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Sound of silence is deafening in mystery over music director

It has been nearly 10 weeks since Scottish Opera announced that its new music director, Emmanuel Joel-Hornak, was to resign with immediate effect, and still the company's general director Alex Reedijk refuses to talk.

SHARP exit: Emmanuel Joel-Hornak was in the job only five weeks when he quit Scottish Opera. There has been no real explanation from the company as to why he left.
SHARP exit: Emmanuel Joel-Hornak was in the job only five weeks when he quit Scottish Opera. There has been no real explanation from the company as to why he left.

What to do? With the orchestra sworn to secrecy (members' contracts ban them from talking to the media), board members unwilling to comment and any freelance singer or production worker too professionally compromised to risk sticking their neck out, the murky silence holds fast.

First, to recap. Joel-Hornak spent five weeks in the job and had not yet lifted his baton in public when he resigned. No explanation for his departure was given at the time by either party, other than the terse "for personal reasons" stated in the company's press release. There have been no subsequent statements from Scottish Opera detailing why the conductor left, nor any indication of how it plans to find a suitable replacement.

There have been plenty of rumours, of course, backed up by frank off-the-record conversations. But the air of secrecy that shrouds the company is guarding the truth behind closed doors. What seems clear is that Joel-Hornak had taken up the job expecting a far greater degree of artistic freedom and creative initiative within the company than he found when he got there. It is more than likely he left for that reason, and because of insurmountable tensions between himself and Mr Reedijk.

So things go wrong and relationships do not always work out. If Joel-Hornak's departure had been an isolated incident in the life of an otherwise healthy company, perhaps we would not feel so the need for explanations quite so urgently. Unfortunately, that is far from the case, as The Herald has reported in previous articles about Scottish Opera's inadequate production output this season. During his seven-year reign Mr Reedijk has managed to balance the company's account books, but has not provided convincing enough artistic credentials to justify his hold on the position.

Needless to say, myself and many colleagues have contacted the company repeatedly during the past 10 weeks to talk with Mr Reedijk about what is going on. He was unavailable for comment when Joel-Hornak's departure was announced; he happened to be out of the country.

He has since been happy to issue press releases updating us on the fundraising progress for the company's £12.45million revamp of the Theatre Royal in Glasgow, but remains unavailable for comment on how he plans to make sure the recruitment process for the new music director finds a worthy candidate - and does not repeat previous mistakes.

Now the general director has provided the following statement in response to The Herald's many requests for an interview:

"As you might expect, we are currently engaged in an international search to select a world-class music director for Scottish Opera, and are in the early stages of looking at a range of conductors from around the world. I appreciate that there will be media interest in this process. However, in fairness to potential candidates, their current employers and to our staff at Scottish Opera, I will not be able to offer a running commentary on our search."

Having declined to speak to any media outlet for the duration of the search, Mr Reedijk hardly seems in danger of offering a running commentary. He has twice issued responses to articles, in both cases fairly terse and defensive in tone and failing to answer many of the key concerns. As the head of a cultural institution, he needs to engage in a constructive conversation about the value and provision of opera in this country.

In Scotland we tend to enjoy a relatively open and positive dialogue between cultural institutions, the press and the public. Artists, promoters and company management usually share their thoughts with journalists and broadcasters in the knowledge that media coverage can help to demystify their art and speak to a wide audience. This is especially crucial for an art form like opera, which for many remains remote, obsolete and tainted by elitist associations.

Many of Scotland's cultural figures also acknowledge that with public subsidy comes public ownership. Scottish Opera is our most expensive cultural institution, and for the £8.37m subsidy that we spend on it each year we are owed a proper degree of transparency in return.

There is a huge amount at stake here. The appropriate and accountable spending of public money, for starters. At present, it seems the vast chunk of that subsidy is swallowed up by a baffling amount of bureaucracy. The point has been made before but bears repeating: how can there be a need for 14 press and marketing employees in a company that produces just three main-stage production this season? Opera is an expensive art form, no question. But if it is to justify its budget, Scottish Opera requires wholesale restructuring. It must re-focus on its remit as a provider of opera, not administration.

Secondly, Scottish Opera's artistic legacy is seriously at risk. Mr Reedijk does not have a good track record for appointing music directors. Joel-Hornak's predecessor, Francesco Corti, was an uninspired choice: his conducting was drab and his taste in repertoire even drabber.

When Joel-Hornak's appointment was announced in the spring, Mr Reedijk told me he had "not quite got to the bottom" of whether the French conductor had any particular repertoire specialism, but did mention that "he makes me laugh a lot" and is "the kind of guy who arrives in a city and not only goes to work, but also figures out where the nearest concert hall is, where the art gallery is, where you can get good coffee". That is not a list of criteria that inspires confidence in Mr Reedijk's selection process.

So who should be considered for the post? A young, vibrant conductor with a passion for interesting repertoire, an ability to ignite the orchestra and singers, and a genuine respect for the company's mission statement of bringing good opera to people around Scotland.

Rory Macdonald comes to mind: a ferociously talented young Scot who has been working with the likes of Mariss Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and is in demand at top opera houses around the world.

But here is the really depressing thing: would someone like Macdonald even consider the post? Would he risk his career for such a troubled company, even for sentimental reasons? These questions leave us facing a situation in which Scotland's most expensive arts company is unable to attract its best talent - unless something changes, that is.

For opera lovers, for other arts organisations vying for precious public funding, indeed for any tax payer in Scotland, the lack of accountability at the top of Scottish Opera is a matter of deep concern. By refusing to talk, Mr Reedijk surely hopes our attention will drift elsewhere. But we cannot allow that to happen. There is simply too much at stake.

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