A Changing of the Guard at the Vienna State Opera

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Dominique Meyer, general director of the Vienna State Opera since 2010, received a big lump of coal in his Christmas stocking on Dec. 20 when he was informed that his contract would not be renewed in 2020. Meyer, whom I profiled in 2014, is widely thought to have had a successful tenure as the head of Austria’s cultural jewel. Box office has been very strong at a time when opera ticket sales in other nations have slipped. The company has world-wide influence and esteem.

The way in which this change was effected bespeaks an older time and style in that the general director of the State Opera is expected to reapply for the job to the Austrian cultural ministry if he wishes for his tenure to be extended. As a student of Hapsburg history, I can tell you that such bureaucratic formalities date back to the period of the Empire and still pop up as part of Austrian governance and policy today.

One of the biggest of many laughs in Die Fledermaus comes in the third act when the drunken jailer Frosch, feeling especially put-open, declares, “but I am an Austrian civil servant!”  This is an example of what Austrians refer to as Schmäh, a somewhat naughty and subversive humor that leaves a sting in its bite.

The decision as to who heads the Vienna State Opera is made by the Austrian culture minister. The current minister is Thomas Drozda, who announced that the next general director of the company will be Bogdan Roščić. Mr. Roščić, 52, has been president of Sony Music Classical since 2009. Previous work included stints at Decca, Deutsche Grammophon, Universal Music Austria and five years at the Austrian Broadcasting Company. He will officially assume the title of general director in the 2020-2021 season.

Dominique Meyer issued a statement on Dec. 21:

“Yesterday, to my regret, I was told that my contract will not be prolonged again, but today I would like to focus on the positive side of things. I am very grateful to the Austrian state to have given me the opportunity to spend 10 years (13 even, including the period of designation) in the service of this wonderful institution, surrounded by a competent and dedicated team, which has always supported me. I will continue to do my job with the same enthusiasm until the end of my term in 2020.

“I wish much luck and success to my successor Bogdan Roščić for the fulfilling and challenging task which awaits him. When I was informed about the decision, I assembled all members of the management staff and asked them to support the new director in the implementation of all his projects, in order to secure the Wiener Staatsoper a bright future. I, for my part, will look for new horizons.”

Meyer has had a long career in management of arts institutions, government, economics and academia. This balance of experience and accomplishments, fluency in important languages, plus having superb contacts throughout what I call Planet Opera, has enabled Meyer to work effectively in whatever office he has occupied.

His tenure has not been without incident. In 2014, there were high profile departures of principal conductor Franz Welser-Möst and conductor Bertrand de Billy.

Every great opera house (including Vienna, La Scala, the Met, the Paris Opera and London’s Royal Opera) has its unique flora and fauna of internal politics and backstage dramas. The gnashing and clashing in the uppermost echelons of these companies is a source of frustration to those who faithfully toil in the jobs that actually make a theater run. The ways of the managerial gods is inscrutable to members of the opera audience who all have opinions on how these theaters should be run.

Some observers have pointed out that Peter Gelb, who was the president of Sony Music Classical from 1995 until he became general manager of the Metropolitan Opera in 2006, and Roščić (who arrived at Sony in 2009), were record company executives with no experience in running opera companies before being put in charge of two of the world’s top theaters. Your opinion as to whether these were wise moves is up to you, but it is important to emphasize that the Met and State Opera, down to their DNA, are very different.

As I discussed in an article last February about the business model of the Vienna State Opera, it is unproductive to make comparisons between the Met and the Staatsoper in terms of scale, expenditure and artistic priorities. In that article I noted that “the annual budget is 109 million euros ($124 million) of which 59 million ($67 million) comes from the Austrian government and another 34 million ($38.5 million) comes from ticket sales…The State Opera has 1,709 seats and 579 standing places. In contrast, the Met has 3,786 seats and approximately 200 standing places and its fiscal year 2015 operating expenses was $310 million.”

A general manager of the Met is chosen by the company’s board, not by a government minister. The Met is a private, non-profit institution with almost no government funding. It pays health insurance for its employees, though sands continue to shift in our country for all expenditures regarding health care. By contrast, most employees of the Vienna State Opera are Austrian and, as such, benefit from enviable (and, to my view, rational) health care coverage. Similarly, Austrians get state pensions while the Met participates in a pension plan for many of its employees.

This is not the first time a record company executive has been put in charge of a major opera company. Terence McEwen had important posts at Decca/London for more than three decades before becoming general director of the San Francisco Opera in 1982.

Even a writer with expertise can become the revered head of an opera company. Speight Jenkins was a news editor at Opera News and critic for the New York Post. In the early 1980s, he gave lectures at the Seattle Opera and the board of trustees, impressed with his knowledge and passion, offered him the post of general director. He served very successfully from 1983 to 2014. Anything is possible.