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Music World Rings As News of Paris Opera Firing Spreads

Times Music Writer

L’affaire Opera de la Bastille turned snitty Monday when the deposed musical and artistic director of the new Paris opera house and the man who fired him traded public barbs in the international press.

The music world spent the day trying to make sense of the unceremonious sacking of Daniel Barenboim, even as its rumor mill continued to circulate that the Israeli conductor-pianist is the top contender for yet another coveted post: to replace the retiring Sir Georg Solti at the podium of the Chicago Symphony orchestra.

Those rumors remained unconfirmed Monday as Barenboim pleaded for French President Francois Mitterand to settle the crisis at the yet-to-open opera house on the site of Paris’ famed Bastille prison.

“It is for him (Mitterand) to choose between my presence and that of the international artistic community I have gathered and the program of the president of a couture house,” Barenboim told a Paris news conference.

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Barenboim referred to Pierre Berge, chairman of the board of the government-sponsored Opera-Bastille and president of the Yves Saint-Laurent fashion house. Berge dismissed the conductor on Friday, saying he was demanding too much money.

However, Barenboim said Monday he was not prepared to abandon his duties.

Berge, responding on French television, said he would not bring Mitterrand into the dispute because, “it would become a political affair. . . . It is an affair of big bucks.”

Berge maintains Barenboim’s 7-million franc ($1.1-million) annual salary over four years is too much money for the four months a year the 46-year-old conductor would spend in Paris. Berge says the opera house made a counterproposal of 4 million francs ($628,570) a year over two years, but that it was rejected.

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The Opera-Bastille is a multimillion-dollar complex on the Place de la Bastille, site of the prison whose storming launched the French Revolution. The new opera house is meant to replace the ornate Palais Garnier, best-known as the Paris Opera, which will be reserved for dance.

Berge said the house, in keeping with its mission of bringing opera to the people, should provide 220 performances a year, instead of the 150 envisaged by Barenboim. Barenboim’s plan to put on between 150-160 performances a season had been praised by musicians, pointing out that longer rehearsal periods and higher artistic standards are possible with fewer scheduled performances.

In Los Angeles, Ernest Fleischmann, managing director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, commented on the contretemps surrounding a job he twice turned down.

“The essential part of this story is that Berge wanted to take artistic direction away from Daniel Barenboim,” Fleischmann said. “The basic problem is that no one seems to be in charge there.”

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Fleischmann said that, after he had concluded his negotiations to become leader of Opera Bastille, in late 1986, “they offered me the job a second time, in June, 1987.

“At that time, everything was so unplanned, and their expectations so unrealistic, I turned it down again. They were talking about putting on 250 performances a year, which is just impossible. Look at the current, terrible standards at the Metropolitan Opera--and they don’t put on anything like 250 performances a year (the actual number is closer to 210, according to a Met spokesperson).”

Fleischmann said that the American system of boards of directors running artistic institutions is preferable, in his view, to government-run opera houses.

“The limitations imposed by the French bureaucracy and by politicians wanting to run the opera result in artistic quality sometimes disappearing.”

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American boards of directors, Fleischmann said, “seem to have more respect for artists than either bureaucrats or politicians.”

About Barenboim’s firing, Ian Campbell, general director of San Diego Opera, commented, “Opera companies need to be led by one solitary view. Barenboim has every right as an artistic director to require certain things be done. You don’t hire a dog, and then do the barking yourself.”

Barenboim’s firing prompted Patrice Chereau, stage director for the Bastille Opera’s first production, Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” to resign from the production that Barenboim was to conduct. At the same time, a host of world-class performers--including Pierre Boulez, Jessye Norman, Herbert von Karajan and Sir Georg Solti--sent a petition to Culture Minister Jack Lang saying they might cancel their performances at the Opera-Bastille.

“If Daniel Barenboim is not maintained as artistic and musical director, we regret to inform you that the conditions of our participation in this project are also subject to question,” the petition read.

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In an interview published Sunday in the Paris weekly Le Journal du Dimanche, Berge said he was only 80% sure the opera house could open its first season on Jan. 10, 1990 as scheduled. (The hall is scheduled to open with a gala concert on July 14--the 200th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille.)


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