Strikes Trash New Season at the Paris Opera

Classic Arts Features   Strikes Trash New Season at the Paris Opera
Last Wednesday evening would have been a highlight of New York artist Karen Kilimnik's year, if not for a strike that day by unions representing backstage workers at the Op_ra National de Paris.


The 56-year-old artist, well known for her engaging in-your-face whimsy, did the set design for the second of two parts of the gala opening night of the Paris Opera Ballet. In this she follows the footsteps of other artists who have created sets for the ballet in Paris (Picasso, Braque, Rouault, Matisse, among others).

Opening night featured a gourmet dinner for donors after the performance in the gilded confines of one of Paris' most visited monuments, the Palais Garnier opera house.

But a strike that day by unions representing backstage workers at the Op_ra National de Paris forced the last minute cancellation the ballet, leaving patrons in black tie or designer gowns milling about and reading the notice posted on the door. Kilimnik took the plane home the next day and American patrons who donated money to underwrite the cost of the new production were wondering if the subsequent performances would unroll as scheduled.

Kilimnik was working with former Bolshoi director and current American Ballet Theater artist-in-residence Alexei Ratmanksy to bring Cesar Franck's symphonic poem "Psych_" to the ballet stage. The first half of the evening was to have been a revival of a classic, "Phdre" with music of Georges Auric and choreographed by Serge Lifar. The artist who did the sets and costumes for that production was Jean Cocteau. The ballet finally was seen on the following scheduled dates and received a warm reception by critics.

Saturday evening the same unions crippled the opera's first new production of the season. Attended by cabinet ministers, famous faces and the usual rows of critics, this headline-making run of Gounod's "Faust" boasted French-born superstar tenor Roberto Alagna in the title role paired with famed soprano Inva Mula.

Sold out soon after tickets went on sale, the opening night was presented in a concert performance. The new production was only to be see on subsequent evenings in the run.

Part of the high anticipation was generated by a press slug-fest between Alagna and veteran conductor Alain Lombard, who quit the production a few days before the opening, dismayed by Alagna's disdain for time schedules. The rising 36-year-old conductor Alain Altinoglu was called in to conduct. The last minute schedule was no problem for him; he conducted Alagna in the same role at the Vienna State Opera some months ago.

During a time of global high unemployment and belt-tightening everywhere, the union representatives are fighting changes in the program that allows a special early retirement due to their "high-stress" employment. Along with firemen and policemen, the eligible age for the special retirement program was changed by the government from 55 to 57 years of age.

In an interview in Tuesday's "Le Figaro" newspaper, Nicholas Joel, in his third year leading the Opera National de Paris, says he is not able to change anything regarding this issue and denounced the strike actions by a minority - a critical minority - to block performances.

He calculates the loss just from the ballet cancellation to be in the order of $800,000. "The Paris Opera is in danger," he declared, and listed other strike warnings that have been issued by the minority unions which include dates in October which were planned for a live broadcast by French television and transmissions to be seen in certain cinemas at the same time. What are his immediate plans? "Explain, re-explain and keep believing in good sense."

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