Kasper Holten is ending his leading role as director of Royal opera house in London. He decided not to extend his contract for other 6 years in behalf of his family. In following interview, he shares more of his leadership attitude, importance of parenthood, courage of taking uncompromising decisions and risks in sake of progress and development.
D: I read your letter to staff of ROH in London where you explain your reasons not to continue as its director and I must admit, it was quite touching to understand you are giving up maybe not comfortable but in a way safe future, that this position provides, in behalf of your family. Was it a difficult decision? What topics and issues you needed to take into a consideration before making a final decision?
K: Yes and no. Of course it is difficult to say no to ROH, especially after “only” six years there, because it takes a long time to really get to know the job, the organisation, the city, the context, and we plan so many years ahead. So a lot of the projects I am really excited by – take, for instance, the next commission from George Benjamin – will open long after I have left. But that is the nature of the job. And even if the decision was heavy or difficult, it was also easy in another way.
We didn’t have children when we moved to London, and as they are reaching school age, their needs must come first.
It was clear to us that they would have a happier life in Copenhagen, where we have our parents, where we have a big network of friends, and in a city which has a really great quality of life and shorter distances. So although one could raise happy children in London – of course – for us it felt as the only right thing for them to go so school in Copenhagen, and thus the decision to leave ROH more or less “made itself”. I will still be travelling a lot in the future, and will need to find the balance between being home and being away, but we need to have a family base in Copenhagen.
And with that decision having been taken, I am quite excited also about trying a major change in my life before I get too old. I am 43 and have been in management for 17 years, 20 if you count the little festival I led before I took over at Royal Danish Opera. I love the management aspect of my job, and will miss it greatly, but…
I do look forward to seeing what happens if for some years now I focus on one job rather than trying to always do two things at the same time.
It will be a good time now for me to focus more on my creative work, and possibly to open up the range of things I work with more – to writing, speaking doing more straight theatre and musicals, working with management training and coaching, and maybe trying to do film again (I directed a feature film in 2009).
D: Since March you will be a free lancing stage opera director. Looking at your schedule, it does not seem you suffer a lack of projects, nevertheless, they obviously require lots of traveling. How will you organize yourself so that you can keep the balance between your private and your professional life?
K: I am lucky in my first years after leaving ROH to have a number of projects in and around Denmark, as well as a number of productions of mine being revived around the world, where I can go for shorter stretches of time than when I do a new production. Of course, I will sometimes be away from home, and it will be a balance that I continuously need to work on, but it will help both me and my family – also when I am travelling – that we have one base and that that is in Copenhagen. Also, being a freelancer I will hopefully manage to sometimes have gaps, where I can be fully available at home. It is all about planning.
D: Lots of starting singers (especially women) postpone having children because they fear losing their “professional flow”. Do you think it is possible to manage parenthood together with professional career? How do you look at this matter in general?
K: I would turn it around and say that surely we HAVE to create a professional world where that is possible, and…
…we have to understand how important parenting is to lives of artists, maybe even believing it can make them grow if we allow time and circumstance that makes them able to embrace this aspect of life fully.
Clearly globalization creates new opportunities, but also new challenges to a healthy family life and work/life balance, and as one of the most global art forms, it can be hard to build a career in opera whilst having a full family life. We must all do what we can to make this possible, or at least easier – on all scales from the small considerations to major decisions.
D: You have happened to be the youngest opera director in history of Royal opera house in London. This fact just demonstrates it is not the age that is a warranty for professional competence. What do you think played role in the decision of contracting you for this responsible role?
K: That is not really for me to say, but I of course suspect my work in Copenhagen during 11 years at least proved that I can manage a large and complex organisation and create some artistic excitement. At the end of the day, leadership is for me very much a question of personality and chemistry, so it is hard to pin down.
D: Do you think your employees and coworkers like you? What do you think they appreciate about you?
K: Again, not a question for me. I am sure some of them like me, I am sure some of them don’t, and I am sure even more probably have mixed feelings.
One should not go into management to become popular, and you have to accept that you take responsibility also for unpleasant decisions and tough calls. There is an element of loneliness in leadership, and unless you can embrace that, you shouldn’t do it.
Having said that, I do hope that my colleagues feel that I am approachable and fair, and that everything can be discussed openly with me. It has always mattered a lot to me to underline that I am not someone who looks to personal likes or dislikes when making professional decisions about staff issues. I have employed people and given big roles to people I don’t necessarily like on a personal level – and I have disappointed people that I really like and who probably counted me as a friend. But you have to be able to separate professional decisions from personal ones, when it comes to staff. Of course the complete opposite is true then it comes to artistic taste, as that is all about it being personal and about taste.
D: How do you deal with announcing or saying uncomfortable facts addressed to a specific person?
K: There is no formula. It depends on the person, on the situation, on the issue. Sacking people is always incredibly uncomfortable, but you have to remember that it is much worse for the person being sacked, so we shouldn’t feel sorry for ourselves. And the day that I don’t find it unpleasant anymore, then I should probably stop. But in general, the difficult thing about leading people – whether in the rehearsal room or in an organisation – is that there is no template. You have to try to understand how the person you are talking to can be inspired, can be helped, can be made to listen…
D: I love your term “bullshit management”. How did you deal with bullshit and where is the limit of being harmless to an institution or a project?
K: I think it is more important to be honest and say that when we work with special talent under much pressure, we also have to be ready to accept some “bullshit”. We cannot expect people to be extraordinary rebels on stage and then expect them to fit every box outside the stage. Having said that, it is extremely important to protect and support your staff, and when exceptional talent creates tension, it is important for management to be very visible and to express their support to mid-level managers and staff. But in my view, it is better to be honest about not being able to deliver a smooth workplace with no tensions and then to have an honest discussion about how to handle this, than to pretend it will never happen. In other words, when we work with extremely complex creative processes, bringing together extraordinary talents from many cultures around the world and put them and us under a lot of pressure, inevitably there will be tension – or “bullshit”. What matters is that when it happens, we protect each other.
And we shouldn’t necessarily strive for an opera house to be a smooth place that is always happy and tension free.
D: Why is risking as a stage director and also as an opera house director important? In what extent is risking acceptable?
K: Without risk, art means nothing to me. Then art becomes merely entertainment, escapism. All the great masters of the past took risk, and without risk and failures, art would never have moved forward.
The biggest risk of all for a cultural organisation is not to take risks…
…and how – in a difficult climate and competitive world – it becomes more and more tempting to diminish your risks. But for me, there can be no creativity, no honesty, without risk. It is like skiing: If you never fall, you are not trying hard enough.
D: When someone disagrees with your direction or decision, do you feel the need to explain yourself?
K: Yes. But explaining can mean many things. In the end, I am not going to perform: They are. In the end, every stage hand, every orchestra member, every usher, and every singer has a role to play when it all matters – I don’t. Management is in the end dispensable, so unless I can make them good, I am worth nothing. Thus it matters to me that I can inspire them to be their best and feel that our goals are their goals. And for that reason, management is indispensable: Someone needs to point to a goal and inspire people to travel in the same direction. So I would prefer the word “inspire” rather than “explain”.
D: What human qualities do you appreciate the most about people you are surrounded with?
I don’t think things like this can be listed without reducing it to clichees. I like different kinds of people, but I guess self-irony is very important to me.People who take themselves too seriously can be unbearable, and I am very conscious of how power can do that to you and that I should be careful myself not to take myself too seriously always.
D: What makes you happy? What you can not imagine your life without?
K: My daughters.
D: Do you have any morning ritual?
K: The first cup of coffee is very important and enjoyable. But having a one year old, my morning ritual is normally to get up much too early and try to control porridge oats flying around the kitchen.