Turmoil over succession at troubled Paris Opera

by Rana MOUSSAOUI, Fiachra GIBBONS
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Troubled: Opera Garnier, the historic home of Paris Opera

The incoming director of the troubled Paris Opera told AFP Friday that he does not know if will be able to be in place in time to take over from departing director Stephane Lissner

Lissner dropped a bombshell Thursday by saying he was leaving seven months early in January and that Europe's biggest opera and ballet company was "on its knees".

But his successor Alexander Neef -- who was to take over next July -- told AFP that knew nothing of Lissner's early exit until two days ago.

And he cast doubt on whether he would be able to immediately step into his shoes just as the opera faces one of the biggest crises in its 350-year history.

Lissner made headlines on Thursday by saying that the company's two opera houses would not reopen until the end of the year and that it was running out of money, having lost 40 million euros ($45 million) owing to the coronavirus epidemic and a historic two month-long strike.

Dancers and technical staff brought the curtain down on the most lucrative shows of the year last December in a row over pensions reforms.

But German-born Neef, now head of the Canadian Opera Company (COC), said he might not be able to quit the Toronto-based company early to replace Lissner.

"I have not yet had any formal discussions -- either with the Paris Opera or members of our board -- about accelerating the start of my engagement in Paris," he said in a statement.

"Moreover, the ongoing global health crisis makes it difficult to envision how any significant changes to the intended timeline could be accommodated."

Neef said he was "committed" to helping COC, which he has led since 2008, through the coronavirus crisis -- which has pounded the performing arts worldwide.

But in a later interview with AFP, Neef said although he was keen to lead Paris "there has been no time whatsoever to discuss an early departure properly.... This is a very recent information. It will take a while to figure that out.

"It is an evolving situation," he added.

"What we are looking for is to establish on my side of the Atlantic a dialogue on how can we resolve the situation, and then we can take the next step."

- 'Drastic decisions' -

Lissner -- who was credited with helping bring Paris back to the top of the opera tree -- announced his shock early exit Thursday in a series of candid interviews with French media, telling Le Monde daily that "from January I have chosen to step back so there is only one boss on board".

He said the move was aimed at giving Neef a free hand.

Lissner made no bones about the company's parlous finances after the double whammy of strikes and lockdown, with around 100 lost productions including a Wagner "Ring" cycle and artist Marina Abramovic's hugely anticipated "7 Deaths of Maria Callas".

"This is an urgent appeal for help from the state," he told French television.

Lissner said "drastic and immediate decisions" would have to be made to shore up the institution.

Its historic home at the Opera Garnier is to remain dark until New Year's Eve, while Lissner hoped the Bastille Opera would reopen on November 23.

Paris Opera is France's most subsidised performing arts company, with state subsidies making up to 40 percent of its 220 million-euro budget.

Neef, 46, was appointed after a marathon appointment process which ended with a long personal audience with French President Emmanuel Macron.

The German's skill at raising funds from private sponsors and backers was seen as one of the deciding factors.

Troubled: Opera Garnier, the historic home of Paris Opera

Taken by surprise: Canadian Opera director Alexander Neef

On his way out: Paris Opera director Stephane Lissner