Gustavo Dudamel is Paris Opera’s next music director. What does this mean for L.A.?
Gustavo Dudamel will become music director of Paris Opera beginning Aug. 1, the company is expected to announce Friday morning, and Los Angeles will share the conductor with the City of Light for at least five years.
Dudamel, who remains artistic and music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, will join one of the world’s largest and most celebrated opera companies. Paris Opera extends across the city in two grand opera houses: the historic Palais Garnier and its main theater, the modern Opéra Bastille. The institution includes a famed ballet company and has a long reputation for progressive staging as well as for political shenanigans.
For Dudamel, whose L.A. Phil contract runs until 2026, the six-season appointment in Paris further solidifies his connection with Europe. Since marrying Spanish actress Maria Valverde in 2017, the Venezuela-born Dudamel has taken Spanish citizenship and divided his time between L.A. and Madrid. He also has continued to enjoy favored status with Europe’s elite orchestras, such as the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic, as well as with such stellar opera companies as La Scala in Milan and the Vienna State Opera.
It’s not an anomaly for a symphony orchestra and an opera company to share a music director. Yannick Nézet-Séguin heads the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Antonio Pappano has been going back and forth between London’s Royal Opera and Rome’s Santa Cecilia Orchestra (which he will soon exchange for the London Symphony Orchestra). Fabio Luisi’s carbon footprint is measured by commutes between Zurich Opera, the Danish National Symphony and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
In fact, given Dudamel’s increasing operatic activity, which has included operas as well as opera-themed programs at Walt Disney Concert Hall along with operas in concert at the Hollywood Bowl, a position with a major opera company has been all but inevitable. He happens to have just finished conducting Verdi’s “Otello” in Barcelona this month.
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“I am incredibly inspired and excited by Dudamel’s appointment in Paris,” L.A. Phil Chief Executive Chad Smith said in an interview, taking great pride that “the L.A. Phil provided Dudamel with the opportunity to grow into a major opera conductor.”
“With Paris as a place where Dudamel can delve more deeply into opera, it creates a perfect balance with his orchestral home in L.A.,” Smith added.
Dudamel will remain here at least through the 2025-26 season, Smith emphasized, and the conductor will not change the number of weeks he spends in L.A. Dudamel’s involvement in Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, which is opening a Frank Gehry-designed center in Inglewood this year and contemplating another one in South Gate along the L.A. River, should only increase.
“The appointment,” Smith said, “opens up the possibility for real collaboration with Paris Opera.”
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Dudamel has had little experience with the Paris Opera, or the city, for that matter. His only appearance with the company was in 2017, conducting an oddball new production of “La Bohème” that launched Puccini’s fin de siècle Parisian bohemians as astronauts into outer space. But in his planned comments for a press conference Friday, Dudamel mentioned ideas based on his experience with opera and ballet while at the L.A. Phil. These include introducing the Paris company to John Adams, whose opera “The Gospel According to the Other Mary” Dudamel premiered in 2012. He also will announce a ballet commission from Thomas Adès, whose ballet score for “Inferno” Dudamel premiered with the L.A. Phil two years ago. Among the directors Dudamel plans to work with in Paris is Netia Jones, with whom he collaborated for the L.A. Phil production of Oliver Knussen’s “Where the Wild Things Are.”
Radio France, clearly anticipating the appointment, ran five 90-minute programs on Dudamel in the last week of January, ostensibly in celebration of the conductor’s 40th birthday. Dudamel’s appointment by Paris Opera’s new general director, Alexander Neef, clearly marks a new vision for a company that traces its beginnings to the birth of the Paris Opera Academy in 1669.
Dudamel in Paris, moreover, adds a new chapter to L.A.’s curious history with Paris Opera that began in 1985. That’s when the L.A. Phil’s legendary executive director at the time, Ernest Fleischmann, suddenly announced that he had accepted the post of head of Paris Opera — only to change his mind 10 days later. Fleischmann got wind of the political nightmare that he would face in attempting to realize his visionary ideals.
Shortly before that, Fleischmann had appointed the young Korean conductor Myung-whun Chung as an assistant conductor to then-L.A. Phil Music Director Carlo Maria Giulini. In 1989, Chung became the Paris Opera’s music director for its new Opéra Bastille, which opened in 1990. He was succeeded by James Conlon, who became Los Angeles Opera’s music director two years after leaving Paris in 2004. That’s when yet another visionary, Gerard Mortier, took over the company and set out to make Paris Opera an avatar of the avant-garde. Among Mortier’s first projects in Paris was a staging of the L.A. Phil’s “Tristan Project,” a collaboration between Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen, director Peter Sellars and video artist Bill Viola. That has led to an ongoing relationship between Salonen and the company.
Still, Dudamel steps into a huge challenge for even a protean conductor. Paris Opera stages about 30 operas a year and gives nearly as many performances as there are days in the year. If he reaches out to predecessors Chung, Conlon and the newly departed Philippe Jordan, Dudamel will surely get an earful about French operatic politics.
Impressive as the government-supported company’s $270 million budget may be, when Stéphane Lissner resigned last year as head of the company, he described it as financially “on its knees.”
But a new regime brings new promise. Dudamel has rare versatility along with the ability to learn new scores with amazing swiftness, as he has demonstrated in L.A. time and again. He has developed relationships with important directors in L.A., notably Sellars and Christopher Alden. Witnessing Dudamel work in L.A., Neef said in Friday’s announcement, played a significant part in his choice. For his part Neef, who was appointed by French President Emmanuel Macron and can presumably count on the support from Élysée Palace (for now, anyway), has a history of venturesome opera-making in Toronto — where he commissioned Rufus Wainwright’s first opera, “Prima Donna” — and in always-adventurous Santa Fe.
An institution that has lasted 352 years needs to regularly reinvent itself. “Art,” Dudamel planned to tell Paris on Friday, “is the future.”
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