s appointment in 2010, the opera company’s general director, Erik Jacobsen, described the director as, “a deeply engaged person, a fantastic motivator and a great artist. His experience in both the artistic and leadership areas of the opera world is very exciting.”

The excitement didn’t last long. Warner’s speech reveals the dark side of an institution made too comfortable by long-term government financial backing.

Keith Warner

Here is Warner’s speech, which could have been taken out of a cast-study competition for World’s Most Dysfunctional Opera House:

I think we can all agree that we have been through a war together in these last weeks. And I want to make quite clear from the start that ANYTHING I am about to say now is not on the same dimension of what some here are facing or coping with. Nor does it have the same heroic stature of what some here have achieved in the face of extreme adversity. It is my personal response – albeit one that has taken immense consideration and reflection. One last battle then….

I am resigning from the post of artistic director of the Royal Opera. In fact, the truth is, I actually resigned from this post back in late November. Informing the management. And I am afraid here some background detail needs to be said.

First, never lose sight of the fact that the government cuts to the Royal Theatres are the catalyst of my actions, however not at all the whole motivation.

The cuts are a meaningless act of vandalism – the equivalent of taking a flick-knife to the Mona Lisa. So tiny in any national picture: so devastating to us. And so cynical in view of what culture can achieve and give a community in trouble. Also in the particular case of opera these cuts are ignorant in their immediacy. I opposed and still oppose these openly and vocally. But I think we share all this view.

I felt impelled to resign in late November when I really saw what these cuts meant in terms of human cost. I found it hard to live with myself being an agent of something I so profoundly disagreed with. I have only ever sacked one singer in my long career, and my only philosophy was that life is divided between the creators and the destroyers – and I had always counted on myself as a creator.

The human cost I could see was in two forms: the redundancy and downsizing, AND the effect this would have on our provision on top class art for this community, city, country. No outreach, no foyer activities – all of which I have been shouting my mouth off about for months and less performances of less operas. Anyway it would always seem wrong to me to be spending money outside the house on projects (which anyway should be the responsibility of any real government’s education programme) while making people unemployed within the house.

The outreach had to go first, but was something this company desperately needed. And I wanted for the company.

There seemed to be so few choices of what to cut and yet over and over again I would present the possibilities of more radical lasting change, most of which were never examined or simply blocked. Whole areas that as the boss of the opera I simply could not touch – or even were allowed to consider, let alone dabble with.

For example, I asked for a financial study to be done looking at us turning to a “Stagione” system; purely as a money saving measure. And although our brilliant planning office here at the opera did a half season draft proposal – never did I get any financial study.

I asked for the right to look at the orchestra playing for less ballet evenings. This would internally save overtime costs; I asked, remember, as the head of the orchestra, not head of the opera and was told it couldn’t be considered. Despite us facing Armageddon.

At the beginning of the cuts, I was assured that everything could be on the table for discussion, in the end very little was – certainly not at anything I was party too.

I wanted to look at the costs of our production house in producing sets, which sometimes seems alarming to me, and despite one discussion, and my providing some proof by comparing two wildly contrasting quotes, I was basically ignored.

At the moment, the whole technical staffing of the house is being re-drawn, re-arranged and despite the fact I have worked for over 30 years in over 50 opera houses, on 120 productions, in 17 countries – the only person in the Royal Theatres with anything like this kind of experience or any experience outside the Royal Theatres – I have never been consulted or asked, and I have offered, questioned, demanded continually. In fact, I have not even now been told what the results are.

I ask: Why on earth am I here?

When Kim Bohr recently left the organisation, I – and the other 2 artistic directors – pleaded to appoint 2 people to fulfil his overloaded post. One, please, a great administrator, especially in the technical theatre field, and a second, international class fundraiser in view of the cuts. Our pleas were ignored. In fact, the only new foundation money which is on the horizon – from Nordea – was found by me (an outsider who knows no-one in Denmark) through a chance meeting in my apartment block. No major new avenues have been opened in this entire year for the opera at least. Some have closed.

Why would I not resign? I have to front to you and the world endless decisions over which I am given shallow choices, little real control and absolutely no respect.

An example of my frustration, on such a silly, petty level that I am embarrassed almost to mention it. I have two tickets to each performance – if we have special guests, as recently happened with a world class composer who was visiting us – and I am sitting in my seats, I have to make a special application to get permission to have more seats. Can you imagine what that feels like – when you are nominally supposed to be head of the opera house. And this nonsense goes from this, which I could laugh at, right up to the planning of next season which is now being made by offices in the Royal Theatres, solely due to the financial situation, without my leadership. I fight it all, go to meetings and usually get nowhere.

So I talked of my resignation last November, finally knowing that the cuts in light of the restrictive power I am given made the job impossible to realise in a way that I could live with. And, to be honest, to face you as a real rather than a puppet leader.

And in case you now hear to the contrary, I am certainly not afraid to make cuts, we have been cutting since the first day I arrived, nor am I fed up with being here in Copenhagen and have always wanted to leave; this decision is a financial disaster for me, but I would feel even worse to be taking part in something with which I didn’t approve.

I just wanted what I was promised, to be in charge of an opera company. A job with the recognisable framework clear from a hundred other European Opera Houses. Then I would be happy to face anything with you and accept responsibility for their consequences.

In fact, this was why although resigning then, I’ve kept it quiet until now. I really felt and know that you needed someone who did a few things to see you past these tough measures – even though not always agreeing with them. But although I feel shamefully that I didn’t do much to divert some of the horror, I do also know that it would all have been far worse if I had not been around. I can see this in the decisions that were in some instances actually snatched away from me – they are all bad moves.

These are only a few instances of my discomfort – there are many, many more in the same vein….. Don’t even get me started on publicity for our performances – another area I have no effectual control over. I left the announcement until now because in this I agreed with Erik that we needed to settle your life here before I dealt with mine. I even promised Erik not to talk about the cuts to the press, not to tell my agent, nor to tell Jakub. So much has only happened in the last days. I did exactly what I was told. Until now.

I think you will hear a lot in the coming days about my leaving summed up as not being able to fulfil my international aspirations. Apart from the fact that this “internationalism” was mentioned over and over again in my interviews and is a phrase that echoes more than any other in the four year agreement, it is meaningless removed from you.

It was always the potential, the readiness, the standards that I knew and saw here that attaches in my mind with the words “international standard” – so, not my aspiration but your right. I could have helped you become more apparent, not to train you up. What we needed – all we needed – is help to fly. Yes, financial help foremost but also backing, expertise, and vision – vision manifested in the dedication of all who control decisions here to the art form and systems implemented within the management that enable and support growth.

There is no limit to what I believe this company can and could still achieve……. To do it without the money is hard – damn near impossible – but I would have had a go. To do it with a management structure and an air of ignorance is an endless uphill struggle and a huge pain in the arse but it also possible. But to succeed without both, I have to admit, it is beyond me.

If you look at the ideas and schemes I’ve tried to introduce: the people I’ve attracted here, the programming I’ve made, the Edinburgh Festival, the joint productions, the people in the opera business who are now considering us a major player, the man here on my _______, I do believe I have delivered on my part of the bargain.

I think I have merely asked others to do the same…. to play fair and give me an opportunity to really run this house. Like other Intendants and Artistic Directors do all over Europe.

From the point I announced my resignation, no-one from the management has ever asked, “what would it take to make you stay?” Strange, when so much effort was put into getting me here. But if in this place, you collectively or individually, are really to be given a chance to reach your brilliant, clear potential, then now you must be given the opportunity to demand your future by asking questions internally and provoking clear answers. This opera company must be given and allowed its own unique voice. The administration must work for you and understand the specific demands of the Art form. They owe you their living. They should be interested enough to ask you, “what will it take to make you stay?”. Get your answers ready.

I also really now believe that NO Artistic Director/Intendant of the standard, ambition and quality you deserve will ever take this job, if on top of the financial restrictions they fully understand the organisational straightjacket before they come. And please, before anybody starts on about ruining the tradition of the umbrella of the Royal Theatres, I see nobody outside caring a jot how much autonomy each art form enjoys under the umbrella – which is, of course, a uniquely beautiful thing. But it must work for you, not against you and your growth. We are a great art’s institution, not a bloody civil service bureaucracy.

Once I was allowed to tell my great friend and esteemed colleague here, and after I tried to persuade him now to carry on here without me, it made me stop short and reflect that my interests as erstwhile artistic director of the opera now were not simply to allow a polite press release and an awkward goodbye just to happen tonight, but to tell the opera the truth from my point of view, and even now, at the eleventh hour, use that to initiate a fight for your future.

In this whole sad business, when often I erred between an allegiance to the official über-management and to you, MY opera company, I have truly made the mistake of faltering too much, compromising too often, and believing that I could work on and slowly change things in my own way. But I could not. It was wrong of me not to have blown the whistle on my discontent way, way back. But I truly didn’t want to leave you. I should have been able to change more. If I had taken you more into my confidence, we, together, probably could have. You still can.

I will miss you terribly.

My admiration for you all in the Opera has never diminished for a moment. My love for this art-form has never waivered and never will.

I really believe that I was the right man for the job, but the job I believed in itself proved to be a mirage. I only believe now at this crossroads moment, bad and good, for the opera and the orchestra, for the world stage that I never did run, that the future lies in your hand. There have been murmurrings and mutterings and strong waves of discontent in almost every meeting I have had with you since I arrived. Please now examine these deeply and see if I am right, wrong or even justified.

Jakub and I are both united in our endless trust and belief in you, and your abilities and so we decided to make our protest together.

Keith Warner


2 thoughts on “Internal mismanagement is real reason for Keith Warner leaving Royal Danish Opera

  1. Dear Keith,
    You may remember me from many years back as a designer and Ralph Koltai’s colleague. I have now been directing/designing operas for several years ( se ) and have been working in Czech Republic.. which is not dissimilar to the problems you and Jakub have encountered. I salute you and commend you both for having the courage to speak out and set a proper example to all those in similar conditions and are paralysed and therefore complicit.

  2. Keith!! What can I say – you were as eloquent as ever. I am proud to know you and dearest Sheila and Gordon would rejoice in your courage and commitment in doing ‘the right thing’ With fondest memories of the shows in the garage! Vivienne Dodd (nee Parkhouse) xx

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