To have become director of the Paris Opera a year ahead of schedule, as the longest strike in the company’s history turned into the worst global pandemic in a century, Alexander Neef could reasonably have rattled.
But if it is, he won’t show it. Dressing elegantly and speaking with care, this German impresario is not, shall we say, operatic in his way.
Even at the suggestion that he was offered a poisoned chalice when he took over the helm in 2020, Mr Neef, 48, didn’t grab the bait. “It hasn’t been a bad ride,” he said in a video interview. “Eventually you accept and then you accept.”
One reason he might not have been nervous about the challenge was that he had already worked at the Paris Opera as casting director for director Gerard Mortier from 2004 to 2008. “A lot of the staff were there when I was last there, and people had an idea who they were dealing with,” he noted.
But another reason was that, faced with the cancellation of hundreds of performances, the French government intervened with a massive emergency aid package worth €86 million, or nearly $95 million. And it was no small trump card that Mr. Neef was chosen for the position by President Emmanuel Macron himself. “Many of my colleagues appointed by him feel that there is an investment in our success,” said Mr. Neef.
But when it comes to opera managers, there is no consensus on how to measure success. Are they being praised for using their fundraising skills to balance the books? Are they remembered for making big productions with star performers with little concern for cost? Obviously audiences are more interested in what goes on on stage than in the whims of opera house budgets, but they are just as obviously related.
For the public, then, the least exciting aspect of Mr. Neef’s strategy is to halt the losses of the Paris Opera by the 2024-25 season, by which time government emergency aid is likely to cease to be provided. With this in mind, and with about 250 of the company’s 1,500 employees expected to retire by 2025, he said he hopes not to have to replace them all, saving 50 to 100 salaries.
But how the limited resources are used also determines the status of an opera house. And here too, Mr. Neef has some innovative, albeit simple, ideas. For example, he doesn’t want the Paris Opera’s two major theaters – the Palais Garnier and the Bastille Opera – to resemble ‘permanent festivals’, with dazzling productions that are never revived.
“All my predecessors produced a new ‘La Traviata’, which is quite unusual because that means a new ‘La Traviata’ every five years,” he said. “I think the strategy is that we create a ‘La Traviata’ that we can keep for a longer period of time, and in that case we can create a lot of other things that are not in our repertoire.
‘Now we are rehearsing Massenet’s ‘Cendrillon’, which has never been in the repertoire of the Paris Opera before,’ he continued, ‘or we are doing Bernstein’s ‘A Quiet Place’ for the very first time. It’s not about being careful, but about broadening the repertoire and not investing in a production that you do once and never again.”
That approach proved this season, the first of Mr. Neef, which ends in July, and in the 2022-2023 season, which he announced this week. It also includes an interesting shift in emphasis brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Over the past decades,” he said, “there has been a transfer of power from the institution to the public, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. I think the public today has a much greater sense that we need them. We need them as ticket buyers, as donors and as citizens who are convinced that an organization like the Paris Opera has a role to play.”
But pleasing the public is no easy task. “I always say we have 2,700 seats in the Bastille and we have 2,700 spectators every night,” he said, adding that what matters is how people interact with the production. “I think indifference is our worst enemy, because if people are bored in the opera or don’t know why they came, that is much more dangerous than a strong negative reaction.”
Experience shows that the Parisian public often harass directors and designers, while the reaction of lead singers can range from polite applause to wild, cheering enthusiasm. And the talent of the singers seems to count more than their fame, which is undoubtedly lucky because, as Mr. Neef noted, “It’s not what it was 20 years ago when you could literally rely on certain names to bring the theater to the stage.” to fill .”
One name that has traditionally sold tickets is that of Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, who has been banned from New York’s Metropolitan Opera for two seasons for failing to overthrow President Vladimir V. Putin after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, in the published 2022-23 season of the Paris Opera, Ms. Netrebko still plans to sing the role of Donna Leonora in “La Forza del Destino” in December.
“We have printed the schedule for the invasion and we will evaluate the situation between now and November to see if it is possible for her to show up or not,” said Mr. Neef. “It is a difficult situation. It is not the government’s position, and it is certainly not my personal position now, to go to all or certain Russian artists and say: if you don’t publicly denounce the situation, we can’t work with you. ”
A production of Mussorgsky’s “Khovanshchina” with a largely Russian-speaking cast ended six days before the invasion of Paris, while lead singers in a production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”, featuring performances during the first three weeks of the war in Ukraine, included two Russians, one Ukrainian, one Belarusian and one Romanian. “I think most of them felt like they didn’t know exactly what was going on and they wanted to be invisible,” said Mr. Cousin.
Mr Neef has a five-year appointment as director of the Paris Opera with the possibility of a second similar term, so any discussion of his legacy is hugely premature. But it could also be an initiative he plans for next season: Inspired by many German opera houses, he plans to set up a company of 15 to 20 professional singers who have a salary (and do not work as freelancers, such as the most soloists do) ) and will take on all but the biggest roles.
Mr. Neef said he felt that greater track stability had become more attractive to cast members over the past two years. “There’s a lot of interest in living in one city,” he said, “either because you have a family, or the pull of going to a new city every few weeks isn’t as strong as it used to be.”
So, just as some of the principal dancers in the Paris Opera Ballet Company have fan clubs, it won’t be long before the once-unknown members of the new troupe have an avid following of their own.