A taste of Yankee ingenuity

Turnaround: A New Yorker guides the renewal of a famed London opera house.

September 27, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- When critics fume, artists flee and creditors gather, when backstage backbiting reaches operatic proportions and the curtain drops for what could be a final time, who do you call to clean up the mess?

Michael Kaiser, the turnaround specialist of the classical world.

From boosting American dance companies to dishing out management advice in South Africa, the quiet 45-year-old New Yorker has developed a reputation for reviving arts organizations.

Now he faces the greatest challenge of his career, raising what could be labeled the Titanic of music and ballet, London's Royal Opera House at Covent Garden.

On the job for nearly a year, Kaiser is preparing to preside over December's reopening of "The House," the grand 19th-century building that has received a $360 million overhaul in time for the 21st century.

With the scaffolding down, lights up and final polish being applied to the horseshoe-shaped auditorium, opera and ballet lovers eagerly anticipate the renewal of a crown jewel that has been locked away for more than two years.

The opening will also enable The House's two companies -- the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet -- to reclaim their places at the center of British arts after some very difficult times.

"There is good news here," Kaiser says. "We're going to open this wonderful new house, an amazing facility with amazing art."

That would make a welcome change.

In the late 1990s, England's establishment made a mess of its plush playground. Deficits mounted and egos clashed during a turbulent year that saw three chief executives, two chairmen and the entire board ousted. A scathing report upbraided the organization for its "arrogance and presumption" in handling the millions it received in annual government stipends. The opera company was shut down because of a cash crunch. Artists and staff members became so desperate, they picketed British Prime Minister Tony Blair's official residence at 10 Downing St.

A House of Commons committee reported that it would prefer that The House be run "by a philistine with the requisite financial acumen than by the succession of opera and ballet lovers who have brought a great institution to its knees."

So, The House brought in an outsider, an American, no less.

"Chaos Reigns as Kaiser enters Opera House," is how London's Daily Telegraph headlined his first workday in November.

"His prospects seem about as enticing as joining the procession of Henry VIII's wives," the paper noted.

But Kaiser has survived, even thrived, by accentuating the positive, keeping an eye on the books and restoring trust in what should be a hallowed institution.

He also has a plain-speaking style that cuts like a knife through Britain's buttery arts scene.

For example, Kaiser says that if MTV wanted to stage an awards show at the Royal Opera, he would consider the application.

"We're not a sacred building," he says.

And there aren't too many arts leaders here who can compare running an opera house to running a baseball team.

"This is different from the sports world," Kaiser says. "The sports world is a for-profit world. Ultimately, [New York Yankees owner] George Steinbrenner wants to make money."

And what is Kaiser's goal?

"My job is to make [artists'] dreams come true," he says.

The British arts establishment is mighty impressed with the American.

"He has turned the place around remarkably in a very short time," says Peter Hewitt, the chief executive of the Arts Council of England, which doles out annual grants of more than $32 million to the Royal Opera House.

"He has changed what was something of a public relations problem into one that will be a public relations triumph," Hewitt adds.

Ash Khandekar, Opera Now magazine editor, lauds Kaiser's understated management style and public relations skills.

"He's there as a rather boring accountant," Khandekar says. "He's there to keep the books. That's exactly what The House needed."

Meet him in person and what do you get? A youthful-looking man who is relaxed and so courteous, he'll even hold open a door for the construction workers who wander around the building site. His desk is neat. He arrives on the job at 6:30 a.m. and puts in 12-hour days, before making the necessary social rounds that are expected in the London arts world.

"You live for this work," he says.

For Kaiser, art and business go hand in hand. His grandfather played violin with the New York Philharmonic, while his father, schooled as a lawyer, ran a wholesale lumber company. Kaiser studied violin and also trained as an opera baritone.

But it was in business that Kaiser truly excelled, earning a master's degree in management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management.

He eventually founded two business consulting firms. Yet he was constantly drawn to the arts, serving for a time on the nonexecutive board of the Washington Opera, where he became, in his own words, "a very bad board member."

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