This is the story of an opera director who suffers the operatic equivalent of the seven plagues of Egypt: His predecessor has gone off to Italy and handed over to him a year earlier than expected, his Ministry is putting pressure on him to reform the institution, a pandemic is preventing it from opening its doors to the public, the newspapers publish new polemics every day – on the (far) right about the way his institution deals with diversity issues, on the left about the salary of its future musical director... Will he be able to save his theatre in the storm?

Alexander Neef
© E. Bauer / Opéra national de Paris

It would make a great opera buffa synopsis, even more fantastical than Donizetti's Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali. But such is the real life of Alexander Neef, director of the Opéra national de Paris since 1st September, who turned up with the punctuality of a Swiss watch for the exclusive video conference that he has kindly granted us. Let's skip the strange sensation of having the head of the Grande Boutique delivered to my home; what is most striking in these times of crisis is the combination of patience, extreme professionalism and unfailing serenity that imbues this former member of the Parisian company, familiar with the workings of the institution since his position as casting director between 2004 and 2008. During the three quarters of an hour of our interview will last, the voice remains calm, the smile polite, the speech mastered, with barely a few words misplaced under the slightly singing accent of this native of West Germany.

Nothing seems to frighten Alexander Neef. Jumping on a plane to Paris when he should have stayed at the Canadian Opera Company for a few months of transition between his two jobs? The decision comes down largely to a simple consideration of time zones: "When I was in Toronto, to catch up with the day's work in Paris, I sometimes had to get up very early, around 4am, which was a bit of a hassle," he explains, in a level-headed voice. Whereas when I'm in Paris, the workday in Toronto starts around 3pm, and even though it can go on into the evening it's still much more manageable." Of course, there were other factors that helped him to take the plunge and embark on the Parisian adventure earlier than planned. "I did a quick count when I was appointed and there are a good 50 people, just in administration, who were there at the time I left my job as casting director in 2008. Add to that musicians from the orchestra, chorus members, ballet dancers... If I dared to take on the challenge, in the current situation and arriving a year earlier than planned, it was because I already felt comfortable with the people. Preparing a project with people you already know, with whom you have already worked, allows you to start much faster..."

"Much faster". That's something to raise the eyebrows, given that the French cultural scene has been at a standstill for months. But Neef does not despair. When I ask him if he really thinks he will be able to reopen the doors of the opera house before the end of the season, he's not admitting defeat: "We are still hopeful! We've just cancelled public activities for April, but then we have two and a half months left, with four opera productions and at least two or three ballet programmes, so the volume of activity is still relatively high." While some of his colleagues are clearly fed up, Neef is aware that he is extremely dependent on the exceptional support that the State is willing to give him. "I can't tell a lie, of course we'd like the houses to be open. But we still feel well supported. Our model is almost 60% dependent on our own resources, which is not the case for all institutions. In this situation, where we are facing a sudden break in activity and a very significant lack of revenue, we needed the support that the State granted us for the year 2020." This does not prevent him from pointing out a discrepancy: "We are going through a period where the government's decision-making cycle, of two or three weeks, is not aligned with our need to take decisions much further upstream. For us, a preparation cycle, even for an existing production, is around four weeks, and six weeks for a new production – not including technical preparation."

Ermonela Jaho (Marguerite) and stage director Tobias Kratzer rehearsing Faust
© E. Bauer / Opéra national de Paris

The solution has been to reset expectations. "We took things in hand by trying to find a reason for each activity we maintain. For the most part, we are making recordings, either for our platform (Opéra chez soi), or with a partner – ARTE Concert, France Télévisions, France Musique. If we have the certainty of a recording, it is worth it! Moreover, as far as new productions are concerned, we are almost obliged to create them, because they have to fit into the repertoire for the future." He takes the example of Tobias Kratzer's Faust, recently broadcast on France 5, which will allow its future revival to take place in the best possible conditions. One does not only anticipate in the context of the current situation but also for future seasons which are already planned. This is the complexity of opera! This complexity sometimes escapes opera and ballet lovers, who are quick to get annoyed, as when the Opera gives a Young Dancers evening behind closed doors and not captured on video. "You just have to be a little patient," he says with a smile. This Young Dancers' evening was prepared for an audience. Sometimes social networks tend to get excited very quickly!"

Whatever the subject, controversies don't seem to bother Alexander Neef. The identity of the new music director and his allegedly high salary? We are well aware of our responsibilities," he says politely but firmly. We love controversy, especially in Paris." I understand that it's only a matter of time before Gustavo Dudamel, whom the rumour mill has named as Philippe Jordan's successor for some while now, is made official, even if Neef isn't ready to give the name of the Venezuelan maestro: "We are waiting for the right moment to announce it. It's like the season announcements. It's not because the season is not ready that we don't announce it! At the moment, the context is a little less joyful," he comments, not without euphemism. He also remains tight-lipped about his future programming: while he admits that a Ring Cycle is "in preparation with Calixto Bieito, we are starting the casting" and that this time, the adventure will take place without Philippe Jordan ("but we are not ruling out Philippe's return at all, we are on very good terms!"), he refuses to either confirm nor deny the participation of the future musical director.

Lise Davidsen (Sieglinde) and Philippe Jordan rehearsing Die Walküre, December 2020
© Elisa Haberer / Opéra national de Paris

Another controversy is the question of diversity, the subject of a report that was violently criticised even before its publication. Here again, Alexander Neef does not see the problem: "I am not interested in ideology, I am a theatre director. I'm interested in making my theatre work with today's artists for today's audience. For me, the real danger is if the artists tell me that a work means nothing to them, that they no longer know how to perform it today. We are in charge of a heritage. How do we keep it alive? Is there a context that needs to be explained? If we want to remain at the heart of society, a society that is changing, we have to look at how it affects us. That's why we launched this initiative, which follows on from the manifesto launched at the end of August by a group of our employees: to lead this debate and to find our answers, for us, today. "

For Alexander Neef considers the Opera above all not as a museum of fixed works but as a place of live performance, necessarily contemporary. "The works accumulate history in the course of their existence, and we always find new things in them because our viewpoint changes. Obviously, we try to be historically informed, but we are all people of today, we cannot escape this reality – it is valid for the director, the singers, but it is the same for the audience! We cannot ignore the experiences of our daily lives." If the Parisian director thinks like this, it may be due to his first experience in an opera house as a child in the 1980s in Stuttgart: "It was a performance of Fidelio, directed by Yuri Lyubimov. I remember that production very well. The whole auditorium looked like a prison: there were men in black coats in front of all the doors, they opened them, slammed them shut... A guest from the GDR was conducting, it was indicated in the programme. Politically, it was interesting! All this made a strong impression on me... That was the point of no return. "

Alexander Neef
© E. Bauer / Opéra national de Paris

An opera with locked doors: there's a concept that would still be relevant today. Alexander Neef may not fear desperately for his theatre, but he is worried about the singers. "After a year of the pandemic, it is quite striking: many singers are no longer used to singing! Every week we hold auditions. The artists are much more nervous than usual, they sometimes really need to get their act together. For them, just singing in front of someone is such a shock! "If any opera singers are reading this, they can rest assured: Alexander Neef is clearly not the most cruel of judges. "Even in normal circumstances, an audition is always the worst way of meeting an artist. There are many great singers who, when they auditioned at a very young age, were very bad! Sometimes you just have to sing the same aria again, I often suggest that to young artists: 'Do it again, sing with your voice, don't try to impress me!' It's always extremely instructive." The Fidelio fan goes on to describe his taste for working sessions with artists, which are "always very enriching".

Alexander Neef goes further: to support young singers and help the Opéra de Paris model evolve, he is working to (re)form an ensemble of soloists within the house. "The idea is really to create a solid economic and artistic basis for singers who have been hit by the crisis and have lost all their contracts for a year. We have recently given an assignment to a senior French civil servant who, in another life, was an opera singer, in an ensemble! He is going to work with our teams to lay the foundations of an ensemble – legal, organisational, artistic foundations – we want to present a complete project in a few months, so that we can launch it for the 2022/2023 season." The ensemble will draw on young singers from the Opera Academy, but not exclusively: "We are not going to do anything dogmatic. We'll have to categorise the types of voices we need... It will be a bit like the German model, it will be an ensemble where singers can stay for a few years to establish themselves and start a career."

Behind the aloof and polite façade of a cool-headed director, one senses that Alexander Neef, despite the pandemic, is not the kind of man to shut himself away in his ivory tower. Although the Ministry of Culture urged him to reform his institution as soon as he took office, he is above all concerned with getting through the crisis unscathed with all his employees: "Since my arrival in September, I have encountered a very strong desire on the part of the staff to maintain their activity. The three artistic collectives (ballet, chorus and orchestra) have volunteered to be tested once a week, which has ensured our activity between September and now. The house has really shown a remarkable investment in its public service mission. I have enormous respect for the staff who have held it together in this way."

The modular hall project
© Henning Larsen

In order to preserve his forces, the director seems ready to put into question the project to launch the third hall of the Opera, initially planned for 2023 but already postponed to 2024. Might the project even be scrapped altogether? "In the current circumstances, it is indeed part of the dialogue that we will have with the supervisory authorities on the evolution of the Opera." For the captain of the house, the priorities are clear: "like everyone else, we are in a situation where daily survival comes before future planning. And, frankly, this is how I think it should be."

Translated from French by David Karlin