Strike alert! Czech opera singers demand ‘auditions’ for top National Theatre posts

Prague State Opera, photo: Tomáš Adamec / Czech Radio

National Theatre artists, mainly opera singers, are threatening to strike if the newly appointed culture minister rejects their demand to open selection processes to replace their current bosses and increase “transparency” at the institution. With some artistic licence – and apologies to Andrew Lloyd Webber – one could call this Act II of ‘The Phantom of the Czech Opera’.

Prague State Opera,  photo: Tomáš Adamec / Czech Radio
Act I of a long-running national political drama ended in late August with the appointment of veteran politician and diplomat Lubomír Zaorálek as culture minister.

For months, the post had been vacant, as the Czech president – in violation of the Constitution, according to many legal scholars – refused to name the government’s chosen replacement for the lead role, triggering a political crisis that nearly toppled the government.

With Mr Zaorálek now in the post – and already making good on his pledge to reverse some key decisions of his predecessor – disgruntled artists at the National Theatre have doubled down on their strike threat over what they call “non-transparency” in naming their bosses.

Enter Jakub Hrubý, operatic baritone, and head of the Union of Professional Singers of the National Theatre, the loudest voice calling for Mr Zaorálek to open a selection procedure for positions now held by director Jan Burian, among others.

Jan Burian,  photo: Martina Schneibergová
“The reason the strike alert was called in June is the non-transparency at the National Theatre and poor conception for its development, which threatens the stability of the theatre, State Opera and our livelihoods. We want to make clear that the threat of a strike continues.”

Speaking at a televised press conference on Wednesday, Mr Hrubý said union members and other National Theatre staff, some 350 people in all, have signed an open letter laying out their objections.

They object to Mr Burian having been reappointed a year before his first term was to end, and the choice of Per Boye Hansen, a Norwegian who does not speak Czech, as State Opera artistic director.

“We find it disturbing that after we announced our readiness to strike, Jan Burian launched a media campaign that is evidently aimed at trivialising our complaints and diverting attention from the problems at the National Theatre, and with regard to the political situation around the cultural sector.”

Freshly minted Minister of Culture Lubomír Zaorálek said at the outset that his top priorities include dealing with leadership positions at key public institutions where his predecessor, Antonín Staněk, made changes –even after resigning.

Lubomír Zaorálek,  photo: Filip Jandourek / Czech Radio
Mr Zaorálek, who was appointed less than two weeks ago, has already cancelled the selection procedure for National Gallery director. He said the conditions cited in that open competition had been prepared “in haste” and were “inadequate”.

Union leader Jan Hrubý charges the same is true in the case of the National Theatre. But while the new culture minister has promised to hear from parties concerned, Mr Zaorálek has said he is not inclined to hold a selection procedure in this case.

But, as the saying goes, ‘It’s not over until the fat lady sings’. What Act III of the politcal drama will bring is an open question.