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Trouble at the Opéra de Nice

Philippe Auguin, the recently appointed music director of Washington National Opera, hails from the Mediterranean city of Nice. Around the same time that he was appointed to that position in Washington, in the fall of 2010, Auguin began a contract to serve as the music director of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice, the ensemble that plays for performances of the Opéra de Nice. He may or may not have known that he was entering a political minefield by doing so. His appointment was an indirect result of a shakeup at the Opéra de Nice, a shift in the management of the company that reportedly brought trouble in the sometimes murky political world of Nice, as a powerful city government figure sought to undermine the recently appointed general director of the company. An article by Raphaël de Gubernatis (Intrigues en coulisses à l'Opéra de Nice, February 2) in Le Nouvel Observateur describes the trouble, and here are a few excerpts (my translation):
Only Nice, where one lives according to the rhythm of cabals, dark maneuvers, and low blows, could survive an affair like this. With the laudable goal to pull the Opéra de Nice out of the morass into which it was plunged from the mismanagement of the preceding city administrations, the current government decided to entrust the establishment to a real professional. The choice fell in 2009 on Jacques Hédouin, longtime associate of Jean-Pierre Brossmann at the head of the Opéra National de Lyon, then leading the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. Under Jacques Hédouin, director of the Opéra de Nice, Alain Lanceron was engaged as artistic adviser, and this duo had as its mission restoring to this musical theater, among the most beautiful in France, the luster that it still had when it was directed by Pierre Médecin, the brother -- alas! -- of a former, disastrous mayor of Nice. A new era was beginning. The Opéra de Nice was awarded the Music Critics Prize for its production of Les Dialogues des Carmélites, conducted by Michel Plasson and in a staging by Robert Carsen.

Anywhere else, people would be overjoyed at this rebirth. In Nice, it apparently elicited only hatred and pettiness. One year after hiring him, the artistic adviser was fired, under pretext of discovering that he had been president of the recording company Virgin Classics, something everyone knew, claiming possible conflicts of interest one could have foreseen earlier.
This far-right opponent of the mayor went even further, attacking the way that Jacques Hédouin himself was hired, saying that the nature of his contract was not in line with how another city functionary would have been hired. After filing many complaints about the appointment, he managed to have an administrative tribunal take up the request to rescind the order naming Jacques Hédouin to his post. He had effectively lost his authority over the Opéra de Nice.
Jacques Hédouin was now forced into a partnership with the very person attacking his position and who would end up forcing him to resign. Quite an ambiance!

Because in this city there is always worst following worse, there were also the ambitions of the music director of the Opéra de Nice, brought in by Jacques Hédouin. Philippe Auguin, orchestra conductor and already music director of Washington National Opera, allegedly plotted to become the caliph replacing the caliph, taking the position of the man who had brought him in to the Opéra, hoping to direct a theater in Nice when he already has a post in Washington. One asks the question, unless there is not even any need to ask it.
The tone of the article is more than a little gossipy, so we asked Philippe Auguin, in town to conduct the WNO's production of Così fan tutte, for his side of the story. In the midst of a busy travel and work schedule, he was kind enough to respond to a few questions by e-mail. He began by explaining the terms of his appointment in Nice: "On the same day that my contract as Music Director of the Philharmonic Orchestra of Nice began (September 6, 2010), the one-year contract of Mr. Lanceron as Artistic Advisor ended," Auguin said. "His departure had nothing to do with me, directly or indirectly. I was extremely sad about his departure since he, together with the General Director and the orchestra, wanted me to come to Nice."

The sudden departure of Lanceron left a void in terms of artistic oversight. "In the absence of anyone else able to plan and cast a season, General Director M. Hédouin asked me to take over this challenge," Auguin said. Shortly after his appointment as music director, the city government offered to name Auguin as Artistic Director of the Opera de facto, since some of the planning of the opera season, as well as the symphonic season, was falling to him. "I declined this honor in November 2010 and again in January 2011," Auguin specified, "because I had no ambition to take this position in Nice. I have no contract either as an Artistic Director or as an Artistic Advisor. Further, I have not received and do not receive any type of compensation or fee or advantage for the substantial planning work I undertook in this emergency situation."

As Auguin saw it, the company needed his help and he offered it, without ever wanting to take on the official responsibility. It was the fall of 2010, and the 2011-12 season still needed to be planned, scheduled, and cast. "The choice for me was either serve as Music Director of a theater that would remain dark for two years," he said, "or to accept their request for help in mounting the season and risk the resulting criticism." The decision was obvious to him, he said, adding, "I will always choose the music and work for the good of my institution."

Now that the General Director has also stepped down in response to pressure from the city government, Auguin is in a sense the last man standing. "To be clear, the departure of the General Director in January 2012 had nothing to do with me," he said emphatically. As he sees it, he is still just trying to help the company through a difficult time. Speaking of his decisions to assist with artistic planning, he says: "I do not overcast myself as a conductor. I do not conduct more performances than allowed by the original agreement with the City. I do not earn one cent more nor have any type of benefit. In the process of casting, no artist’s agency is being privileged nor preferred. The choice of guest singers or conductors is unrelated to my own professional activity as a guest conductor."

In the end, Auguin says that he is trying to make the best of "a situation loaded with resentment and bitterness." For now he is content that the company is running a balanced budget and that its productions are of high quality and successful with the public, which all vindicates, according to Auguin, "the confidence that the General Director, the City, and everyone at the theater put in me."

One might wish that Auguin had more influence over the direction of artistic planning at Washington National Opera. The current season of the Opéra de Nice includes three operas, including Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and Alessandro Scarlatti's La Tigrane (with the Ensemble Baroque de Nice in the pit). By contrast, WNO's new artistic adviser Francesca Zambello has -- as feared -- brought her predilection for music theater to her new position. Next season at Washington National Opera will conclude with Zambello's production of Show Boat, which at fifteen performances will be the longest run of the season. O tempora! o mores!


Anonymous said...

I miss Domingo! In fact I said that the moment it was announced he will leave!!!

jfl said...

The incredibly musical Alain Lanceron would be a godsend for just about any any opera company. His knowledge of and knack for singers and his great connections in the music world alone... To think that Nice was silly enough to force him out, on such a ridiculous pretext, at that.

He is / would be / have been the exact opposite of taking on an ego driven artistic adviser/director who only muddles matters unnecessarily.

Anonymous said...

Before the arrival of Philippe Auguin the orchestra played very bad. Today under his baton the orchestra continues to play very bad, but the difference: the public doesn't beleave any more and the hall is half empty. This is thge reality.

Anonymous said...

Philippe Auguin has totally transformed the Nice Philharmonic. Whoever your correspondent was referring to as an ego driven music director the term dos not apply to M Auguin.