Den Norske Opera og Ballett

Founded in 1957, the Norwegian National Opera & Ballet is the only fully professional institution for the production and dissemination of opera and ballet in Norway. For most of the 20th century, fierce debate raged in the Norwegian public sphere about the possible construction of a new opera house. Bjørvika, a harbour area of downtown Oslo, was the site agreed upon, and opened in the spring of 2008. Mr Wolf visits the Opera House and has a chat with its CEO, Tom Remlov.

Location: Den Norske Opera & Ballet, Oslo
In conversation with: Tom Remlov, General Director

I was trained as a theatre director in London and worked there before returning to Norway. I joined a company in Stavanger, before moving to Bergen, where I stayed for 10 years as artistic director of Norway’s oldest theatre, Den Nationale Scene. I was then the director of the national film studio Norsk Film AS until the Norwegian government decided that all film production in this country should be privatised. But the Norwegian market is small and to have a totally market-based industry is impossible. In addition, for all Scandinavian countries to form one single market is also not possible – cultural differences are actually fairly big even though they do not seem so from afar. I worked here for 6 years and then became a professor at The National Film School before I came to this job.

On Theatre & Films:
Now you might wonder, how did I come to take over the job as general director of an opera and ballet company? But it was precisely this that was right for the job – I am neither an opera nor a ballet person. This job did not exist before. Previously, the director of opera was also the chief, wearing two hats. He was responsible for the financial health and structure of the company. But he was also artistically responsible for the opera as well. When there is great demand for resources, would he give priority to the opera at the expense of ballet? How would resources be divided between the two? And the bigger the company gets, the bigger the issue becomes. The decision was then to create a new position, for which I applied for.

So because I come from a closely related field, I know about artistic processes and the execution of artistic discretion, to balance judgement with financial acumen. I have experience of how to run a cultural institution in this country, while not having an interest in opera or ballet. My arrival coincides with the transition for this company from its previous status and circumstances to this new building, with new proportions, and a new setting. It is a big transition, from 400 people to 600 people, with doubled budgets and principles, box office, tenant figures, etc etc. The building itself is a wonderful, fantastic instrument.

On the Opera House:
The Opera House is iconic in every aspect. It was a 15-year-running debate whether to have an opera house and where to locate it. It was without doubt to be in Oslo, but where in Oslo was the question. This sort of debate is important in Norway but takes a long time. The decision was not made through a royal decree but through democratic procedures. There was initially a big debate on whether this much money should be spent on art forms that seem to be reserved for the few. However, once past that, the next hurdle was designing a building that itself had to be a representation of what one might call the Norwegian ethos – it had to reflect an image that Norwegians generally held about how our culture works – egalitarian and populous. It had to be a building that was not just perceived as accessible, but was in reality accessible for everyone, to become a possession of everyone. It had to belong to the nation and everyone in it, not just as a construct but as a composite. This defined the brief that was formulated for the architectural design competition. 283 entrants entered. It was a closed competition in that it was confidential. But it was open to everyone, not just by invitation. The winning project was designed by a Norwegian company, Snøhetta, housed just around the corner from here. One might joke that we may be open to charges of corruption but of course there was no such thing. It is not surprising though, that a Norwegian company would understand the very specific and rather demanding brief to design a house that does reflect a Norwegian perception – a design that is particularly egalitarian in its function.

This is simply a public space, a beautiful one with a light area and acoustics that allow individual conversations rather than a group presence. You will discover an opening, almost like a seashell, and finally enter into the auditorium - the opera and ballet auditorium. There are no royal boxes, no boxes at all. There are equal sitting. The main house is based technically on Baroque theatres – balconies in circles, with boxes, so that people could see each other, not just the stage. 

This creates an acoustically optimal way to solve the use of space in a public seating auditorium. But the reason for tiers used here are acoustic, not social, so there are no boxes. Each seat is equal to another. On the side, the seats are cheaper with restricted view. But in principle, everyone is equally close to the stage and can hear equally well as everyone else. This is egalitarianism at its optimal expression.

On the Opera & Ballet scene:
Sweden and Denmark are among the oldest opera and ballet traditions in the world. Both had royal opera houses dating back to times when the royalty were the serious patrons of the art forms. As a colony, Norway was not given much resource. This opera and ballet company is just 50 years old. Up until its establishment, companies had come and gone. They were either visiting from abroad, or were enterprises that emerged and disappeared. Both opera and ballet are terribly expensive art forms. In order to come about in early times, it needed patronage by royalty and nobility. We had neither, so there was nobody to finance it. We had to wait till we were established as a nation. This made a big difference, with lots of catching up to do.

To a certain interesting degree, Norway is comparable to Finland. Particularly so as the opera activity in Finland is quite regionalised. They have their own national company which is 100 years old. But Finland had political motivations for the development of its art forms – it was shifting between Sweden and Russia as a colony. Being in an important political position, it was channelled much resources. Structurally, it is comparable to Norway. There are lots of opera activity spread around the country in Norway. On the whole, they have been quite active and present in many places, representing important undergrowth. This company in its 50-year-old existence has an obligation to service these different enterprises. This is unlike in Sweden and Denmark where, as established royal institutions, they are not expected to deliver more than what they themselves produce. There are significance differences in this respect. So, there is greater similarity between Norway and Finland, and between Sweden and Denmark. However, when you zoom out, they are all similar in funding, size, and structure.

On the global scale, these countries have impacts of varying degrees. The Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen is more like a German Staatstheater, with ballet and drama. It has recurred throughout history with significant international standings, especially in ballet and orchestra. Sweden on the other hand, has produced lots of opera stars, but not so much in ballet. It has a large and serious ballet, but is not making its mark in the same kind of way. Norway cannot really be counted as an important place, more like an emerging place. Important places are London, Paris… Germany as a whole, Italy with its tradition… Eastern Europe… Moscow, St Petersburg... also Madrid. These places have sizeable and long traditions. Our ballet company is under 60 dancers – there is a limit to how much they can achieve. Copenhagen and Stockholm have around 90 each. Moscow has around 350. Paris has around 250. Inevitably they will be on a consistently greater level. We can make certain forays into supremacy, but there is a limit to what lasting or permanent impact we can make. We have resources, and security in terms of continuity of production, of what our circumstance will be in the foreseeable future. Our ballet is attracting first class international dancers who want to come and be part of our company, not just to visit and do the odd pirouette, but simply to belong here. That, of course, will do something for our international standings. When it comes to the opera, we do not have conductors within Norway that can really bring us to the level that we aspire to, but we have directors of great importance which attract international interest. We manage to make them define this as a home for them – this will have influence on the position we can command internationally.

Remlov is continually discovering new favourites in these two wonderful art forms. He presently reminisces fondly on scenes from Prokofiev’s War and Peace. He enjoys many classical ballet pieces, particularly Romeo & Juliet, and has been repeatedly taken by Jiří Kylián’s works in general.

Words: Sharman Tanny
Photography: Erik Berg