Kaiser Oversees Reopening of Royal Opera House

By Barnes, Clive | Dance Magazine, December 1999 | Go to article overview

Kaiser Oversees Reopening of Royal Opera House


Barnes, Clive, Dance Magazine


LONDON--Michael Kaiser has a triumph on his hands. The extension and renovation of one of the great theaters of the world, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, will be completed, more or less financially in the black, in time for the December opening. For this, the smiling forty-five-year-old New Yorker is currently London's favorite American and is even a hero in London's traditionally testy press.

In a recent interview in his office, Kaiser exuded friendly confidence, yet even his charm has a well-polished, perhaps well-calculated diffidence. Kaiser is the recently appointed executive director of the Royal Opera House, one of Britain's grandest cultural institutions and, with constant accusations of mismanagement and elitism, certainly its most controversial.

When he arrived in London last November, Kaiser was an unknown. He had left his job as executive director of American Ballet Theatre lauded for effecting that company's financial turnaround. He had sold his New York City apartment and given away his best friend--a seventeen-year-old miniature dachshund called Nicole, barred from entry by the rabies-mad British immigration rules.

On the day he started work, the first newspaper he picked up had the cheering headline, "Chaos Reigns as Kaiser Enters Opera House." He learned that five of the leading male dancers of the Royal Ballet had resigned that morning to join Tetsuya Kumakawa, who had already left the company and was starting a new company in Tokyo. Moreover, the entire Royal Ballet was thinking of leaving Covent Garden's sinking ship and starting out on its own--a provision perfectly possible, if almost perfectly unthinkable, under the terms of the Royal Ballet's own Royal Charter.

Covent Garden's most prominent artist, music director, and chief conductor of the Royal Opera, Sir Bernard Haitink, had just resigned, with the sad remark that there was "little point in being music director when there is no music to conduct." The opera's administrative head, Nicholas Payne, was also leaving to head the English National Opera, Covent Garden's pushy and much-admired rival located a few streets away. Looking out of his rather dingy office, Kaiser could see nothing but workmen struggling over the rebuilding of what was now his opera house.

Kaiser's task, to balance the budget and ensure that the house would reopen on time after a thirty-month closure--during which it was refurbished, largely rebuilt, and vastly extended over a 2.5-acre site at a cost of $345 million--was widely regarded as a mission impossible.

Kaiser's immediate predecessor, Mary Allen, had been fired after about eighteen months and left describing the position as "a dog of a job," while her own predecessor, Genista Macintosh, coming from the Royal National Theatre, to which she later smartly returned, stayed only five months, saying that she thought she might become ill if she continued. But with his American experience and a work ethic that has him arriving at the office at 6:30 a.m. and leaving at the evening performance's final curtain, Kaiser's qualifications were markedly better than most in Britain had realized at his appointment.

He had strong musical interests--he once unsuccessfully tried to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, a longtime violinist with the New York Philharmonic. Then Kaiser hoped for a career as a professional singer. He was also a successful management consultant. He moved into arts management, and turned around the finances of three American dance companies, Kansas City Ballet, Alvin Alley American Dance Theater, and ABT--"those three alone should earn me the Dance Magazine Award," he said, not quite jokingly--and worked with such organizations as New York's Morgan Library and Cape Town, South Africa's, Market Theatre. …

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