National opera employees analyze allegations against director

Aivar Mäe at the opening of ERSO's new premises in the basement of the Estonia Opera Theater.

PHOTO: Mihkel Maripuu

Then head of communications for National Opera Estonia Lisanna Männilaan walked up to director Aivar Mäe and handed him her letter of resignation in mid-November last year, following a marketing meeting earlier in the week. According to Männilaan, Mäe told her he does not agree with her decision to leave and then signed the letter.

Männilaan said she resigned because she was forced to also do the work of her superior, marketing director Siret Campbell. She told her as much. Männilaan recalls how Mäe had told her in the presence of other people the next day that he was not fond of her statement.

It was that altercation that led to Männilaan’s resignation three days later. “I understood there was no place for me there,” she told Postimees. So what that Aivar Mäe had tried to reconcile the two women, telling them to work instead of exchanging blows.

Männilaan denies having felt disappointed when Mäe signed her resignation letter and claims she was negotiating with new potential employers at the time.

Freelance opera singer Angelika Mikk remembers Männilaan was distraught and disappointed and said she does not want to leave and wasn’t ready for Mäe’s decision to approve her resignation. Mikk said she felt for Männilaan and tried to console her as she considered her a good employee who was always full of gusto and regarded as foolish the decision to let her go.

Mikk now says she understands Mäe’s decision. “If a person wants to get their way and engages in provocation [wielding applications], an executive cannot allow it.”

Männilaan’s resignation took a lot of Estonia employees by surprise as everyone had witnessed the brilliant relationship between her and theater director Aivar Mäe. Former colleagues describe her as temperamental and confident, often smiling and talkative. She received the theater’s colleagues’ award last year.

Following an Eesti Ekspress article where ten anonymous sources claim Mäe has spent years humiliating female colleagues, making inappropriate comments of a sexual nature and touching women inappropriately, many Estonia employees are looking at Männilaan.

Of 21 National Opera Estonia employees interviewed by Postimees in person late last week (only one of whom refused to appear under their real name), only a few failed to say they suspect Männilaan has an instrumental role in the allegations against Mäe.

Borderline jokes

Männilaan admits that because several descriptions of allegedly inappropriate behavior by Mäe in the article are from her and she has told other people at Estonia about it, the conclusion that she took the matter to Eesti Ekspress is easy to make. She also recalls that when a journalist from Eesti Ekspress contacted her in the winter, they had claimed to want to discuss economic matters. But Männilaan maintains: “I am not the initiator of this whole affair.”

(Upon first receiving the call from Postimees, Männilaan initially said she has no comment and does not want to get involved, but she called back half an hour later and agreed to talk to the paper.)

Männilaan admits that several of the anonymous episodes described in the Eesti Ekspress article came from her. Including how Mäe had allegedly told her he forgot his toothbrush and watch at her place in front of other people on two occasions. Asked about other episodes she relayed to the newspaper, she replies: “I do not want to comment on that. It is very painful.”

(We did not manage to contact Aivar Mäe, who is represented by sworn attorney Paul Keres, for comment. Postimees believes it is important to yield the floor to the other side in cases where anonymous allegations have surfaced to ensure balanced journalistic coverage.)

Most Estonia employees saw Männilaan and Mäe as a dynamic duo. “Lisanna is very much like Aivar, a joyous person,” Juuli Lill Köster describes. “She makes jokes bordering on the inappropriate and it’s grand, fun.”

Kärt Kinnas, who worked as the theater’s HR director until the end of 2018, said she saw Mäe and Männilaan communicate freely, often using jokes and poking fun. “I perceived no harassment wen they talked, laughing and hugged when they ran into each other,” she says.

Vello Ojamäe, working as Estonia’s administrative director for the sixth year, says that Mäe and Männilaan had a good professional relationship that included both flirtation and familiar embraces.

Männilaan claims that talking about these encounters now, they seem like painful experiences. She adds that she had to take it because she had no choice other than to try and get along with the director. She recalls how she never received any help over at Estonia as she was always told the behavior she described was typical of Mäe and should be taken as a joke. “I was left alone with my problems,” she says. Männilaan says that she did not turn to the police because she felt the incidents in question were not something the authorities could help with.

Profitless rumors

Many National Opera Estonia employees, who regard the entire scandal as an attack not only against Mäe but the entire theater, say that it has left them in shock. Everyone interviewed by Postimees, with the exception of Männilaan, says that Mäe has not harassed them, that they have not witnessed or heard of a single episode of harassment involving someone else.

(The author admits this does not necessarily mean there are no more people accusing Mäe of harassment, while the people interviewed by Postimees are also not the only ones with no criticism for Mäe as 351 people, most of whom have ties to the theater, signed a petition in support of Mäe last week.)

Mäe’s colleagues describe him as authoritarian, tough and exacting on the one hand, but jolly, friendly and emotional on the other. Everyone knows he makes jokes that are often borderline or indeed go too far.

“Aivar has an ambivalent sense of humor, most definitely,” says Kristel Konsa who worked directly for Mäe as the theater’s chief administrator and producer for four years. “But he is not someone whose jokes hide plans for harassment or one to do something physical people would find disagreeable. I cannot even imagine something like that.”

Music manager and producer Kadri Tali, who has worked alongside Mäe for 14 years, says that while Mäe’s jokes and attempts at poking fun might include a chauvinist component and even be described as raucous, he definitely isn’t a sexual harasser. “I have experienced sexist comments and situations – I know what I’m talking about,” Tali says. “I have had contact with sexual harassment and can recognize it. There is nothing of the sort here.”

It probably boils down to how people interpret these things, Tali offers. She guesses that the people speaking critically about Mäe are half her age, people in their twenties. “The times have changed,” she says. “What used to be jokes aren’t anymore. Perhaps there are different interpretations.”

While many Estonia employees say that if you tell Mäe his jokes are unacceptable, he pulls back and alters his behavior, Männilaan claims she repeatedly told Mäe to stop but adds that such requests were mere jokes in Aivar Mäe’s eyes.

The police launched proceedings regarding potential sexual harassment last week to get to the bottom of what has transpired at the theater in connection with Mäe’s behavior. Vello Ojamäe, who was questioned for an hour, said that the police had not done their homework and tried to break him with loaded questions. Ballet dancer Seili Loorits-Kämbre, regarding whom it was reported Mäe harassed her in the theater’s physiotherapy room, told the police that while she was getting a massage when Mäe dropped by, she did not feel harassed or uncomfortable.

Männilaan tells Postimees that there are over 30 people at the theater who regard incidents involving Mäe unfortunate and have said as much. “It is in not my personal problem,” Männilaan says. She promises to give Postimees a more precise number of alleged victims the next day, while the paper instead receives an application from sworn attorney Maria Mägi-Rohtmets not to publish Männilaan’s personal information.

(Postimees very seriously considered and discussed with attorneys whether to disclose her person even before Männilaan’s application, before concluding there is overwhelming public interest in the case. Statements by Postimees’ sources suggest Männilaan is not only a potential victim but has considerably affected the course of events and media coverage. Therefore, it is necessary to disclose her person to ensure balanced coverage of the Aivar Mäe scandal.)