Breaking: International opera chief is arrested

Breaking: International opera chief is arrested


norman lebrecht

January 20, 2015

Helga Schmidt has been suspended as general director of the Palau de les Arts in Valencia, Spain, amid reports of financial irregularities. The Spanish news agency says there have been two arrests. One is said to be a past director, Ernesto Moreno.

Helga Schmidt has built a reputation on hiring expensive artists at presumably cut-price rates. She was due to retire in 2016.


UPDATE: The latest reports say Helga has been arrested.

Her official biography:

Helga Schmidt (Vienna, 1941) has been one of the most influential public figures in the world of music over the past fifty years. Born into an environment with deep roots in music -her father was Studienleiter of Wilhelm Furtwängler and she grew up immersed in the musical environment of Vienna during the second half of the 20th century-, her comprehensive musical training began when she was just a child. She studied piano in Vienna and then went on to study History of Art at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Thanks to her father, she regularly came into contact with public figures such as Karl Böhm, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Clemens Krauss or even Furtwängler himself, in addition to other great singers who frequented the Vienna Opera House at that time. Later, she came into contact and worked with maestros such as Georg Solti or Carlos Kleiber.

Her professional career began as assistant to the general director of the Vienna Festival, Egon Hilbert, when she was only 21 years of age. In 1962, she actively participated in the staging of Lulu by Alban Berg, and conducted by Karl Böhm. These were the first performances of the Berg opera during the postwar period. Together with Karl Böhm she also promoted a new staging of Daphne by Richard Strauss, with Fritz Wunderlich as the lead.

Two years later, in 1963, Hilbert was appointed manager of the Vienna Opera House, and Herbert von Karajan was artistic and musical director. Both men took on Helga Schmidt to work for this opera house where she continued to work side by side with Karajan for ten years. “I owe my career to him”, recalls Schmidt, adding: “It was Karajan who advised me to go into artistic management, beginning from the bottom and getting to know the nooks and crannies of the theatre. He was a very demanding man, most profound and a restorer. For him, the top priority of the opera was the music and the stage was simply limited to accompany it. He was very meticulous and he supervised absolutely everything. And, in this sense, I have followed closely in his footsteps”. A strong supporter of the best Italian singers, her wholehearted support helped imperial artists such as Giulietta Simionato, Mirella Freni, Alfredo Kraus, Franco Corelli, Giuseppe di Stefano, Boris Christoff, Cesare Siepi, Tito Gobbi, Piero Cappuccilli and even her own husband the baritone singer Wladimiro Ganzarolli, to triumph in Vienna. She was also responsible for the performances of two universal dancers, Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, at the Vienna Opera House.

From Vienna she moved to London, where she was the artistic director of Covent Garden during the 1970s. She was only 33 years old and was the first woman to hold a post that had been only held by men. Together with Colin Davis, she was in charge of one of the most outstanding periods of the London theatre. Thanks to Helga Schmidt, the Royal Opera House witnessed the debut of conductors such as Karl Böhm, Riccardo Chailly, Christoph von Dohnányi, Bernard Haitink, Carlos Kleiber, Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta, Riccardo Muti, Seiji Ozawa and Georges Prêtre, in addition to the debut of the singers Jaume Aragall, Montserrat Caballé, José Carreras, Plácido Domingo, Birgit Nilsson, Luciano Pavarotti, Ruggero Raimondi and Joan Sutherland, to name just a few. She also promoted countless recordings on vinyl that have now become an indispensable reference for the world of records. Amongst these is the famous recording of Tosca in 1976, conducted by Colin Davis and with Caballé, Carreras and Wixell in the leading roles.

The artistic adviser for countless institutions and orchestras of high standing (including the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam and the Royal Symphony Orchestra of London), towards the end of the 1990s, Helga Schmidt was fascinated by the ambitious project that was being developed by the Generalitat Valenciana (the regional government) and the architect Santiago Calatrava. Their idea was to open an opera house in Valencia. The avant-garde architecture of the new building and the wholehearted support of the regional government persuaded her to become directly involved in the project.

And since the year 2000, she has worked full-time on this project. The opera house was inaugurated in 2005 as the “Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía”, and over the past seven years Helga Schmidt has succeeded in placing this new musical centre up amongst the best and most reputable on the international scene. It has been the latest achievement of this exemplary manageress who, in her non-existent free time, dreams of rereading Rilke, Goethe or Baltasar Gracián, “who was such a great influence on Schopenhauer”. She also dreams of living with her two dogs in her country house in Piedmont and sailing alone “upon a blue sea of infinite horizons with just the indelible memory of my husband Wladimiro for company”. In June 2012, the president of Austria awarded her the Cross of Honour for Science and Art, First Class, the highest award that can be obtained in the Republic of Austria.


  • Stefan says:

    …suspended? she is arrested!

  • Rob Maynard says:

    One would imagine that anyone’s “official biography” would be regularly and very thoroughly checked and re-checked. So what are we to make of its claim that Ms Schmidt worked with a London “orchestra of high standing” called the Royal Symphony Orchestra?

    • Lorna says:

      Rob a mistake .no one can doubt the experience of this lady ?She has done a remarkable job for Valencia in spite of being in a political minefield.I have attended the opera there regularly and it is sad to see the whole thing disintegrating as the left wing of politics position themselves for the election.
      Valencia did so well in spite of the fact that the Govt gave them less than the other major opera houses in Spain A mere pittance in real terms while Madrid and Barcelona with much less success got the largest slice of the pie !Now at the end of a remarkable career HS must endure this ordeal!Anyone who loves the Opera in Spain owes her a debt of gratitude.truth will most
      Isley be the first casualty

  • Anon says:

    Ignorant over-the-top reaction by provincial, xenophobic Spanish authorities. Les Arts is a Valencian snake pit. Valencians are clannish, insular and will go to great lengths to protect their own. They will get what they deserve here. In the words of a famous outgoing music director, Les Arts will become nothing more than a regional zarzuela theater.

    The community of Valencia has embarassed themselves over and over again regarding Les Arts. Now they’ve really done it. To arrest Schmidt publicly (yes, there are videos online), a respected and internationally known arts manager is completely over the top. It’s typical of the Spanish love of “posturing” – taking a strong stance for appearance’s sake with very little substance behind it. Valencia has made fools of themselves and of Les Arts here. On an international level, no less.

    Even if there are financial inaccuracies, any accusations made to Schmidt or her predecessor should have been done discretely, not in this blatant display of ignorant police force. This is outrageous and places all of Spain in a very bad light.

    Clearly, Valencia is NOT a community which understands or is capable of hosting an international opera house. This has been made clear over and over again. This time they’ve really done it. In their decade long witch hunt to point fingers at those responsible for their own errors, they’ve made a huge, glaring error. Arresting Schmidt publicly simply
    proves the ignorance, the backwardness, the inability to understand the management of culture of the Valencians.

    Let their bedraggled falling apart opera house (designed by a Valencian architect) crumble. Let the best musicians leave. Let no music director of repute be willing to assume the mess that is Les Arts. And now let them have no management. Les Arts is an embarrassment to Spain, to the world of opera. The arrest of Helga Schmidt confirms that truth.

    • MWnyc says:

      “Let their bedraggled falling apart opera house (designed by a Valencian architect) crumble.”

      I was just thinking – while they’re at this round-up of suspects, shouldn’t somebody look at arresting Calatrava?

      • Anon says:

        Now THAT would be a good idea! The Valencian govt. “denounced” Calatrava in Aug.- this is a formal complaint, sort of like a lawsuit – for charging them . for a building that didn’t even last 10 yrs. and has cost a fortune to repair.

        But to see him arrested. That would be perfect. There would be lots of supporters for such a movement. There was a great website called “Calatrava te la” which basically means “Calatrava bleeds you dry” documenting his numerous architectural disasters. In May he took the website owners to court to have it taken down. I guess he won because the site isn’t working. Arresting him would be the perfect response.

    • Eli Bensky says:

      To have written “Even if there are financial inaccuracies, any accusations made to Schmidt or her predecessor should have been done discretely, not in this blatant display of ignorant police force”

      It is not an ignorant police force but this is simply a display of a childish tantrum by an emotionally ignorant person.

      Do opera administrators get special treatment? Maybe the police failed to match their handcuffs to Schmidt’s outfit.

      • Anon says:

        To Eli Bensky – I’m afraid you’ve misinterpreted the term “police force”. I’m thinking perhaps English is not your native language or maybe you read a little too quickly. No one is calling the police ignorant. “Force” here refers to the measures taken, not the body of police who acted on it.

        It was ignorant, IMHO, to employ police MEASURES. Aka to enlist police assistance in this situation. The ignorance is the act of calling police in, not the police themselves.

        Unless you live in Spain, and have been following Spanish politics, the Les Arts situation and know how corruption on every level is dealt with in Spain as well as many of us reading Norman’s blog do, you are not in a position to pass judgement.

        Speaking of childish tantrums, your post sure is calling the kettle black. I hope you are capable of understanding THAT expression.

  • Lorna says:

    Anon I fully agree with you.valencia indeed Spain owes Helga a debt of gratitude

  • Gonzalo Alonso says:

    She was not arrested but retained during the theather inspection

  • Hilary says:

    An impressive track record. It’s unfortunate that it takes an arrest to bring this remarkable person to my attention.

  • Guillermo says:

    It’s interesting to see Gonzalo Alonso commenting here, for he is known as one of the most morally corrupt music critics Spain has ever produced. His unnecessary and unfair venom on targeted artists and his “favour tisis” approach to music journalism in spain is one of the reasons why spain is in the mess it is.

    It is also particularly interesting how he has always sided with Schmidt, another gangster who has only been able to make les arts a great opera house through the use of an open cheque book but alas when funds began to wither down she was only good at complaining about the lack of finances rather than show her real worth in times of financial hardship. Any idiot can build an international opera house if they have 5 million to spend on Maazel (RIP), Mehta or any other star that takes their fancy but it’s another story to sustain an opera house when the going gets tough – for that you need a real talent or professional qualities which clearly Frau Schmidt lacks.

    For the record, I don’t know how many commenting here have been hired by Schmidt and worked at les arts – I have. I was hired for a production some years ago when the money was still flowing and I can say I have never seen such unnecessary spending and chaos in an opera house as I have in valencia. The funny thing is Schmidt was never there and only turned up a few days before the premiere and ensured to disrupt everything she could which in turn added to the spiral costs of the production. Odd way to lead your Theater if you ask me. How can you lead an international opera house properly when you don’t even live in the country where the theater is and use a hotel for the days you are around…? I would think if you are so committed to your theatre as Schmidt has propagated so many times you show it by committing and living in the city where your theater is based.

    What I find even more ironic is that every time Schmidt has lamented that she lost all the good players in the orchestra or that the big singers no longer want to perform in valencia – one should ask those players in the orchestra and the singers – most of them like me will tell you that it’s not the money why we don’t return but rather because of the poor organization and general chaos caused by Schmidt’s management, or her arrogant management style towards big operatic names that can choose where they sing that are the main reason. Her insatiable arrogance is a big factor and if you ask me the results at les arts once the cheque book run dry are nothing to warrant such arrogance.

    Do ask most of the top tier artists in the classical music scene with the exception of the handful she kept in her payroll even when she could not afford them – Schmidt is the laughing stock of most of us and it is high time people knew about it. If to that you now add these very serious criminal claims which yet to proven it’s everything but an illlustrious career for Frau Schmidt, rather somebody who has been allowed to play queen without having the qualities or capabilities on how to properly run a theatre.

    I might even feel inclined and help the police with their investigation and explain all the atrocious unnecessary spending I saw going on day after day.

    • Anon says:

      Word, Guillermo. Great post.

      I was also interested to see Gonzalo Alonso’s post here. I was actually going to ask him his opinion on this situation since so far he hasn’t written about it in his blog, although he’s posted Norman’s article.

      I don’t know the ins and outs or the political underbelly of Spain’s opera world as you do, but I’ve always thought Mr. Alonso’s commentaries were candid and valuable. It’s refreshing in Spanish culture to see someone not afraid to write exactly what he thinks and Mr. Alonso seems to do that. Was not aware of his being corrupt, just that he parted on unfriendly terms at the Real. But hell, so did Gerard Mortier.

      Your post is an eye-opener. Really interesting. Even with this in mind, I think that police intervention in this situation is over the top. As someone here commented, they should send the police after Calatrava first.

      • sdReader says:

        We don’t know that police “intervention” was a mistake.

        Good post, Guillermo! It’s easy to spend the people’s money and hire your famous buddies — Mehta, Maazel, Domingo — quite another to run a company.

        The building remains impressive, even if tiles are falling off. You can’t take your eyes off it. I enjoyed an Iphigénie en Tauride and a Così fan tutte there some years ago.

  • Nick says:

    I stated in an earlier thread about Ms. Schmidt that this bio is so full of holes I am amazed that anyone with her reputation would wish to pad out her considerable achievements in such a major and obvious way. She was responsible for the Convent Garden debut of Joan Sutherland? Nonsense! Sutherland became a star at the Garden 14 years before Ms. Schmidt’s arrival. Pavarotti made his debut in 1963, Arragal in 1968, Domingo in 1971 and Caballé in 1972. Georges Prêtre made his debut in 1961. And I heard Nilsson in The Ring there in 1965. Why on earth would she wish to take credit there when none is due?

    She was not Artistic Director in that House, nor the first woman to occupy the post. She arrived as Joan Ingpen’s successor as Head of Opera Planning. Ms. Ingpen had held the post for almost a decade! Later the title but little of the job was changed to Artistic Administrator – not Artistic Director, a post she never held.

  • Laura Claycomb says:

    All very interesting. I have always heard a good reputation of Helga Schmidt, so this seems very strange for her to cook the books or ask for kickbacks at this point in her career, one year before going into retirement! Not spending money well, and only calling in expensive big names all the time is not a crime, although you’d think they’d have figured out her managing style by now (10+ years in the post!) Sounds like a major over-reaction by the prosecutors in Spain.

    However, how I would love that some managers in Italy got this treatment! Take them off in handcuffs, and make them go over their budget decisions IN PUBLIC with a fine-tooth comb and hold them accountable for disparities? Wouldn’t that be grand?

    But that would just make opera look bad and people would say “Oh, let’s just take away their money” and trot out the same old, tired “elitist” arguments. Sad that the left in politics for the most part doesn’t realize that opera can be life-changing and culture in general can add to the discussion and the economy.

  • Guillermo says:

    I agree with Anon that Calatrava should be receiving the same treatment Schmidt is now receiving, but if I may say I don’t Schmidt can be compared to Calatrava who with all his faults has many iconic achievements to his name in comparison to Schmidt.

    With Alonso in my opinion he is not subjective and will determine reviews according to who are his friends. He does not review any other way. There are many artists he favours who we all know would never have a career outside Spain and he is particularly “in” with Musiespana and Humberto Oran, the biggest crook of all, although there was a period he was at war with them too. As far as I have understood, Alonso did write an article a few days ago in his blog beckmesser where he warned readers not to take Schmidt’s accusations seriously. He has always supported Schmidt and I would hate to think why.

    At the end in my opinion you don’t need a great biography to become a great opera intendant – look at Bachler in Munich – he never lead an opera house and he is by far the most respected opera intendant in Germany. All you need to do is LEAD the house properly that will in turn give you the rewards sown. The problem here is that Schmidt saw the need to overblow her CV because she knew she was not ready for the job and she was clever enough to understand that in Spain her overblown biography would cover her deficiencies with the usual provincial thinking “well if she has done all this stuff in her life she must be good and worth the money”.

    Every time I think about the mess I endured that month in el Palau it saddens me and irritates me at the same time. What a tragedy. It could have been one of the leading houses of Europe, but you cannot build it on money alone. There are many smaller companies where artists return time after time because their professionalism and human empathy deserves it. This is how you should build an opera house.

    Shame on her and all the cronies that supported her.