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Vienna State Opera left rudderless as second conductor walks

News - Classical Music | Opera

Vienna State Opera left rudderless as second conductor walks

by Maxim Boon on September 17, 2014 (September 17, 2014) filed under Classical Music | Opera | Comment Now
Bertrand de Billy lambasts management as he exits behind Franz Welser-Möst.

Just a couple of weeks since Opera Australia’s Artistic Director got into a very public online scrap with the Head of Music at the National University of Australia, Lyndon Terracini may find some consolation in knowing he’s not the only Opera company director with a PR problem on his hands.

Despite its impressive audience attendance figures, the Vienna State Opera has lost two of its star conductors in as many weeks. It now faces an uncertain up-coming season with a significant number of gaps on the podium and what’s worse is that the finger of blame is being pointed squarely at the VSO’s Director, Dominique Meyer.

The departure of their General Music Director, Franz Welser-Möst on September 5, while sudden was not particularly dramatic. The high-profile conductor was relatively discreet, citing irreconcilable differences of opinion regarding the company’s artistic planning and profile which could not be resolved. The subsequent announcement by his colleague Bertrand de Billy – the front runner as successor to Welser-Möst as Musical Director of the Opera – that he would also be leaving the company was far more problematic.

While Welser-Möst avoided making any explicit references to the reasons for his leaving, De Billy has left no such ambiguity, clearly stating “the State Opera chapter is closed for me so long as Dominique Meyer is in charge”. In an interview with Austria’s Kurier newspaper, De Billy pulled no punches, saying that while he had always been “loyal” to the State Opera, the “dishonesty and disloyality” he faced had made it impossible for him to continue.  

Bertrand De Billy (photo: Marco Borggreve)

However, while the resignations of two such highly respected maestros from the same company in such close succession might seem linked, De Billy has claimed his mind was made up to leave well before his colleague Welser-Möst announced his own departure.

De Billy’s acrimonious exit began as a dispute over a single bar of music in the State Opera’s production of Lohengrin in March this year. The argument escalated to the point that De Billy refused to conduct the production’s premiere, with Mikko Frank stepping up to the podium at the last minute. In response to De Billy’s unwillingness to direct the performances, Meyer retaliated by banning De Billy from conducting any new productions in up-coming seasons. 

In the same interview with the Kurier De Billy went on to cite the lack of support from Meyer during this tiff as the root of his decision to leave. "Dominique Meyer’s behavior has shown that there are serious errors in the Opera’s foundation,” says De Billy. "After spending three to four years planning a production, I need to know we will do what was agreed. I no longer have that confidence. Either you want someone at the house or not… for me to continue under the circumstances no longer makes sense."

Vienna State Opera Director Dominique Meyer

The loss of two key conductors has not only left many productions rudderless (Welser-Möst alone has left 34 performances without a leader), it will also be a cause of great embarrassment for one of Vienna’s most revered cultural institutions.

So far Meyer has remained silent on the subject, despite De Billy’s frank and uninhibited account of the bad-blood between them. No doubt Meyer is scrambling to fill the holes in the season, with some replacements for imminent productions already announced. Czech conductor Thomás Netopil will take the reins for November’s production of Janácek’s Cunning Little Vixen, originally part of Welser-Möst’s remit, while Germany’s Patrick Lange takes over the New Year performances of Die Fledermaus, formally De Billy’s responsibility.