Working the Paris Opera Was By no means Going to Be Straightforward. However Come On.
PARIS — Sporting a darkish blue go well with, masked, and with a component in his hair so straight you would use it as a ruler, Alexander Neef, the brand new director of the Paris Opera, was holding a gathering in his ethereal workplace. It was Oct. 5, the day the corporate’s eminent ballet was to provide its first efficiency since strikes had closed the Opera’s two theaters final December. However Paris had simply been declared a high-risk coronavirus zone — the newest signal that normalcy nonetheless lay far sooner or later.
Mr. Neef was simply 5 weeks into the job main the Opera, among the many most prestigious positions on the worldwide cultural scene, overseeing an annual working funds of 220 million euros ($261.3 million). There ought to have been no higher time to start out than this, the corporate’s 350th anniversary, which was to have culminated this fall with a splashy new manufacturing of Wagner’s epic “Ring” cycle.
As a substitute, Mr. Neef had walked straight into an annus horribilis. Strikes from December to March shut down 84 performances, opening up a funds deficit of €45 million. Then the coronavirus started to unfold, resulting in lockdowns and months extra canceled performances. An open letter has circulated about institutional racism on the firm. There have been complaints within the press in regards to the beneficiant bundle — round €81 million — of state support to the Opera, awarded earlier than the outcomes of an audit into its funds.
Mr. Neef, 46, the final director of the Canadian Opera Firm in Toronto and the inventive director of Santa Fe Opera, was supposed to depart these positions and take over in Paris subsequent 12 months. However in June his predecessor, Stéphane Lissner, out of the blue introduced he’d be leaving early for a contemporary begin on the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, Italy. Blindsided by this information and now juggling a number of jobs on two continents, Mr. Neef must go it alone.
“I knew on Aug. 5 that I might begin on Sept. 1,” he mentioned coolly over lunch.
And all this earlier than the second coronavirus lockdown, which President Emmanuel Macron of France introduced in mid-October and which put an finish to desires of dwell opera and ballet at the least via November.
“Once we noticed the numbers of latest instances, you’ll be able to sadly see this stuff coming,” Mr. Neef mentioned after the presidential announcement. “We had been in slightly a great place, and the brand new lockdown drove a wedge into all our plans.”
The state of affairs is undoubtedly grim. However Mr. Neef is at the least helped by the truth that he isn’t new to the Opera: From 2004 to 2008, he labored right here as casting director underneath his mentor, the famend impresario Gerard Mortier. His insider’s data of the establishment was necessary, Mr. Neef mentioned, in giving him confidence that he might address “probably the most advanced jobs on this subject.”
“I assumed, would I like to return and work with these individuals?” he mentioned. “The reply was sure.”
Mr. Neef’s current relationships on the labyrinthine, notoriously political firm might be essential in transferring on from what ended as a frosty stalemate between the Opera (or at the least its highly effective labor unions) and Mr. Lissner.
“Once we heard he was going to reach earlier, we weren’t simply completely satisfied; we had been massively relieved,” mentioned Fréderic Laroque, a violinist within the firm’s orchestra. “Lissner was on the finish of his tether, which is comprehensible, and also you had the impression that the administration was overwhelmed down. Nothing was taking place.”
Mr. Neef was born within the small city of Rosswälden, Germany, close to Stuttgart, and grew up in a household that was not notably occupied with excessive tradition. He found classical music via the radio and college music lessons, and commenced to check the piano at 9.
Though he was captivated with music, taping opera broadcasts and attending as many performances as he might, he studied Latin and trendy historical past in school.
“I by no means thought of music or opera as knowledgeable alternative,” he mentioned. “It was too removed from my background.”
However he turned pleasant with a gaggle of musicians who knew Mr. Mortier, then the director of the Salzburg Pageant in Austria. The chums started to work there as unpaid interns, and Mr. Neef turned Mr. Mortier’s assistant.
“He was extraordinarily well mannered and arranged,” the baritone Thomas Hampson mentioned of Mr. Neef. “I bear in mind individuals saying, ‘Everybody ought to have a right-hand man like Alexander Neef.’”
When Mr. Mortier left Salzburg in 2001 and have become the director of the Ruhrtriennale pageant in Germany, Mr. Neef adopted him there — then to the Paris Opera and, for a quick interval, New York Metropolis Opera. “Rapidly, opera and theater had change into a profession,” Mr. Neef mentioned.
Mr. Hampson mentioned that there have been only a few directors with Mr. Neef’s encyclopedic data of the repertory and singers. “In his era, he could also be singular,” Mr. Hampson mentioned. “And he’s lots of enjoyable at dinner.”
When the Canadian Opera Firm approached Mr. Neef, then nonetheless casting director in Paris, in 2008, it was, he mentioned, the primary time he had thought of operating an opera home. “I assumed there was no hurt in partaking in that dialog,” he mentioned, “and just about the identical factor occurred in Paris. You get requested, you concentrate on it, you speak about it. If you would like it an excessive amount of, it’s maybe doomed.”
Mr. Neef has been admired for making Toronto into a world opera vacation spot, cultivating prime singers and extra formidable productions.
“He was very assured in his needs and his ideas, and also you felt it was coming from an actual data of opera,” mentioned Rufus Wainwright, whose opera “Hadrian” premiered in Toronto in 2018. “Any disagreements with him are very upfront and clear. He’s very dispassionate when he’s offended, and really passionate when he’s excited. He can put his foot down when operating the establishment, however when encouraging a composer, he can journey within the clouds with you a bit.”
When the disputes had been between the work’s creators, Mr. Wainwright added, Mr. Neef “would keep off for a bit, then swoop in and repair every part, like a superhero.”
Regardless of his fame and credentials, Mr. Neef wasn’t broadly thought of a favourite for the Paris place. However after a 45-minute interview with Mr. Macron, he was supplied the job.
“Alexander suits with the profile of what Macron needs in France,” mentioned Matthew Epstein, a veteran artist supervisor and opera home administrator. “He’s artistically worldly, fully au courant with the North American aspect of the enterprise, and has been in Europe commonly. And he’s younger: He might do the job for an additional 20 years if he wished to.”
Mr. Epstein added that whereas the Paris Opera might be “a poisoned chalice” for newcomers, Mr. Neef’s prior expertise there ought to serve him properly. “He has enormous issues of finance due to the pandemic, enormous labor difficulties to beat, however I believe he might be good at that,” he mentioned. “He’s particularly reasonable, and he doesn’t shirk a tough dialog.”
The place is nonetheless on a distinct scale than Mr. Neef’s previous experiences. He might be overseeing 1,895 full-time workers — versus fewer than 100 in Toronto. In a transfer that didn’t precisely sign confidence, a number of days after Mr. Neef’s arrival in September the French minister of tradition appointed two former firm directors to “diagnose” the present monetary, organizational and inventive state of the Opera.
However Mr. Neef mentioned that he had taken their appointment “in a matter-of-fact manner.” It was helpful, he added, to have others reflecting on the problems that “have been careworn by the pandemic, if not brought on by it.”
An open letter circulated by 5 Opera dancers and signed by 400 firm workers has known as for “an finish to the silence round racism.” Mr. Neef mentioned that he has commissioned an exterior investigation of those points, with a report due in mid-December.
“What this can assist with is to create a system of accountability and set sure targets,” he mentioned.
Manuel Brug, a critic on the German newspaper Die Welt, mentioned the largest concern about Mr. Neef was that he was nonetheless fairly younger and was not an insider in French cultural circles, as Mr. Lissner was.
“If you find yourself operating the Paris Opera, it’s important to be near the politicians and the individuals with the cash,” Mr. Brug mentioned, including that one other concern was the ballet firm, which is led by the previous star dancer Aurélie Dupont.
“The place are the large choreographers?” Mr. Brug mentioned. “Paris wants that.”
Mr. Neef mentioned that he has been discussing tasks with Ms. Dupont and is occupied with commissioning modern scores “that may strengthen the connection between the musicians and the dancers.” Ballet, he added, “might be each far more conventional and extra trendy than opera. And while you slot that in with what the opera does, you’ll be able to have an unimaginable arc between conventional and avant-garde.”
However neither he nor Ms. Dupont named any potential choreographic expertise, although she added that the 2 had been occupied with increasing the ballet’s worldwide touring. Mr. Neef was equally circumspect in regards to the programming for his first full season, 2021-22, saying solely that it was necessary to carry out each French and worldwide works, and that he was occupied with exploring what had been lacking from the Opera’s trendy repertory.
“We have now by no means carried out an opera by Philip Glass or John Adams,” he mentioned.
Sarah Billinghurst, the previous assistant basic supervisor for inventive affairs on the Metropolitan Opera and a distinguished philanthropist, mentioned Mr. Neef “has very a lot acquired his finger on the heart beat of who’s new and fascinating, and he understands that it’s essential to have worldwide stars in Paris.”
“Gerard Mortier liked upsetting individuals, however I don’t assume that pursuits Alexander,” she added. “He needs to make you assume, present you one thing new.”
As Mr. Neef went from one assembly to a different all through the day in early October, he listened greater than he spoke, typically solely intervening with a query or a quick, reassuring remark. “I believe typically individuals underestimate him as a result of he’s quiet and to the purpose and never flamboyant,” Ms. Billinghurst mentioned. “However he has spine and solidity and a really agency perception in his style and selections.”
Between conferences, Mr. Neef popped in briefly to the primary orchestral rehearsal for the “Ring,” thanking the hundred-plus assembled musicians for agreeing to be commonly examined for the virus, and for working in such a difficult setting.
A mammoth undertaking for any opera home, the “Ring” was meant to each rejoice the Opera’s 350th birthday and as a suitably grand farewell to Philippe Jordan, its departing music director. By then, the undertaking had already been downsized to a live performance model for restricted audiences; given the brand new lockdown in France, it is going to now be carried out on the Bastille, the corporate’s bigger theater, with out an viewers, and every of its 4 elements broadcast by radio.
“All the pieces is day-to-day now,” Mr. Neef mentioned by telephone in early November. “We’re rehearsing ‘La Traviata’ and ‘La Bayadère,’ and holding our breath about whether or not we can carry out for an viewers in December.”
However whereas it hasn’t been the introduction he deliberate — “I’ve misplaced the 12 months of quiet contemplation that I might have had,” Mr. Neef mentioned — he has buckled down: “I’m able to put in lots of work and do lots of disagreeable issues if I can stroll into the theater, see a efficiency and really feel we by some means acquired it proper.”
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