Less than four years after he took up the position of Opera Australia CEO in August 2017, Rory Jeffes has announced that he will be leaving the role.

In a short statement announcing his departure, OA Chairman David Mortimer said that Jeffes “will continue as CEO until such time an orderly change in leadership can take place, expected to be later this year.”

Mortimer said the OA Board “are sorry to be losing Rory and, in due course, will be saying more about his contribution to the company.”

Rory Jeffes at Opera Australia in 2019. Photograph © Keith Saunders

In an email Jeffes sent this morning to OA staff, he said: “This is very much a personal decision of mine for a number of reasons, both family related and due to reflections over the past year’s disruptions that have influenced my future priorities.”

Jeffes joined OA in 2017 after 10 years working as Managing Director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Born in Britain, he joined the SSO in 2005 as Director of External Relations, becoming MD in 2008.

His professional background is rooted in business and the not-for-profit sector. He was CEO of the CREATE Foundation, the leading advocacy group for the out of home care sector in Australia, as well as filling senior Development roles at the Outward Bound Trust (an organisation active in both the UK and Australia) and the Prince’s Youth Business Trust. His first professional job was as a pilot.

Speaking to Limelight, Jeffes said that leaving OA was “an extraordinarily difficult decision”.

“It actually goes back to probably a year ago as I was beginning to approach my first three years with the organisation and I – as I should as CEO – was reflecting on my long-term future for the organisation. So this was before COVID. There are some incredibly important transitions coming up in terms of other leadership roles in the organisation, and I know from my time at the SSO that it is incredibly important that there is consistent leadership at the MD or CEO level during those kind of searches for an Artistic Director, both for the search for the appointment and the transition, and then to be there when the new Artistic Director starts.”

Jeffes says he was “uncertain” that he could “commit to another five years with the organisation, which was important. Then COVID came along and all bets were off and I was determined to lead us through what was a really difficult crisis for the organisation and the whole sector.”

Once OA was in a position to return to the stage, Jeffes says he spoke again to the Chairman and the Board “hence the announcement today”.

“It’s very much a personal decision,” Jeffes tells Limelight. “People have asked me am I OK – so just to be really clear I am not ill or anything like that. It’s really family related, and how I have thought about my own priorities for the future particularly over the last 12 months – as I think an awful lot of us done.”

Jeffes’ decision comes at time of disruption and change at OA, exacerbated by COVID, which led to a number of redundancies among staff and musicians late last year.

In September 2020, The Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) accused OA of “acting unconscionably” over claims it was axing a quarter of its workforce. In October, one of the 16 musicians made redundant accused the company of “dropping a hand grenade” into the Opera Australia Orchestra.

Jeffes tells Limelight that his decision to leave has nothing to do with any concern over the action or direction OA is taking.

“There has been an incredible dedication within the organisation to get through the crisis, and the fact we are back on stage – and maybe even the only major international opera company that’s doing so – is I think an incredible testament to the team here. And to be very clear I have no unhappiness with Opera Australia or anybody here. This is very much a personal thing about how I see my own future. These roles are not jobs, they are 24/7 and there comes a time when I want to think about some other priorities in my life.”

In his letter to staff, Jeffes said the timescale for his departure is “flexible”.

Asked if he will stay until his successor is appointed, he says: “That’s up to the Board. What this does do, is it provides an opportunity to the Board to decide what the structure of the organisation needs to be for the future, and therefore what kind of CEO the organisation is looking for, for those next five years. I am obviously very committed to supporting that and I certainly aim to work with the Board in providing them with whatever support I can to ensure a smooth succession.”

As for his immediate plans once he leaves OA, he says: “my career both through the not-for-profit sector and in the arts has all been about really trying to create opportunities for people to achieve their potential whether it’s on stage or in life or whatever. I have a very deep-seated belief that the service of others is what life is about, and what gives you satisfaction yourself.”

“And so as I reflect on the future and things I’d like to be able to do, there is incredible talent in this country and I’d really like to be able to find a way to provide mechanisms or support for those people who are dedicating their lives to trying to get on stage and perform themselves, and be able to find ways to broaden those opportunities. I have no idea what that is going to look like but that’s something I feel very passionate about.”

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