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Austria waiting decision on new chief of Vienna State Opera

Who will be the next director of the Vienna State Opera, one of the greatest opera houses of the World?

The government was to announce the appointment later in the day, and major Austrian dailies pushed aside top international news to make space for the big opera story. Some papers did not wait for the decision to be announced and took a chance.

"Neil Shicoff the New Opera Chief," trumpeted the mass-circulation Kronen Zeitung in a front-page headline above a photo of the U.S. star tenor. The rival Oesterrich tabloid also picked Shicoff, under the front-page headline: "The New Lord of the Opera."

The articles accompanying the headlines were more equivocal. Both papers suggesting their choices were based more on guesswork than inside information. And - in a reflection of the mystery surrounding the choice - other newspapers suggested that Shicoff had been eliminated in favor of one of two other favorites: conductors Franz Welser-Moest of Austria or Christian Thielemann of Germany.

The directorship is a plum position of extreme influence in a city whose class acts include three opera houses, two acoustically and visually stunning concert halls and dozens of other venues. The Austrian capital's musical centerpiece remains the Vienna State Opera, whose enviable sales record - despite ticket prices that can exceed EUR200 (US$270)- is close to 100 percent. It also serves as the venue for the annual Opera Ball, which draws celebrities from around the world.

Additionally, the search for a successor to director Ioan Holender has assumed a political dimension. Shicoff is a friend of Alfred Gusenbauer - who is not only an opera lover but as chancellor, head of the Austrian government.

His open support for the American has led to accusations of cronyism; opposition parties and newspapers assert that he was misusing his political influence to hoist someone with no experience into the often very difficult task of running a world-class opera house. That includes negotiations with world-class singers, keeping the orchestra happy, overseeing a tight budget and other activities that have less to do with high C's and more with solid B's - as in business.

Parties and papers of all colorations also accused Gusenbauer of stepping on the toes of his culture minister, Claudia Schmied, despite denials from both politicians.

"It is unbelievable that the ... chancellor has charged forward with the preference for his friend instead of waiting for the results of the internal (job) search which is meant to let the best candidate come to the fore," fumed the small but outspoken rightist party BZOE, in a statement earlier this year. And the environmentalist Greens ridiculed him as "an operetta chancellor who considers art important only if he can put himself onto center stage."

Respected cultural commentators also were critical. Music critic Wilhelm Sinkowitz described the prospect of "an inexperienced opera ... as a danger." And the daily Kurier said Gusenbauer's personal involvement in who will get the job "strongly puts his credibility to question."

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