Arts: Where angels fear to tread

The Royal Opera and Ballet companies at last have a properly qualified and experienced Executive Director. Can Michael Kaiser turn the tide?
Click to follow
I do miss my spectator sports," says the new man in charge in his Manhattan drawl. "I've learned the rules of rugby. But no one can explain to me the rules of cricket." It's easy. A man comes out just after his predecessor has been ignominiously given little choice but to walk. His strengths and weaknesses are then exposed for all to see. And people on all sides are trying to force him out too. It's just like running the Royal Opera House.

But then Michael Kaiser has already experienced the vicissitudes of Covent Garden. As he arrives, the Royal Ballet threatens to jump ship. A month later his grant is increased from pounds 14m to pounds 20m by the Arts Council.

It has been rumoured abroad that the new executive director, a former management consultant, is a tough operator. Indeed, the Chicago Tribune called him "the turnaround king". Turnaround involves going into ailing companies, identifying problems and swiftly rectifying morale, balance sheets and reputation. He did this at New York's American Ballet Theatre, among other arts companies, after working at IBM and General Motors. Unexpectedly, however, he's no gum-chewing, no-nonsense, Wall Street whiz-kid.

Yes, the 45-year-old, softly-spoken troubleshooter had plenty to say about turnaround, Covent Garden-style. Yes, he had a tried and trusted formula for delivering the goods the Arts Council had demanded when they had given the ROH a massive grant uplift the day before I met him. But he also talked, a little coyly, about how he was a trained opera singer (a baritone), loved choral music (and wanted to bring more to Covent Garden), and had golden memories of taking part in Berlioz's Requiem under Sir Colin Davis with the Boston Philharmonic at Tanglewood. He even tried the fiddle "but was just awful". He had to - his grandfather played violin in the New York Philharmonic for 40 years.

But Michael Kaiser's passion is for Gilbert and Sullivan. His favourite role in his amateur singing days was Sir Despard in Ruddigore, a fact he wisely kept hidden until after the grant increase was announced. Had it been known a month ago, it would have been too much for headline writers to resist.

The increase means he can afford to be expansive. He can even afford to have a smile playing on his round, owlish face, as he sits in his Floral Street office opposite the House. That makes him the first director to be seen smiling since, well, at least three directors ago. So can we take it that all the problems that have entertained and disgusted politicians and public alike are now over? "Yes, it's a great day for us. The problems are solved with the grant. It allows us to focus on the future."

So we will never again hear the perennial cry that you are underfunded? "You will never hear it from me." He even goes on to say that the ROH's problem "was not a short term lack of cash at all". This man knows what a cash shortage really means. "At American Ballet Theatre, we literally had to turn off every other light bulb. We ran out of pointe shoes. That's not been the case here. I do turnarounds for a living, and one of the common traits is that people are looking backwards, pointing fingers, blaming each other, and not looking to the future.

"What's needed here is a turnaround in people's expectations of the institution. How do we rebuild the trust of the public, the government and the donors? I'm working on the answers to all."

He has already achieved one short-term objective by persuading the music director, Bernard Haitink, to stay. Kaiser, who likes as much art and as little administration as possible, has also insisted that the new studio theatre be open to the public (incredibly, chairman Sir Colin Southgate was going to keep it dark for lack of money). "Imagine," enthuses Kaiser, "the lecture demonstrations we can have... free lunchtime concerts once a week..."

Kaiser disagrees with Richard Eyre's report which said that access was a cost of subsidy. "It's not a cost. It's my mission. I want people to come to opera and ballet. I want more children to come." He is committed to reducing seat prices. He will also bring in better PR - "a much more pro-active press policy" - turning dialogue "away from blame to what's going to happen in the future... for example, we're building this wonderful new facility but there has been so much fear that people had stopped dreaming about this new facility. I walk around the building talking about programming. You read about bad management and bad staff here. The truth is people were working extremely hard, but each department was working on its own. You start by bringing people into a room together and letting them talk. And I'm linking marketing and fundraising together. You fundraise after a marketing blitz. I pioneered that in America."

Corporate donors and individuals, he stresses, need to see they will get something for their money. "We have to recognise that." He is, however, quick to reassure British sensibilities on the matter. "One American ballet company had a toy firm sponsor and put its mascot moose into the third act of Nutcracker. That's the wrong way. At ABT we had Ernst and Young sponsoring our website. When you logged on you could also click on to Ernst & Young and find out more about them. That's a good example."

In the case of individuals, he has ideas such as the artistic director giving lectures previewing forthcoming seasons. "The ROH has 15,000 Friends, all giving pounds 45 a year. Now, some could give more and get other privileges in return, but they have not been asked, and we haven't created what we call in America `a ladder of giving'."

Talking of ladders, the ROH chairman said not once but twice at a press conference earlier this year that the house would be "artist-led": an artistic director would be in charge. Will Kaiser soon be playing second fiddle?

"No. An artistic director will be appointed, but we will be dead equal." But Sir Colin did say originally... "We will be dead equal," Kaiser interjects politely, but firmly. "It will be shared, if you will." One of the candidates who was approached, Sarah Billinghurst of New York's Metropolitan Opera, refused to come under a "dead equal" set-up. Kaiser says, chivalrously, that she is "a wonderful person and very knowledgeable", then adds a little less chivalrously, "but I doubt if there were 10 people in London who had heard of her before this all came up".

And whoever is in charge will still have a Royal Ballet company. Kaiser is again polite, but a wee bit devastating when confirming that there were moves by the company to go it alone, away from Covent Garden. After praising the dancers, he adds: "The ballet dancers were very unhappy. They had a notion that they could form their own company. It was a naive notion. They were only looking at their own salaries. They forgot that there were other overheads to consider."

Kaiser has said that he lives alone, and that the hardest thing about leaving New York was having to leave his dog behind. In his spare moments, he has his head in the English classics. He is re-reading Pride and Prejudice and reading Middlemarch "for the first time, I'm ashamed to say". But only when the companies aren't performing. "I attend virtually every performance," he says. "It's important that the artists see me around - and, of course, it's a joy for me."