Crisis in the Opera House

“The tempestuous operatic soprano Valerie Vesuvius had erupted that morning, nearly killing an intern and a member of the artistic administration team, and engulfing the national opera company in crisis.”

This dramatic scenario, described in the opening paragraph of Crisis in the Opera House, sets the scene for Paul Saintilan’s fascinating free case that takes an in-depth look at how to manage creative people. Paul, who is Dean of Collarts (The Australian College of the Arts), Melbourne, Australia, discusses his case and the inspiration he drew from personal experience.

Toothpaste doesn’t talk back

With consumer goods, the toothpaste doesn’t talk back to you, but in arts, music and entertainment the ‘product’ does talk back, and good artist relations are critical.

I love teaching ‘Managing Creativity’, and much of the theoretical focus in that area is on cultural and structural factors that facilitate organisational creativity. To supplement this, I needed a case that looked at managing creative people, particularly artistic talent, and prima donna behaviour in opera seemed ideal to dramatise conflicting perspectives on managing artists.

Personal experience

A colleague thought that the case was based on ‘Joe Volpe vs Kathy Battle’, a celebrated confrontation between the former Managing Director of The Metropolitan Opera House in New York, and a tempestuous soprano (the tale is vividly recounted in Volpe’s autobiography). I was aware of that incident, and it did inform my writing of the case. However, my core inspiration was drawn from personal experience when I was working as an International Marketing Director at EMI Classics in London. I found myself at the centre of a major artist relations crisis and after a somewhat explosive meeting with the artist we retreated to the President’s office, where we explored the issue through various lenses. Each functional leader (eg, artistic, financial, human resources, etc) brought their own perspective and defended it in their own language. The contrasts were very interesting and are reflected in the case.

Conflict vignette

I wanted to create a ‘conflict vignette’ that explored a specific incident from conflicting perspectives; students can then be asked to evaluate and reconcile the different perspectives. I also thought a shorter case requiring less preparation time would better suit some of the undergraduate classes I teach. While you can expect masters level students to prepare a 20-page case, at undergraduate level, preparation is going to be more patchy. A shorter case enables students to get more engaged with less preparation.

True-to-life archetypes

Most of the key fictional characters at the boardroom meeting depicted in the case are archetypes.I believe that making them fictional makes the case potentially ‘truer’ than if it were real. This is because if real people’s names were being disclosed, the content of the case might have to be censored. Entertainment managers need to create a safe environment for artists, who often exhibit frailties and can display arrogance and insecurity almost simultaneously. Part of that safe environment is the expectation of confidentiality. This is why I don’t disclose real artist names in the case. Nevertheless, I have been told that the language and attitudes portrayed in the case make it very realistic (much as a play may resonate with experience even though the characters are fictitious). The head of a UK performing arts institution wrote to me saying, ‘you could almost hear the voices at the meeting’.

Writing fictional cases

In terms of advice, I think it is very important for a fictional case to be anchored in concrete details that bring it to life. Such details will result from professional experience, spending time with people who work in a given context, or qualitative research. Appropriate and credible vocabulary is an important part of this.

The case has been a continual work in progress over a year or two, and was piloted in a couple of different degree programmes and courses before being finalised. It is currently being taught in various institutions in a number of different countries, and I am still open to making changes based on feedback. Before publishing the case I gave it to the former Artistic Director of Opera Australia, Moffatt Oxenbould, for feedback. He helped me make it more realistic by pointing out some naiveties and suggesting where further nuances could be explored.

Supporting material

It is good to compare and contrast a cost/benefit economic approach with a values approach, and there are ethics text books that touch on this, for example, Ethics and the Conduct of Business, 2011, by John R. Boatright.

There are also some interesting points made on this type of issue in the four expert opinions appended to the What a Star – What a Jerk case study and commentary (Harvard Business Review). In terms of the Volpe versus Battle confrontation at The Met, Joseph Volpe vividly recounts the episode in The Toughest Show on Earth: My Rise and Reign at The Metropolitan Opera, (2007). There is also 1994 coverage in The New York Times

Different lenses

I didn’t want students to walk away with a black and white, right and wrong answer, but to practise looking at a scenario through different lenses. When they encounter similar dramas in their professional lives, instead of panicking I want them to be able to say, ‘I have seen these dynamics before’, and then break the conflict down, exploring it from different viewpoints, before synthesising them into a more sophisticated conclusion than would arise from a snap judgement.

The Collarts free case collection

I wanted to create a series of organisational behaviour case studies that explore perennial issues that arise in large music organisations. The issues generally translate comfortably into other creative industry contexts such as arts, entertainment, fashion, and commercial design. The first case, Crisis in the Opera House, is discussed here. Others in the collection explore:

  • if artistic leaders should base decisions on their personal tastes
  • how useful customer research data is for new music development
  • interfunctional conflict at the artistic/marketing interface in large music organisations
  • tension between centralisation and decentralisation, and head offices/branches in large music organisations
  • government funding for the arts.

All of the cases can be integrated quite easily to spice up a variety of units and encourage class debate. Find free cases from Collarts

Case details

Crisis in the Opera House
Paul Saintilan
Collarts
Ref ACA01-13

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About the author

Paul Saintilan is the Dean of Collarts (The Australian College of the Arts), Melbourne, Australia. He worked with operatic artists while undertaking international roles at the classical music labels, EMI Classics and Decca.
e psaintilan@collarts.edu.au

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