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Running Paris Opera never going to be easy

Alexander Neef has taken on one of the most prestigious jobs in culture amid a pandemic, labour strikes and internal unrest

Mr Neef will take things in his stride. His insider's knowledge is important and will give him confidence that he could cope with "one of the most complex jobs in this field".

Mr Neef will take things in his stride. His insider's knowledge is important and will give him confidence that he could cope with "one of the most complex jobs in this field".


WEARING a dark blue suit, masked, and with a part in his hair so straight you could use it as a ruler, Alexander Neef, the new director of the Paris Opera, was holding a meeting in his airy office. It was Oct 5, the day the company's eminent ballet was to give its first performance since strikes had closed the Opera's two theatres last December. But Paris had just been declared a high-risk coronavirus zone - the latest sign that normalcy still lay far in the future.

Mr Neef was just five weeks into the job leading the Opera, among the most prestigious positions on the global cultural scene, overseeing an annual operating budget of 220 million euros (S$353 million). There should have been no better time to start than this, the company's 350th anniversary, which was to have culminated this fall with a splashy new production of Richard Wagner's epic Ring cycle.

Instead, Mr Neef had walked straight into an annus horribilis. Strikes from December to March shut down 84 performances, opening up a budget deficit of 45 million euros. Then the coronavirus began to spread, leading to lockdowns and months more cancelled performances. An open letter has circulated about institutional racism at the company. There have been complaints in the press about the generous package - around 81 million euros - of state aid to the Opera, awarded before the results of an audit into its finances.

Mr Neef, 46, general director of the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto and artistic director of Santa Fe Opera, was supposed to leave those positions and take over in Paris next year. But in June, his predecessor, Stéphane Lissner, suddenly announced he'd be leaving early for a fresh start at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, Italy. Blindsided by this news and now juggling multiple jobs on two continents, Mr Neef would have to go it alone.

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"I knew on Aug 5 that I would start on Sept 1," he said coolly over lunch.

And all this before the second coronavirus lockdown, which President Emmanuel Macron of France announced in mid-October and which put an end to dreams of live opera and ballet through at least November.

"When we saw the numbers of new cases, you can unfortunately see these things coming," Mr Neef said after the presidential announcement. The situation is undoubtedly grim. But Mr Neef is at least helped by the fact that he isn't new to the Opera: From 2004 to 2008, he worked here as casting director under his mentor, renowned impresario Gerard Mortier. His insider's knowledge of the institution was important, Mr Neef said, in giving him confidence that he could cope with "one of the most complex jobs in this field".

Mr Neef was born in the small town of Rosswälden, Germany, near Stuttgart, and grew up in a family that was not particularly interested in high culture. He discovered classical music through the radio and school music classes and began to study the piano at 9.

Polite and organised; the perfect right-hand man

Although he was passionate about music, taping opera broadcasts and attending as many performances as he could, he studied Latin and modern history in college. "I never considered music or opera as a professional opportunity," he said. "It was too far from my background." But he became friendly with a group of musicians who knew Mr Mortier, then the director of the Salzburg Festival in Austria. The friends began to work there as unpaid interns, and Mr Neef became Mr Mortier's assistant.

"He was extremely polite and organised," baritone Thomas Hampson said of Mr Neef. "I remember people saying, 'Everyone should have a right-hand man like Alexander Neef.' " When Mr Mortier left Salzburg in 2001 and became the director of the Ruhrtriennale festival in Germany, Mr Neef followed him there - then to the Paris Opera and, for a brief period, New York City Opera. "All of a sudden, opera and theatre had become a career," Mr Neef said.

Mr Hampson said that there were very few administrators with Mr Neef's encyclopedic knowledge of the repertory and singers. "In his generation, he may be singular," Mr Hampson said. "And he is a lot of fun at dinner." When the Canadian Opera Company approached Mr Neef, then still casting director in Paris, in 2008, it was, he said, the first time he had thought about running an opera house. " Mr Neef has been admired for making Toronto into an international opera destination, cultivating top singers and more ambitious productions.

The position with the Paris Opera is nevertheless on a different scale than Mr Neef's past experiences. He will be overseeing 1,895 full-time employees - as opposed to fewer than 100 in Toronto. In a move that didn't exactly signal confidence, a few days after Mr Neef's arrival in September, the French minister of culture appointed two former company administrators to "diagnose" the current financial, organisational and artistic state of the Opera. But Mr Neef said that he had taken their appointment "in a matter-of-fact way". It was useful, he added, to have others reflecting on the issues that "have been stressed by the pandemic, if not caused by it".

An open letter circulated by five Opera dancers and signed by 400 company employees has called for "an end to the silence around racism". Mr Neef said that he has commissioned an external investigation of these issues, with a report due in mid-December.

"What this will help with is to create a system of accountability and set certain goals," he said.

Manuel Brug, a critic at the German newspaper Die Welt, said the biggest concern about Mr Neef was that he was still quite young and was not an insider in French cultural circles, as Mr Lissner was.

"When you are running the Paris Opera, you have to be close to the politicians and the people with the money," Mr Brug said, adding that another concern was the ballet company, which is led by former star dancer Aurélie Dupont.

"Where are the big choreographers?" Mr Brug said. "Paris needs that." Mr Neef said that he has been discussing projects with Ms Dupont and is interested in commissioning contemporary scores "that might strengthen the relationship between the musicians and the dancers". Ballet, he added, "can be both much more traditional and more modern than opera. And when you slot that in with what the opera does, you can have an incredible arc between traditional and avant-garde." But neither he nor Ms Dupont named any potential choreographic talent, though she added that the two were interested in expanding the ballet's international touring.

Explore what's missing from the modern repertory

Mr Neef was equally circumspect about the programming for his first full season, 2021-22, saying only that it was important to perform both French and international works and that he was interested in exploring what had been missing from the Opera's modern repertory.

"We have never performed an opera by Philip Glass or John Adams," he said.

Between meetings, Mr Neef popped in briefly to the first orchestral rehearsal for the Ring, thanking the hundred-plus assembled musicians for agreeing to be regularly tested for the virus and for working in such a challenging environment.

A mammoth project for any opera house, the Ring was intended to both celebrate the Opera's 350th birthday and as a suitably grand farewell to Philippe Jordan, its departing music director. By then, the project had already been downsized to a concert version for limited audiences; given the new lockdown in France, it will now be performed at the Bastille, the company's larger theatre, without an audience, and each of its four parts broadcast by radio.

"Everything is day to day now," Mr Neef said by phone in early November. "We are rehearsing La Traviata and La Bayadère and holding our breath about whether we will be able to perform for an audience in December." But while it hasn't been the introduction he planned - "I have lost the year of quiet contemplation that I would have had," Mr Neef said he has buckled down. "I am ready to put in a lot of work and do a lot of unpleasant things if I can walk into the theatre, see a performance and feel we, somehow, got it right." NYTIMES

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