France: Opéra National de Paris

The ballet of the Opéra national de Paris (Paris Opera) made global headlines in recent weeks, with excitable stories hitting the tabloids, broadsheets and glossy women’s weeklies. The fêted French institution recently appointed Benjamin Millepied as its new ballet director. The French-born dancer and choreographer made his name at American Ballet Theatre and recently founded a troupe in LA.

But the appointment caught the wider attention of the general public perhaps not for Millepied’s talent, but for his high-profile connections – the dancer is married to Hollywood A-list actress Natalie Portman. And it seems that despite a very purposeful, measured manner of speaking, even the director of the Opéra national de Paris is caught up in the buzz.

‘That’s a very exciting appointment for our house,’ says Nicolas Joel, ‘we’re very pleased that Benjamin is joining our forces. The dancers are thrilled to work with him, and we do feel quite a buzz from the audience I must say.’

Millepied will take the reins from Brigitte Lefèvre when she retires in 2014. Millepied is certainly a talented and well-respected dancemaker, but the decision came as a surprise to some, who expected a promotion from within. Was the appointment a deliberate decision to choose someone outside the company? ‘Fresh eyes and a fresh look is always good,’ says Joel abruptly – a man of few words.

The 2012-13 season is one of celebrations throughout the Paris Opera house. Marking the bicentenaries of Wagner and Verdi, the company will stage a full Ring cycle conducted by music director Philippe Jordan, as well as Verdi’s Falstaff and Requiem. A new Carmen directed by Yves Beaunesne and conducted by Philippe Jordan will star Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci and French mezzo-soprano Karine Deshayes in the title role.

The ballet troupe will celebrate 300 years since Louis XIV established the ancestors of the Paris Opera Ballet and its school. ‘We’re very proud of this heritage,’ says Joel, ‘and are celebrating with a big event at the Palais Garnier, where we invite a number of ballet schools from other countries to join our students and perform on the stage of the Garnier, in a big ballet fête.’

Dancemakers featuring in the current ballet season include Pierre Lacotte, Rudolf Nureyev, Carolyn Carlson and Olivier Debré. Marie-Agnès Gillot, a choreographer and dancer in the troupe, will stage her first creation, and a new Boléro will be unveiled by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Damien Jalet and Marina Abramovic.

As one of the world’s most renowned houses, the Opéra national de Paris is known for programming high-profile operatic stars – but since Joel’s tenure began in August 2009, controversial works have been much less common than under the direction of his predecessor, Gérard Mortier.

Does Joel feel able to experiment without affecting the more loyal, traditional members of his audience? ‘I’m very careful of that,’ he says. ‘We have a very loyal following at the Paris Opera – 800,000 visitors each season. That’s a 94 per cent capacity in our house.We want to maintain that.’

‘Risky [controversial] stagings are always problematic for two reasons,’ he continues. ‘Number one, because they’re risky! And number two because they can’t last over the years. Once the scandal has exploded, it’s not a scandal anymore, so what do you do with that production over the years?’

This careful attitude by no means implies a lack of forward-thinking in Joel’s organisation: social media and live cinema broadcasts in HD are being embraced.

Where Joel excels, perhaps, is in managing staff; he heads a huge team of around 1,600 across the two houses, Palais Garnier and the Opéra Bastille. ‘The Paris Opera has had a notoriously very bumpy union story,’ Joel says – strikes have plagued the organisation for years.

‘But it’s been very quiet since I’ve been in office, so I’m very proud of that. That’s because of the good management of the person you’re talking to! There’s a lot of talking and a lot of listening, it takes a lot of my time.’

Challenges are certainly ahead for Joel – the French Ministry of Culture, which currently injects the institution with €100m each year, has announced a budget reduction of 2.5 per cent in 2013 and 2014. ‘We’re doing our best to live with that, what else can you do?’ he says. ‘We’re trying not to cut jobs, and we’re trying to continue giving the audience the same artistic quality they’re used to. This becomes quite tough. So far the sponsors have stayed very close to the opera, they haven’t moved back, so I believe the money will basically come from the sponsors because we don’t plan to change the price of the tickets.’