Flagging national flagship: the role of the politician

On the face of it, there is little connection between the Théâtre National de Nice and Scottish Opera but while their raison d’etre and repertoire may diverge (as the French might say), there are interesting parallels in current stooshies which are affecting both.

First, Scottish Opera which has been plunged into crisis by the swift departure of its Musical Director Emmanuel Joel-Hornak after only 58 days.  It is supposed this came about when Joel-Hornak discovered he did not enjoy the artistic freedom he assumed was due to a musical director of an opera company and found himself restricted by a powerful general manager.  I say ‘supposed’ because there has been a refusal from Joel-Hornak and Scottish Opera to make any comment beyond the announcement. Considering the level of public money that is given to the company every year, this silence has raised eyebrows.

Whatever the problem, what is not in doubt is that both the board of Scottish Opera and crucially the Scottish Government has responsibility to sort this out.  As an organisation directly funded by the Government the Cabinet Secretary has to take this one on herself.  This is not, as a Scottish Government spokesperson claimed,  ‘operational matters for Scottish Opera.’ The cancellation through illness of an appearance of a soloist is an operational matter.  The resignation of the musical director because of artistic differences, is an artistic crisis.

So where does the link come with the Théâtre National de Nice?  The French Ministry of Culture recently agreed a new set of regulations for those running national institutions (of which this theatre is one).  In essence, no one is permitted to do more than three terms of office as artistic leader of these institutions.  Interesting idea that presumably has been introduced to ensure regular refreshing of the artistic approach and has the effect of allowing younger, different leadership.  Whatever the motivation, the fact is that Daniel Benoin at Nice has been in charge for four terms (twelve years) and it is time to move on.  However he has a powerful ally in the Mayor of Nice who has been involved in a stand off (describe in the French press as ‘arm-wrestling’) with the Ministry of Culture insisting that Benoin continue and rejecting any suggestion that a new director be appointed.

This resulted in a letter being sent from Aurelie Filippetti, Minster of Culture that stated her case in no uncertain terms.  For those who read French, I re-produce in the original.  It’s a corker:

Dans l’éventualité où vous confirmeriez votre souhait de ne pas respecter les règles propres aux centres dramatiques nationaux, je vous informe que je serai amenée à étudier concrètement la possibilité de retirer le label de Centre Dramatique National au Théâtre National de Nice, et, de procéder au désengagement financier de l’État.

In essence:  follow the rules or I will strip from you the title of a national centre and I will cut your state money.

So what’s the parallel with Scottish Opera?  It is this:  the Scottish Government, and specifically the Cabinet Secretary has the power and the responsibility to intervene.  For the most part, direct state funding of the national companies, galleries and museums brings with it positive headlines and a warm glow to Ministers.  This is the other side – the crisis when political leadership is necessary.  There is no shortage of advice around (and some very good historical material: Scottish Opera has been the subject of consultancies and reports every few years over the last few decades) but whatever is decided, there has to be some evidence that the Government, working with the board, is getting to grips with the problems that currently beset the company.

And a final word on Nice.  The new artistic director, due to take over 1 January 2014, is the French-born British actor and director, Irina Brook, who, incidentally fulfils another of Filipetti’s commitments – to increase the number of women in charge of French cultural institutions.

 

 

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