Austria fires national theatre head in financial scandal

VIENNA Tue Mar 11, 2014 1:24pm EDT

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VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria's culture minister sacked the director of its national theatre on Tuesday over a financial scandal that has rocked the famed 250-year-old institution.

Matthias Hartmann, a German ex-director of the Bochum Civic Theatre and Zurich Playhouse, had presided over a loss of 8.3 million euros ($11.6 million) last season, and the supervisory board said fraud and embezzlement might have occurred.

The affair at the Vienna Burgtheater, one of the most important theatres in the German-speaking world with an annual budget of 230 million euros, has shocked Vienna's cultural establishment since it erupted late last year.

"This step had to be taken to avoid further damage to the republic and the Burgtheater," Culture Minister Josef Ostermayer told a news conference, according to Austria Press Agency.

He said Hartmann had committed "serious violations of the due diligence of a director".

Ostermayer said prosecutors had been asked to look into whether damage claims against Hartmann were possible. "I of course cannot confirm whether there is a criminal investigation. We did not file a complaint," APA quoted him as saying. Vienna prosecutors were not immediately available for comment.

Hartmann said he intended to fight his dismissal, saying he could not as artistic director be held responsible for financial control of the company.

Georg Springer, head of the theatre's supervisory board, also resigned. "The events surprised me as much and maybe even horrified me as much as they did you," he said.

The Burgtheater, founded by Empress Maria Theresa in 1741 as the imperial court theatre, has hosted premieres of Mozart operas and Beethoven's first symphony.

Since its 1955 restoration after near destruction in the Second World War, it has debuted plays by Thomas Bernhard, Efrede Jelinek and George Tabori among others.

"The key is to bring peace back to the theatre," Ostermayer said. "It should be about the play on stage and not the backstage drama." ($1 = 0.7205 Euros)

(Reporting by Derek Brooks; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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