The Op_ra national de Paris operates two houses — the ornate 19th-century Palais Garnier and the modern Op_ra-Bastille — presenting full seasons of opera and ballet with a budget of approximately €160 million and a staff of nearly 1,500.
Joel succeeds G_rard Mortier, who took the reins at the Paris Op_ra in 2004 following a notably contentious term as artistic director of the Salzburg Festival. Mortier, like other high-level government appointees, is required by law to retire at age 65. He reaches that age in November 2008; the French Council of Ministers has issued a special decree allowing him to remain in office through the end of the 2008-09 season, which he has already begun to plan.
Born on February 6, 1953 in Paris, Nicolas Joel began his career at age 20 as an assistant stage director at the Op_ra du Rhin in Strasbourg; he worked in similar positions at that house, at San Francisco Opera and at the Bayreuth and Salzburg Festivals until 1978. The young Joel did not lack for artistic ambition: according to his biography on the Capitole du Toulouse website, the first production he directed himself was Wagner's Ring cycle, for the Op_ra du Rhin and the Op_ra de Lyon. In 1981, for his U.S. debut, he directed Plšcido Domingo and Shirley Verrett in Samson et Dalila in San Francisco.
Joel has subsequently staged productions in some of the greatest opera houses and festivals in the U.S. and Europe (Vienna State Opera, Aix-en-Provence Festival, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Teatro Col‹n in Buenos Aires, Teatro Real in Madrid, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, etc.). He made his La Scala debut in 1991 with Puccini's La rondine and his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1996 with a new production of Andrea Ch_nier starring Luciano Pavarotti.
In 1990 Joel took over the artistic direction of the Capitole de Toulouse, "which he has made into one of the great operatic stages of Europe," according to Donnedieu de Vabres. Joel attracted such international stars as Ren_e Fleming, Susan Graham and Roberto Alagna to what many of the opera world's patricians had considered (when they thought of it at all) an out-of-the-way provincial house. He also introduced Toulouse audiences to such modern masterpieces as Janšcek's Katya Kabanovš and Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.
Some observers, reports Bloomberg News, are surprised at the French government's choice of a stage director for the Paris Op_ra directorship, rather than an administrator such as Mortier and his predecessor Hugues Gall. Yet Joel's candidacy had some important supporters, reports Agence France-Presse, particularly among those who found Mortier's preference for provocative stage directors difficult to take. Joel has a reputation for "a certain classicism" in his stagings, according to the agency — and for high-quality casts.
"Nicolas Joel is a very great professional whose mission in Paris will be to reconcile, for dance as much as for opera, the concern for best serving the [classic] repertoire and welcoming new work with the sense of openness," Donnedieu de Vabres told AFP. "He will offer programming respectful of the repertoire — which does not mean that he will not allow directors to present their own vision of the classic works." The culture minister added that the next director of the Op_ra "will not place himself in contradiction with anyone and everyone."
This was an obvious reference to Mortier, who has at times in his career seemed like a professional provocateur, especially at Salzburg. (His final production at the Festival, a particularly infamous Fledermaus staged by the now-notorious Hans Neuenfels, often came across like a large and expensive middle finger flashed at the Viennese establishment.)
Yet, as both Bloomberg News and Opera News Online observe, it is no small thing to have managed the Paris Op_ra with little or no labor unrest, as Mortier has done and more than one of his predecessors failed to do.
Joel, for his part, told AFP that "All aesthetics ought to be presented at a house like the Op_ra de Paris. But the basis of everything is the understanding of the music, which must dictate every decision."
The new director-designate will remain in his Toulouse post until he takes the reins fully in Paris in 2009. He told Le Figaro, "I don't intend to lose interest in the Capitole and I definitely remain available to the mayor [of Toulouse] for envisaging the future."