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'Ajax states' in sudden war between Netherlands Symphony Orchestra and National Travel Opera

This week, the National Travel Opera begins rehearsals of Mozart's Le nozze di figaro. In the bin, the brand-new Netherlands Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jan Willem de Vriend. Business as usual, as both companies have been working closely together for years and are united in the National Music Quarter Enschede. Only: orchestra and opera company have not been talking to each other since last week.



At stake is an unexpected €3.5 million grant application from the Aurora Foundation, behind which the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra and the baroque ensemble Combattimento Consort Amsterdam are based. Artistic director of both orchestras is Jan Willem de Vriend and, together with NSO director Harm Mannak, he launches a plan to tour the Netherlands with opera and music theatre from Enschede. Intendant Guus Mostart of the Reisopera reacted aghast. Should Aurora get the money, it would mean the end for the Reisopera - after all, there is only room for one travelling opera company in the new system.

It seems to be an out-of-control feud between orchestra and opera company. At least that is how local politicians are reacting. Board of B&W came out with a quick press statement calling on both sides to put aside their differences. But as tempting as it is to reduce this conflict to chininess between Mannak and Mostart, it distracts from the true cause. Cuts in government subsidies, an overambitious management with ditto plan and an ill-considered cash injection from Overijssel province have thrown everything out of balance. Business interests and a radical difference in future vision do the rest.

"Five million sponsorship revenue"

We previously wrote on the Orkest van het Oosten's remarkable name change. By changing its name to the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra, the orchestra seemed to want to make it clear that it wanted to be the regional symphony orchestra of our country. A merger with the Gelders Orkest was absolutely out of the question, even for the province of Overijssel which, together with the municipality of Enschede, had invested heavily in the Nationaal Muziekkwartier over the past decade. The orchestra deftly took advantage of this fact.

To cope with the government cuts for the orchestra over the next five years, it was decided at the last provincial meeting of 2011 to donate five million euros to the orchestra, with another five million in the pipeline. The orchestra actually wanted to buy out the whole amount at once and thus buy out the province's annual contribution, but the province thought that was too big a risk.

The orchestra gets the millions on the basis of a very ambitious business plan, which carries huge risks and is even unrealistic in several aspects. Visitor numbers, for instance, have to increase enormously and the fundraising figures are particularly remarkable. The business plan uses a growth model from 2,000,000 to 5,000,000 euros of sponsorship income per year. And focuses primarily on companies in Overijssel.

1000 euro per company

"The province has more than 100,000 companies. Therefore, if in year 1, 2,000 participate for an average of 1,000, the gross revenue of this project is 2,000,000. In subsequent years, the revenue gradually increases to a maximum of 5% from the market. The total projected revenue (5,000,0000) will be fully met from 2018 onwards."

The aim is to depend on government funding for only 50% by 2018 at the latest. To realise these ambitions, the NSO plans to set up a special project team of sponsorship recruitment, with one responsible manager and ten sponsorship marketers. Curiously, the calculation also emphatically places the responsibility on the artistic director:

"Appealing and approachable (artistic) leadership is a prerequisite for success."

It would instantly make Overijssel the most generous province in the Netherlands, but even nationally this is unfeasible. Moreover, the growth model ignores the fact that fellow institutions also need to enter that same market. The Reisopera, for example. That company will lose five million in state subsidy next year and will also emphatically enter the market.

So the NSO, supported by the province, is taking huge risks. If it fails to meet the targets, not only does this create a hole in the budget, but it will also not get the extra millions from the province. Then the orchestra falls way back.

"Of course we talked"

The province's cash injection at once made the NSO the biggest player in the region, a position previously held by the Reisopera. That company had just submitted a new plan to the central government and was understandably awaiting the ministry's response. However, the orchestra did not want to wait that long and, together with the Combattimento Consort, submitted its own grant application, signed by Harm Mannak and Jan Willem de Vriend.

The Combattimento Consort's motives in this regard are clear: that orchestra, too, is being hit hard by budget cuts. Moreover, in previous years the orchestra performed baroque opera on a project basis, but the chances of the orchestra still being able to do so in the coming years are almost nil given the many new applicants for project subsidies.

Already on the first page of Opera Aurora's policy plan, the attack is full on:

"The Netherlands Symphony Orchestra and Combattimento Consort Amsterdam have joined forces to create a new travelling opera facility. With this plan, we present our very own vision for the interpretation of the travelling opera service. A vision, incidentally, that we would have loved to have shaped with the National Reisopera, were it not for the fact that there seems to be a fundamental difference of opinion on how the opera should be organised in terms of content and business."

An aggressive tone, all the more remarkable since Guus Mostart denies that Mannak or De Vriend talked to him about a possible grant application.

Henk Kesler

As director of the Music Quarter, Mannak constantly preached the success of the partnership, but now let him say through board chairman Henk Kesler - the one in charge of football:

"Of course we did talk to the National Travel Opera. Our director Harm Mannak has been trying to get on the same page for eight years. But there is a big mutual difference in vision: the National Reisopera wants to make a maximum of four productions a year, we much more. Large and small-scale productions, with which we can survive and need a maximum of another 50% subsidy in 2018."

Opera Aurora, however, does not throw the door completely shut:

"However, the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra and Combattimento Consort Amsterdam consider the importance of a healthy touring opera facility to be so great that it was decided to develop this plan independently, with an emphatic invitation to the NRO to join later."

How is unclear, as Henk Kesler frankly admits that the plans could be the death knell for the Reisopera. Further reading, moreover, reveals that the Reisopera would then have to exclusively implement Mannak and De Vriend's plans, as a remarkable amount of detail has been filled in.

Well, apparently.

It is not unusual to anticipate plans a little in grant applications, but Mannak and De Vriend are making a mess of things. For instance, they present partners who themselves know nothing about it. Existing productions by Kameropera Zwolle, for instance, are simply listed as new co-productions - while Kameropera Zwolle is actually in talks with the Nationale Reisopera. Eastern European co-productions, too, do not seem to be new, but at best dressed up for these plans.

In addition, Opera Zuid is mentioned several times, but Opera Zuid has just signed a covenant with De Nederlandse Opera and the Nationale Reisopera in which agreements were made for the coming years. Moreover, it is obvious that Opera Zuid's main focus will be on close cooperation with the new South Netherlands merger orchestra.

Own spouse first

It becomes downright hilarious when describing how the new company also wants to "explore" the relationship between opera and film and then mentions Paul Verhoeven as director of Wagner's Tannhauser in 2016.

Paul Verhoeven is unreachable for comment.

Also, the alliance with "the British state broadcaster BBC" mentioned seems mainly intended to impress. In any case, what this alliance entails is not described and no BBC site has anything about it.

Another notable name is director Eva Buchman. She features conspicuously in the plans, culminating at yet another production in 2016 with the statement, "The successful collaboration between Jan Willem de Vriend and Eva Buchman will have its sequel." Not only premature, but when you know that Eva Buchman is De Vriend's wife, you get the idea that she is probably the only one with whom clear agreements have already been made.

Deal with Halbe Zijlstra?

How will Opera Aurora realise all this? Indeed, by hitching a ride on the business plan of the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra. Mannak and De Vriend expect the combination orchestra and opera to be so attractive to potential sponsors that both will benefit: 1 + 1 = 3. Marketing will be explicitly involved in the artistic programming.

And because where there is a chop, there are chips, that too has been considered:

"Opera Aurora will make use of the expertise of (former) employees of the National Reisopera, among others, to buy specific knowledge. It is being investigated whether and how Opera Aurora can take over (part of) the NRO's opera choir and transform it into an opera and symphonic choir."

That De Vriend likes to have a professional choir at his disposal is well known; in December he cancelled a CD recording of Mendelssohn's second symphony at the very last minute because he felt the quality of the project choir Consensus Vocalis was too low - thus creating a considerable loss for the NSO.

The devil, however, is in the sentence that follows:

"This is also to limit the friction costs incurred at the NRO."

A very clear nod towards State Secretary Zijlstra, who is known to be very sensitive to arguments like these that have nothing to do with quality. It seems as if Mannak and De Vriend realise that their plans rattle on all sides and that a positive advice from the Council for Culture is unlikely. But advice is often ignored by the state secretary.

Advocate and service provider

Collegial it is, of course, not at all, nor does it fit in with another of Mannak's jobs: chairman of the Dutch Association for the Performing Arts, "advocate, service provider and employers' organisation that joins forces from orchestras, dance and theatre" and contributes to "good employment and good entrepreneurship and professional management of and within the performing arts in the Netherlands."

In June 2011, shortly after stepping down as director of the Muziekkwartier, Mannak called on everyone in Overijssel to stand up for everything that has been built up over the past decades in the field of culture. He did, however, immediately add: "We have a plan describing how we want to survive and I believe in that."

The content of that plan is becoming more and more clear. If the NSO wants to realise its own objectives and thereby win the province's millions, it can only do so by eliminating competition.

Zijlstra looks on smiling.

6 thoughts on “‘Ajax-toestanden’ in plotselinge oorlog tussen Nederlands Symfonie Orkest en Nationale Reisopera”

  1. Been too busy with own Nozze di Figaro to keep up.
    Goal: To bring young singers to a professional level.
    Audience reactions: positive superlatives.
    Cost: 5000 euros

    How. Help Lyons Club Utrecht, free use of a hall, many, many volunteers, huge commitment from the singers, great pianist.

    No one talks about the cuts for the Reisopera's RAP, the Opera Studio in Amsterdam, Opera courses at the larger Conservatoires etc. etc.,
    Shouldn't we make sure we have a good foundation first instead of more Opera Companies?

  2. Henk without Ingrid

    If you can't survive through good management and artistic qualities, then just rat race! Is anyone awake in The Hague or the Overijssel provincial government building?

  3. Of course, you can say what you like about the orchestra, but the fact is that in the subsidy cut, they chose to flee forward. The Reisopera has been too wait-and-see for too long and, after it became known that the company was being cut, has only lamented (in itself befitting opera). That is the distinctive difference: trying to reverse the threat and come out stronger, or standing idly by as things are dismantled. Not for one thing or another, but it is of course striking that the province has put its trust in the orchestra and not the Reisopera. They are not even in the provincial basic cultural infrastructure! Moreover, with 60% subsidy reduction, they manage to lay off 90% of their staff. How is that good management? The orchestra is being cut 40% and I haven't heard anything about layoffs there. Of course, thanks in part to the provincial boost, but that brings me back to the beginning: consider why the province is funding the orchestra and not the opera. The fact that NRO is now playing innocent is in the tradition of complaining, but above all not taking control.

  4. An astute article. One note, however: You can mercilessly interpret Opera Aurora's policy plan, but what are the plans of the National Touring Opera? I don't read anything about that here. If they have a good and innovative vision for the future, surely they have nothing to fear from the competition?

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Henri Drost

Henri Drost (1970) studied Dutch and American Studies in Utrecht. Sold CDs and books for years, then became a communications consultant. Writes for among others GPD magazines, Metro, LOS!, De Roskam, 8weekly, Mania, hetiskoers and Cultureel Persbureau/De Dodo about everything, but if possible about music (theatre) and sports. Other specialisms: figures, the United States and healthcare. Listens to Waits and Webern, Wagner and Dylan and pretty much everything in between.View Author posts

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