Chaos reigns over succession at troubled Paris Opera


Paris (AFP)

The troubled Paris Opera appeared to be in a shambles Friday after its incoming director told AFP no one told him he was starting seven months earlier than planned.

Outgoing director Stephane Lissner dropped a bombshell Thursday, saying Europe's biggest opera and ballet company was "on its knees" and he would be leaving seven months early in January.

But his successor Alexander Neef said Friday he knew nothing of Lissner's early exit, and 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 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 to AFP.

"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 -- before taking on the Paris job in July.

- 'Drastic decisions' -

"The COC continues to navigate an extraordinarily challenging time for the performing arts industry and that is where my focus is centred right now," he added.

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.