Paul Curran: There is an enormous need for a restructure at BNO

Paul Curran - Opera Oslo
Paul Curran – Opera Oslo

Alexandru Pătrașcu: In 2014 you directed La Traviata at the Bucharest National Opera. How was this experience, overall, as an invited director, for you?

Paul Curran: The experience was hugely rewarding in the end. I was blown away by the enthusiasm of everyone in the house., particularly the chorus and soloists, to revisit a piece they’d all done for decades in a new and  more contemporary way. The production was not a “modernist” one – it was set in the late 1950s. But modern for those who had only ever done it set in the mid 19th century. The chorus and their tireless enthusiasm really impressed me, as did the detail brought by the various artisans in the house in costume, sets, props etc…

Before beginning I discussed the casting needs of the show with the management and insisted on a world class Romanian singer in particular for Violetta. They suggested Aurelia Florian who was superb in the role. I would certainly say Aurelia helped shape the way the production turned out with her exceptional artistry.

A.P.: You are a director, but you were also an opera manager, at Oslo. From the managerial perspective, how did you find BNO when working on La Traviata?

P.C.: Total chaos. And growing chaos. A decision had been made  that the house would also be renovated in parallel with the opening of the production and the season. I had understood this would all be over by the time we started rehearsals. Of course it was not – far from it. This was not a wise move under any circumstances and lead to quite a few difficult moments throughout the rehearsal period. More than once I had to abandon rehearsals due to the dust and pollution in the air. That the staff, crew and artists were so willing to continue on under conditions that, in any other country, would have had the building shut down, was utterly remarkable. If I did not think, however, my team and I could have made it work in the end I would never have continued. For the sake of the wonderful work the company had done under the almost impossible circumstances, we decided to keep on. But I was ready to pull the plug at a moment’s notice if things got any worse.

A.P.: Have you followed the events from the BNO this past month?

P.C.: Of course, it has been hard not to follow it. The situation has been all over the British, European and US press. Arts managements worldwide are very curious how this will turn out – will Romania move forward or backward. Artists being shut out of their workplace? In the European Union? That is making people talk.

A.P.:  How do you comment the situation?

P.C.: I find it very sad that such a great and forward looking group of artists are caught in a backward moving situation when I had watched them all so happy and enthusiastic to move ahead. The cries of xenophobia have been alarming. Especially in the arts, I do not understand the need for this. I know of no opera house in the world that does not have a large proportion of foreign artists or staff. In Norway we had meetings in Norwegian, English and other languages: for those from Sweden, they would speak Swedish, and the Danes would speak Danish all in the same meeting! Due to the high proportion of foreigners many chorus or ballet rehearsals were also in English. It is the internationally accepted language of modern theatre.  I rehearsed Traviata in a mixture of English and Italian – Aurelia and I spoke mainly Italian. I don’t remember anybody complaining.

When I first came for a meeting to Bucharest I was told by Mr Dinca and his team, with some pride, that their intention was to build the national opera to an international standard of production and music making. I know it is easy for many people to cry out “ but we are that already” but even the greatest of national companies has had to look wider to include new influences: cf the Mariinsky, Scala, Met etc… Opera by its nature and history has always been an art that has looked wide and included many different nationalities in its growth. It was thrilling to be part of a team that included Stephen Barlow, Graham Vick and Alfred Kirschner and I thought it showed a great artistic vision.

It was particularly alarming to see the former Minister of Culture deal so poorly with the situation. He seemed to never gather all parties in the same room to discuss their grievances or suggestions. Many in the west have commented on the autocratic, Stalin like manner in which this has been handled. Not a great advance for the company nor for Romania itself. For me the leader is the first among equals, not the loudest voice. More than one commentator has made parallel to Mr Trump in the USA presidential election race. It just does not need to be like this.

When I was first coming in from the airport for meetings I was actually very surprised at the high level of foreign investment in Romania with telecommunications, cars, businesses, factories, manufacturing etc… It was thrilling to see. I worked a lot in the former Soviet Union and speak fluent Russian, so am perhaps in a different position to be able to see the growth and difference in mentality in countries of the former soviet bloc and how they have prospered. It has all been about a change in mentality as well as investment – and the best investment in anything is a new way of thinking about it.

A.P.: While you were a manager, did you face any situation like this? If yes, how were these situations solved?

P.C.: Not in any way similar to this but a small parallel. The Norwegian Opera moved into a brand new building which brought some smaller minds with it – those who were used to doing one thing one way and were not keen to expand. But we talked about it, worked as a team and, during my time there I am proud to say I felt the entire team was all working towards the same  high performance goal.

The reason I left Norway was due to an appointment over my head of a new technical director. A fine man in his own field – the oil industry – but a complete beginner in ours. I made my objections very clear to the CEO and board. He was appointed in any case and, unable to do the job we needed him to do and unable to fuse his staff with either respect or a successful work ethic, it came to the point where I was the one doing 2 jobs and one of us had to leave. It is the saddest decision of my life.

Communications have made the world too small and too easily explored today NOT to have clear and transparent communications within a team.

A.P.: In your opinion, how could this conflict at the BNO be solved? Is it possible that Johan Kobborg continues his project and, at the same time, Tiberiu Soare works as a conductor?

P.C.: It seems to me these two gentlemen are completely incompatible. First of all Johan Kobborg has clearly been one of the greatest assets the National Ballet has ever had. His leadership, as far as I saw within the house, was respected by everyone, and not just in the ballet company,. Crew, singers, administration alike spoke of him in such high praise it was wonderful to see. He comes with many decades of international experience and I am sure that might scare or unsettle many people. But the results were visible immediately. Mr Soare is not in the same position and his voice, loud as it be, simply does not have the same weight as Johan’s either nationally or internationally.  To simply scream ‘ Romania for Romanians” is a myopic and backward looking viewpoint that can only do harm in the long run. Look at the conflict it has caused already.

Kobborg, who has not walked away from the situation, clearly shows his care and determination for his company and that should be taken very seriously. He is an important world leader in the dance world. To lose him now would be a catastrophe for Romania. Who, of any international quality, would want to come in after him knowing how he was treated?

Another huge asset not to be undervalued is the presence of the ballerina Alina Cojucaru. Her artistry is second to none and she is one of the world’s leading ballerinas. That she devotes so much time to “coming home” as she calls it and takes such interest and care of the company is an asset not to be trifled with! All major companies need major stars to be inspiring and to lead. That this great lady would be actually locked out of the building is simply unbelievable. Perhaps this single, blindly stupid act encompasses the entire problem here – things are not being dealt with in a civilised or professional manner.

A.P.: Do you think the conflict is about the rivalry or about the pride among artists?

P.C.: Clearly it must be,  otherwise, what are they fighting about? All artists are proud – we need to be. It’s impossible to do this without pride, passion and a certain amount of ego. It is not an “ordinary” job. Every company deals with grievances of people not being used or feeling looked over, it is just part of the world of the arts. But on the other hand, the new opportunites offered to the house artists to appear in new productions, new roles etc… is something nobody could deny.

Of course I knew Johan before I came to Bucharest as I’d seen him dance often. I had never heard of Tiberiu Soare but I wish him all the very best in carving out the international career most of us work so hard for. I imagine this huge difference in experience and reputation might make some people feel uneasy.

A.P.: Do you think we face a crisis of the functioning system of the BNO?

P.C.: I think this crisis is a game changer – this is a one off opportunity to get it right. It has to be resolved swiftly and democratically, not with a decree from above that will only cause more tension and conflict. The eyes of the arts world are on Romania right now – this is a time to show how far the country has advanced, not retracted. It will, of course, have huge repercussions not only in BNO but in all cultural and organized institutions in Romania if the decision goes the way of xenophobia and blind nationalism. This is a very serious crisis.  In seeing this, what is next? Do businesses then start to throw out foreign workers or consultants. Did Romania join the EU just to look no further than its own nose? I don’t think so.

A.P.: What would you do if you were interim manager at the BNO? How would you relate with employees? But with the Ministry of Culture?

P.C.: Talk to them! TALK! Discuss the situation, the grievances and take the heat and emotion out of the press and the auditorium. While I understand the passions and opinions involved, the public should not suffer for an essentially internal disagreement. Governments do not want conflict so will do as much as they can to keep things quiet. I’d ask to speak to the Minister of Culture as well as Prime Minister and President as both have commented on the situation. I would ask for representatives from various sectors of the house to talk to me and to each other and get the real temperature of the situation, rather than an overblown shouting match. This is a matter of national pride and reputation – both for artists and the entire country.

A.P.: In your opinion, what should happen in the future, in a medium term, at the BNO? What should be changed in the functioning of the BNO?

P.C.: I believe, from my experience within the company as a guest, there is an enormous need for  a restructure of the entire house. A new management structure with clear goals, values  and guidelines is essential. What company today either in business or the arts, operates without one? There should most certainly be a representative board with representatives from within the company voted for by company members. On this board would also be mutually agreed outsiders as an advisory panel to keep mediation and growth clear and forward thinking. Even Mr Gelb at the Met answers to a board.

Eventually the company needs a clear artistic management of more than competent people in their own fields – not appointees put there to keep mouths quiet. Artistic management usually means while keeping one group very happy, you will keep another disappointed. It is a constant balance and negotiation. but it is done like this with huge success worldwide.

I saw a huge amount of potential and drive in my months in Bucharest. I really feel most of the company want meaningful, modern change.