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Arts: Here's metal more attractive

The Danes take their arts so seriously they've put a couple of English women in charge. Malcolm Hayes meets the new brooms sweeping away at Copenhagen's Royal Theatre
Two English women running the national opera and ballet companies? It couldn't happen here, could it? Well, no, it probably couldn't. But it's happened in Denmark. Which raises another question. What does Denmark have to offer Elaine Padmore and Maina Gielgud - directors respectively of the Royal Danish Opera and the Royal Danish Ballet - that Britain seems not to? I went to Copenhagen to ask them.

Elaine Padmore's credentials as one of opera administration's hottest properties owe a lot to her work outside her native shores. Her 13 years as artistic director of the Wexford Festival in the Irish Republic substantially developed its reputation for shrewdly chosen repertory and skilful casting on a tight budget. Padmore combined her Wexford post at first with that of head of opera for the BBC (where studio performances of works as elaborate and obscure as Havergal Brian's The Tigers took place under her aegis). Later she was also artistic director of Dublin Grand Opera.

Then, in 1991, a telephone call from Copenhagen floated the possibility of her becoming artistic director of Denmark's national opera company. This shares the city's beautiful and much-cherished Royal Theatre with the Royal Danish Ballet and the Drama Department. (The tradition of opera, ballet and straight theatre co-existing under one roof is a time-honoured Scandinavian speciality.)

"It had been decided that the Opera needed `sorting out'," says Padmore. "Here was a long-established company - performing almost everything in Danish, because that was what had always been done - which had got itself into a bit of a time-warp. They also felt that it would be less difficult for a foreigner to make changes than for someone who was Danish."

And what did she inherit when she started the job in 1993? "Essentially, the good and not-so-good aspects of what's meant by an opera company." Such as? The same singer, perhaps, singing the same role season after season, while heading relentlessly towards (or past) his or her sell-by date? "Exactly. There was a certain amount of that. But with almost everything being performed in Danish, it was bound to happen. The best side of a company structure is the collective spirit, and the sense of involvement that goes with it. I've been trying to develop this. And at the same time to work beyond certain situations that have persisted longer than they should.

"There is a Danish repertory, although it's small." One example being Drot og Marsk (King and Marshal) by Peter Heise, regarded by aficionados as Danish opera's major 19th-century achievement, and currently being staged in London by University College Opera. "And it will always make sense here to do a comic opera like The Magic Flute in Danish. But, in the age of surtitles, it has to be right to do most things in their original language.

"There are advantages for the company both ways: we can more easily bring in guest artists if we want to; and, if the young Danish singers we're bringing on here are to get the best opportunities abroad, it's much better for them to learn their roles in the original languages from the start."

To judge from the impressive performance I saw of the Pythonesque-sounding Karmeliterindernes Samtaler, ie Denmark's first staging of Les dialogues des Carmelites, Padmore convincingly practises what she preaches. Poulenc's magnificent group-portrait-in-music of a Carmelite convent caught up in the French Revolution was a gift firmly grasped by the company's female contingent (only fair, since Wagner's Meistersinger earlier in the year had given all the limelight to the men). Everyone's French sounded (mostly) not too bad. And Padmore's ideas about casting were deftly vindicated by top-flight performances, in the leading roles of Blanche and Sister Constance, from Catherine Dubosc (French) and Inger-Dam Jensen (Danish, 1993 Cardiff Singer of the World, and a deservedly much-admired local heroine).

Carmelites was conducted by Jan-Latham Koenig, who had earlier been purring to me about the quality of the Royal Danish Orchestra (which, Vienna Philharmonic- style, also plays orchestral concerts). "They'd hardly done any French repertory like this before. Poulenc needs a particular kind of sound - soft-grained, especially the strings. Getting them to do this took a while to start with, but they're very responsive." And how has the opera gone down locally? "Well, there's still one critic who noted that it wasn't being done in Danish, and wondered why not. But Elaine takes that kind of thing in her stride."

While the opera company's stock has been steadily rising since Padmore's arrival, the world-famous Royal Danish Ballet has been going through a period of administrative instability, summed up by the arrival and departure in rapid succession of two artistic directors. Cue Maina Gielgud, who this month takes over after 14 years at the helm of the Australian Ballet. While keenly aware of the importance of her new company's tradition, particularly its home-grown Bournonville repertory, Gielgud, too, believes in the benefits of developing a more international outlook.

"There's a lot of talent here," she says. "And I want to try to bring it on with a policy of guest exchanges with other companies. The tradition of guesting is much better established in opera than in ballet, and I think we can learn from that." So a period of time spent working in different surroundings will benefit a dancer nine times out of 10? "Oh, I'd say 10 times out of 10. As a minimum!"

The cultural climate within which Padmore and Gielgud are operating emphasises just how different the tone of life in 1990s Britain is from that in Denmark, with its apparently happy and secure balance between a liked and respected monarchy and a broad political background of social democratic consensus. True, there's the odd spicy Danish diversion such as rival gangs of Hell's Angels attacking each other with rocket-propelled grenades. But it'll take rather more than this recent and widely reported incident to destabilise the Danish instinct for liking life, and liking things like opera and ballet that are perceived to be part of it.

Maina Gielgud puts it in a nutshell. "The Royal Danish Ballet is very important to the people of Denmark. It's seen as a national asset, and they expect to see it thriving." It's a view confirmed by Elaine Padmore's impressions of life at the head of the opera company (to which, would- be headhunters please note, she's committed until the year 2000).

"A few years ago, it was decided that trying to juggle the repertories of the opera and the ballet and the theatre within one building had become too much of a log-jam. So this new performing space was built next door for the theatre company. Now it's being suggested that this might after all be a better home for the opera." And feelings have been running high? "Certainly. But about how best to deploy the resources of the three companies. Not about whether they should or shouldn't exist in the first place."

Heise's `Drot og Marsk': 7.15pm tonight, Bloomsbury Theatre, Gordon St, London WC1 (0171-388 8822)