PARIS — Wearing a darkish blue go well with, masked, and with a component in his hair so straight you could possibly 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 offer its first efficiency since strikes had closed the Opera’s two theaters final December. But Paris had simply been declared a high-risk coronavirus zone — the most recent 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 finances of 220 million euros ($261.three 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.
Instead, Mr. Neef had walked straight into an annus horribilis. Strikes from December to March shut down 84 performances, opening up a finances 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 in the press about the generous package — round €81 million — of state assist to the Opera, awarded earlier than the outcomes of an audit into its funds.
Mr. Neef, 46, the overall director of the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto and the inventive director of Santa Fe Opera, was supposed to go away these positions and take over in Paris subsequent yr. But in June his predecessor, Stéphane Lissner, all of the sudden 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 would start on Sept. 1,” he stated 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 stay opera and ballet at the least by November.
“When we saw the numbers of new cases, you can unfortunately see these things coming,” Mr. Neef stated after the presidential announcement. “We were in rather a good spot, and the new lockdown drove a wedge into all our plans.”
The scenario is undoubtedly grim. But 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 beneath his mentor, the famend impresario Gerard Mortier. His insider’s information of the establishment was essential, Mr. Neef stated, in giving him confidence that he may deal with “one of the most complex jobs in this field.”
“I thought, would I like to go back and work with these people?” he stated. “The answer was yes.”
Mr. Neef’s present relationships on the labyrinthine, notoriously political firm might be essential in shifting on from what ended as a frosty stalemate between the Opera (or at the least its highly effective labor unions) and Mr. Lissner.
“When we heard he was going to arrive earlier, we weren’t just happy; we were hugely relieved,” stated Fréderic Laroque, a violinist within the firm’s orchestra. “Lissner was at the end of his tether, which is understandable, and you had the impression that the administration was beaten down. Nothing was happening.”
Mr. Neef was born within the small city of Rosswälden, Germany, close to Stuttgart, and grew up in a household that was not significantly fascinated with excessive tradition. He found classical music by the radio and college music lessons, and commenced to check the piano at 9.
Although he was enthusiastic about music, taping opera broadcasts and attending as many performances as he may, he studied Latin and trendy historical past in faculty.
“I never considered music or opera as a professional opportunity,” he stated. “It was too far from my background.”
But he grew to become pleasant with a gaggle of musicians who knew Mr. Mortier, then the director of the Salzburg Festival in Austria. The associates started to work there as unpaid interns, and Mr. Neef grew to become Mr. Mortier’s assistant.
“He was extremely polite and organized,” the baritone Thomas Hampson stated 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 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 City Opera. “All of a sudden, opera and theater had become a career,” Mr. Neef stated.
Mr. Hampson stated that there have been only a few directors with Mr. Neef’s encyclopedic information of the repertory and singers. “In his generation, he may be singular,” Mr. Hampson stated. “And he is a lot of fun at dinner.”
When the Canadian Opera Company approached Mr. Neef, then nonetheless casting director in Paris, in 2008, it was, he stated, the primary time he had considered working an opera home. “I thought there was no harm in engaging in that conversation,” he stated, “and pretty much the same thing happened in Paris. You get asked, you think about it, you talk about it. If you want it too much, it’s perhaps doomed.”
Mr. Neef has been admired for making Toronto into a world opera vacation spot, cultivating high singers and extra formidable productions.
“He was very confident in his desires and his concepts, and you felt it was coming from a real knowledge of opera,” stated Rufus Wainwright, whose opera “Hadrian” premiered in Toronto in 2018. “Any disagreements with him are very upfront and clear. He is very dispassionate when he is angry, and very passionate when he is excited. He can put his foot down when running the institution, but when encouraging a composer, he can travel in the clouds with you a bit.”
When the disputes had been between the work’s creators, Mr. Wainwright added, Mr. Neef “would stay off for a bit, then swoop in and fix everything, like a superhero.”
Despite his status and credentials, Mr. Neef wasn’t extensively thought of a favourite for the Paris place. But after a 45-minute interview with Mr. Macron, he was provided the job.
“Alexander fits with the profile of what Macron wants in France,” stated Matthew Epstein, a veteran artist supervisor and opera home administrator. “He is artistically worldly, completely au courant with the North American side of the business, and has been in Europe regularly. And he is young: He could do the job for another 20 years if he wanted to.”
Mr. Epstein added that whereas the Paris Opera will be “a poisoned chalice” for newcomers, Mr. Neef’s prior expertise there ought to serve him nicely. “He has huge problems of finance because of the pandemic, huge labor difficulties to overcome, but I suspect he will be good at that,” he stated. “He is very fair, and he doesn’t shirk a difficult conversation.”
The place is however on a special scale than Mr. Neef’s previous experiences. He can 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 culture appointed two former company administrators to “diagnose” the present monetary, organizational and inventive state of the Opera.
But Mr. Neef stated that he had taken their appointment “in a matter-of-fact way.” It was helpful, he added, to have others reflecting on the problems that “have been stressed by the pandemic, if not caused by it.”
An open letter circulated by 5 Opera dancers and signed by 400 firm workers has referred to as for “an end to the silence around racism.” Mr. Neef stated that he has commissioned an exterior investigation of those points, with a report due in mid-December.
“What this will help with is to create a system of accountability and set certain goals,” he stated.
Manuel Brug, a critic on the German newspaper Die Welt, stated the most important concern about Mr. Neef was that he was nonetheless fairly younger 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 stated, including that one other concern was the ballet firm, which is led by the former star dancer Aurélie Dupont.
“Where are the big choreographers?” Mr. Brug stated. “Paris needs that.”
Mr. Neef stated that he has been discussing initiatives with Ms. Dupont and is fascinated with commissioning up to date 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 expertise, although she added that the 2 had been fascinated with increasing the ballet’s worldwide touring. Mr. Neef was equally circumspect concerning the programming for his first full season, 2021-22, saying solely that it was essential to carry out each French and worldwide works, and that he was fascinated with exploring what had been lacking from the Opera’s trendy repertory.
“We have never performed an opera by Philip Glass or John Adams,” he stated.
Sarah Billinghurst, the former assistant general manager for inventive affairs on the Metropolitan Opera and a outstanding philanthropist, stated Mr. Neef “has very much got his finger on the pulse of who is new and interesting, and he understands that it’s necessary to have international stars in Paris.”
“Gerard Mortier loved provoking people, but I don’t think that interests Alexander,” she added. “He wants to make you think, show you something 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 think sometimes people underestimate him because he is quiet and to the point and not flamboyant,” Ms. Billinghurst stated. “But he has backbone and solidity and a very firm belief in his taste and decisions.”
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 usually examined for the virus, and for working in such a difficult setting.
A mammoth venture for any opera home, the “Ring” was meant to each have a good time the Opera’s 350th birthday and as a suitably grand farewell to Philippe Jordan, its departing music director. By then, the venture had already been downsized to a live performance model for restricted audiences; given the brand new lockdown in France, it would 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.
“Everything is day-to-day now,” Mr. Neef stated by cellphone 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 whereas it hasn’t been the introduction he deliberate — “I have lost the year of quiet contemplation that I would have had,” Mr. Neef stated — 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 theater, see a performance and feel we somehow got it right.”