Paris Opera Director Alexander Neef Broadens Its Repertory

To have taken over as director of the Paris Opera one year earlier than planned, just as the longest strike in the company’s history was morphing into the worst global pandemic in a century, might reasonably have rattled Alexander Neef.

But if it did, he doesn’t show it. This German impresario, who dresses with elegance and speaks with care, is not, shall we say, operatic in his manner.

In fact, even at the suggestion that he was offered a poisoned chalice when he took over in 2020, Mr. Neef, 48, did not take the bait. “It hasn’t been a bad ride,” he said in a video interview. “In the end, you accept and then you assume.”

One reason that he was perhaps not unnerved by the challenge was that he had already worked at the Paris Opera, as casting director for the director Gerard Mortier from 2004 to 2008. “A lot of the staff was there when I was last there, and people had some kind of idea who they were dealing with,” he noted.

But another reason was that, faced with the cancellation of hundreds of performances, the French government stepped in with an enormous package of emergency aid worth 86 million euros, or nearly $95 million. And it was no small asset that Mr. Neef was chosen for the job by President Emmanuel Macron himself. “A lot of my colleagues who were appointed by him feel that there is an investment in our success,” Mr. Neef said.

Still, when it comes to opera managers, there is no consensus on how to measure success. Are they applauded for using their fund-raising skills to help balance the books? Are they remembered for putting on large productions featuring star performers with little concern for the cost? Clearly audiences are more interested in what takes place onstage than in the vagaries of opera house budgets, but just as clearly, they are related.

For the public, then, the least exciting aspect of Mr. Neef’s strategy is to stem the Paris Opera’s losses by the 2024-25 season, by which time emergency government support will probably no longer be provided. With this in mind, and with about 250 of the 1,500 members of the company’s staff expected to retire by 2025, he said he hoped not to have to replace them all, thereby saving 50 to 100 salaries.

But how its limited resources are used also serves to determine an opera house’s standing. And here again, Mr. Neef has some innovative, albeit simple, ideas. For instance, he prefers not to have the Paris Opera’s two large theaters — the Palais Garnier and the Bastille Opera — resemble “permanent festivals,” with splashy productions that are never revived.

“Every one of my predecessors produced a new ‘La Traviata,’ which is rather unusual because that means a new ‘La Traviata’ every five years,” he said. “I think the strategy is that we create a ‘La Traviata’ we can keep for a longer period, and in that case we can create many other things that are not in our repertory.

“Now we’re rehearsing Massenet’s ‘Cendrillon,’ which has never been in the Paris Opera repertory,” he went on, “or we’re doing Bernstein’s ‘A Quiet Place’ for the very first time. It’s not about being cautious, it’s about broadening the repertory and not investing in a production that you do once and never again.”

That approach was apparent this season, Mr. Neef’s first, which ends in July, and in the 2022-23 season, which he announced this week. It also embraces an interesting change in emphasis wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Over the past few decades,” he said, “there has been a transfer of power from the institution to the audience, which has been reinforced by the pandemic. I think audiences have a much larger awareness today 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 audiences is no easy task. “I always say that we have 2,700 seats at the Bastille and we have 2,700 audiences every night,” he said, adding that what counts is how people interact with the production. “I think indifference is our biggest enemy, because when people are bored at the opera or they don’t really know why they came, that is way more dangerous than a strong negative reaction.”

As it happens, experience shows that Paris audiences quite often heckle directors and designers, while the reaction to lead singers can go from polite applause to wild, cheering enthusiasm. And the talent of the singers seems to count more than their fame, which is no doubt lucky because, as Mr. Neef noted, “it’s not what it used to be 20 years ago when you could literally rely on certain names to fill the theater.”

One name that has traditionally sold tickets is that of the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, who has been excluded from the Metropolitan Opera of New York for two seasons for not repudiating President Vladimir V. Putin following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the published 2022-23 season of the Paris Opera, however, Ms. Netrebko is still down to sing the role of Donna Leonora in “La Forza del Destino” in December.

“We printed the program before the invasion, and we’ll evaluate the situation between now and November to see if it’s possible for her to appear or not,” Mr. Neef said. “It’s a tricky situation. It’s not the government’s position, and it’s 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 cannot work with you.”

As it happens, a production of Mussorgsky’s “Khovanshchina” with a largely Russian-speaking cast ended its Paris run six days before the invasion, while lead singers in a production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” with 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 they didn’t know exactly what was going on and they’d like to be invisible,” Mr. Neef said.

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 wildly premature. But it could include an initiative he is planning for next season: Taking his inspiration from many German opera houses, he plans to create a troupe of 15 to 20 professional singers who will be on salary (and not work as freelancers, as most soloists do) and will take on all but the biggest roles.

Mr. Neef said he believed that greater job stability had become more appealing to cast members over the past two years. “There’s a lot of interest in being resident in one city,” he said, “either because you have a family, or the attraction of going to a new city every few weeks is not as high as it used to be.”

So, just as some lead dancers in the Paris Opera Ballet Company have fan clubs, it may not be long before once-unknown members of the new troupe have an ardent following of their own.

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