PARIS — Wearing a dark blue suit, masked, and with a part in his hair so straight you could use it as a ruler, Alexander Neef, the new director of the Paris Opera, was holding a meeting in his airy office. It was Oct. 5, the day the company’s eminent ballet was to give its first performance since strikes had closed the Opera’s two theaters last December. But Paris had just been declared a high-risk coronavirus zone — the latest sign that normalcy still lay far in the future.
Mr. Neef was just five weeks into the job leading the Opera, among the most prestigious positions on the global cultural scene, overseeing an annual operating budget of 220 million euros ($261.3 million). There should have been no better time to start than this, the company’s 350th anniversary, which was to have culminated this fall with a splashy new production 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 budget deficit of €45 million. Then the coronavirus began to spread, leading to lockdowns and months more canceled performances. An open letter has circulated about institutional racism at the company. There have been complaints in the press about the generous package — around €81 million — of state aid to the Opera, awarded before the results of an audit into its finances.
Mr. Neef, 46, the general director of the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto and the artistic director of Santa Fe Opera, was supposed to leave those positions and take over in Paris next year. But in June his predecessor, Stéphane Lissner, suddenly announced he’d be leaving early for a fresh start at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, Italy. Blindsided by this news and now juggling multiple jobs on two continents, Mr. Neef would have to go it alone.
“I knew on Aug. 5 that I would start on Sept. 1,” he said coolly over lunch.
And all this before the second coronavirus lockdown, which President Emmanuel Macron of France announced in mid-October and which put an end to dreams of live opera and ballet at least through November.
“When we saw the numbers of new cases, you can unfortunately see these things coming,” Mr. Neef said after the presidential announcement. “We were in rather a good spot, and the new lockdown drove a wedge into all our plans.”
The situation is undoubtedly grim. But Mr. Neef is at least helped by the fact that he isn’t new to the Opera: From 2004 to 2008, he worked here as casting director under his mentor, the renowned impresario Gerard Mortier. His insider’s knowledge of the institution was important, Mr. Neef said, in giving him confidence that he could cope with “one of the most complex jobs in this field.”
“I thought, would I like to go back and work with these people?” he said. “The answer was yes.”
Mr. Neef’s existing relationships at the labyrinthine, notoriously political company may well be crucial in moving on from what ended as a frosty stalemate between the Opera (or at least its powerful labor unions) and Mr. Lissner.
“When we heard he was going to arrive earlier, we weren’t just happy; we were hugely relieved,” said Fréderic Laroque, a violinist in the company’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 in the small town of Rosswälden, Germany, near Stuttgart, and grew up in a family that was not particularly interested in high culture. He discovered classical music through the radio and school music classes, and began to study the piano at 9.
Although he was passionate about music, taping opera broadcasts and attending as many performances as he could, he studied Latin and modern history in college.
“I never considered music or opera as a professional opportunity,” he said. “It was too far from my background.”
But he became friendly with a group of musicians who knew Mr. Mortier, then the director of the Salzburg Festival in Austria. The friends began to work there as unpaid interns, and Mr. Neef became Mr. Mortier’s assistant.
“He was extremely polite and organized,” the baritone Thomas Hampson said 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 became the director of the Ruhrtriennale festival in Germany, Mr. Neef followed him there — then to the Paris Opera and, for a brief period, New York City Opera. “All of a sudden, opera and theater had become a career,” Mr. Neef said.
Mr. Hampson said that there were very few administrators with Mr. Neef’s encyclopedic knowledge of the repertory and singers. “In his generation, he may be singular,” Mr. Hampson said. “And he is a lot of fun at dinner.”
When the Canadian Opera Company approached Mr. Neef, then still casting director in Paris, in 2008, it was, he said, the first time he had thought about running an opera house. “I thought there was no harm in engaging in that conversation,” he said, “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 an international opera destination, cultivating top singers and more ambitious productions.
“He was very confident in his desires and his concepts, and you felt it was coming from a real knowledge of opera,” said 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 were 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 reputation and credentials, Mr. Neef wasn’t widely considered a favorite for the Paris position. But after a 45-minute interview with Mr. Macron, he was offered the job.
“Alexander fits with the profile of what Macron wants in France,” said Matthew Epstein, a veteran artist manager and opera house 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 while the Paris Opera can be “a poisoned chalice” for newcomers, Mr. Neef’s prior experience there should serve him well. “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 said. “He is very fair, and he doesn’t shirk a difficult conversation.”
The position is nevertheless on a different scale than Mr. Neef’s past experiences. He will be overseeing 1,895 full-time employees — as opposed to fewer than 100 in Toronto. In a move that didn’t exactly signal confidence, a few days after Mr. Neef’s arrival in September the French minister of culture appointed two former company administrators to “diagnose” the current financial, organizational and artistic state of the Opera.
But Mr. Neef said that he had taken their appointment “in a matter-of-fact way.” It was useful, he added, to have others reflecting on the issues that “have been stressed by the pandemic, if not caused by it.”
An open letter circulated by five Opera dancers and signed by 400 company employees has called for “an end to the silence around racism.” Mr. Neef said that he has commissioned an external investigation of these issues, with a report due in mid-December.
“What this will help with is to create a system of accountability and set certain goals,” he said.
Manuel Brug, a critic at the German newspaper Die Welt, said the biggest concern about Mr. Neef was that he was still quite young 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 said, adding that another concern was the ballet company, which is led by the former star dancer Aurélie Dupont.
“Where are the big choreographers?” Mr. Brug said. “Paris needs that.”
Mr. Neef said that he has been discussing projects with Ms. Dupont and is interested in commissioning contemporary 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 talent, though she added that the two were interested in expanding the ballet’s international touring. Mr. Neef was equally circumspect about the programming for his first full season, 2021-22, saying only that it was important to perform both French and international works, and that he was interested in exploring what had been missing from the Opera’s modern repertory.
“We have never performed an opera by Philip Glass or John Adams,” he said.
Sarah Billinghurst, the former assistant general manager for artistic affairs at the Metropolitan Opera and a prominent philanthropist, said 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 meeting to another throughout the day in early October, he listened more than he spoke, sometimes only intervening with a question or a brief, reassuring comment. “I think sometimes people underestimate him because he is quiet and to the point and not flamboyant,” Ms. Billinghurst said. “But he has backbone and solidity and a very firm belief in his taste and decisions.”
Between meetings, Mr. Neef popped in briefly to the first orchestral rehearsal for the “Ring,” thanking the hundred-plus assembled musicians for agreeing to be regularly tested for the virus, and for working in such a challenging environment.
A mammoth project for any opera house, the “Ring” was intended to both celebrate the Opera’s 350th birthday and as a suitably grand farewell to Philippe Jordan, its departing music director. By then, the project had already been downsized to a concert version for limited audiences; given the new lockdown in France, it will now be performed at the Bastille, the company’s larger theater, without an audience, and each of its four parts broadcast by radio.
“Everything is day-to-day now,” Mr. Neef said by phone 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 while it hasn’t been the introduction he planned — “I have lost the year of quiet contemplation that I would have had,” Mr. Neef said — 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.”