Revisiting the Royal Opera House

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 13:  (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE) The BBC Concert Orchestra rehearses for the Olivier Awards ceremony at The
LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 13: (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE) The BBC Concert Orchestra rehearses for the Olivier Awards ceremony at The Royal Opera House on April 13, 2012 in London, England. The theatrical awards take place on April 15 at the Royal Opera House. (Photo by Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images)

I had an opportunity recently to visit the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. I served as chief executive of the Opera House in the late 1990s, a period of great turmoil for the institution. I was the fifth chief executive in as many years. The organization had an accumulated deficit of $30 million! I arrived one year before a complete renovation of the facility was meant to be completed (Her Majesty the Queen of England had the opening date in her diary) but the building was not finished and the funds to finish the renovation were nowhere in sight. The Music Director had threatened to resign, the dancers of the Royal Ballet were threatening to secede and the British press was having a field day.

Over the course of two difficult years we managed to pay off the deficit, raise the funds necessary to complete the renovation, assuage the press, debug the highly advanced stage technology, build a successful contributions program and even greet the Queen, as scheduled, on December 1, 1999.

It was, by far, the most challenging assignment of my life and I am proud of the remarkable work of the Board, staff and artists during that difficult period. They all worked hard under great pressure, convinced that the Royal Opera House was, and would continue to be, a great institution.

When I departed the institution, I felt a great deal of guilt. I had planned to stay longer but I felt that my job was done and that I was not the person to lead the organization in the new Millennium. I have had similar ambivalent emotions leaving every organization I turned around. On the one hand, I felt a tremendous loyalty and responsibility to my co-workers and artists. On the other, I believed that someone with a fresh perspective would be a better leader going forward. I was too weighed down by the bad times and would be too conservative a leader; the institution deserved and needed someone who did not remember the cash flow problems, the bad press, the constant conflict.

My recent trip to the Royal Opera House, my first since I left in 2000, confirmed this belief. The institution is doing remarkably well in every respect. It has created exciting new ventures, built a strong financial foundation, and established itself as the preeminent performing arts institution in Great Britain. Tony Hall, the man who succeeded me as chief executive, has done a superb job and has assembled a great team. It was so refreshing to hear Elizabeth Bell, my host on my tour, talk of the organization with such passion and excitement.

I am quite certain that Tony's fresh perspective is responsible for the growth and development of the institution; the Royal Opera House simply would not be what it is today if I had stayed on.

I hope and trust that all who were disappointed by my departure have forgiven me (if they even remember me!) as I can now forgive myself.