Storm Over the Bastille. Pierre Berg'e has set off fireworks by insisting that Paris's newest opera will run in the black
PARIS — PIERRE BERG'E is a busy man. He is internationally known as the director of the Yves Saint Laurent fashion empire and presides over the French fashion designer's association and the Paris fashion school (l'Institut de Mode). He initiated the ``Musical Mondays'' at the Athen'ee theater, which has attracted international stars from Jessye Norman to Pl'acido Domingo. And he has edited several books, including one on Cocteau. Since last August, Mr. Berg'e has had still another impressive - and controversial - title: director of the Th'e^atres des Op'eras de Paris.
For the first time in France, an outsider from the world of private business is directing the fortunes of the Paris Op'era (1861), the Op'era-Comique (1898), and the Bastille Op'era, due to open next July on the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution.
``In the past, the operas were run by civil servants. I think it is a definite advantage to have someone from the private sector,'' says Berg'e, who will continue to preside over YSL. Since opening the couture house with Saint Laurent 28 years ago, Berg'e has turned the company into a multinational firm. But when it has come to taking the bows at the close of each fashion show, Berg'e has always stayed backstage.
Berg'e's unusual blend of business and artistic, not to mention political, interests made him an ideal candidate to head the Paris Op'era. In fact, Jack Lang, the French Minister of Culture, tailored the job especially for Berg'e.
Though he refuses to speak of himself as a ``leftist,'' Berg'e's actions have endeared him to France's reigning Socialists. He helped Danielle Mitterrand, wife of the French President, start a human rights foundation and campaigned publicly for Mitterrand's reelection last May.
As director of all three Paris opera houses, Berg'e is smack in the middle of the explosive controversy concerning the new company planned for the Bastille. Ordered in the early years of the Socialists' reign, the 2,700-seat theater was to be the most modern in the world. But the conservative government under Prime Minister Jacques Chirac viewed the expensive $390 million project with skepticism. When the Socialists returned to power last spring, the Bastille Op'era was revived in its original form, though with a new concern for economy and efficiency.
The old Paris Op'era is a bastion of elitism and privileges (the personnel have wrangled to get remarkable wages and work conditions over the years). The Salle Garnier, as it is known, is currently running a deficit of $50 million, made up by state subsidies. For every $90 opera ticket, the state pays $180.
Berg'e is a man who thinks in terms of balance sheets and whose favorite color is black. He was not about to let the new opera at the Bastille become a bigger-than-life-sized replica of the old opera. In January, he acted on his convictions and fired the artistic and musical director of the Bastille, Daniel Barenboim, the Israeli pianist and orchestra director. Mr. Barenboim, whose contract with the Chirac government was for $1.1 million for a minimum of four months' presence in France, is threatening to take his case to court. He asked that French President Fran,cois Mitterand ``choose between me, and a [musical] program decided up by the director of a fashion house!''
But Mr. Lang is staunch in his support for Berg'e. ``The state is not a milking cow,'' he announced on French television, despite France's long tradition, dating back to Louis XIV, the ``Sun King,'' in lavishing the arts with money and support.
Berg'e's autocratic style clashed with the ``establishment'' at the Paris Op'era from the very beginning, as to what the new opera should be. Berg'e is determined to keep the Bastille as self-supporting as possible by offering a large number of performances (as many as 220 a year) and programming designed to have the broadest possible appeal. The prices of seats would have to be cheap - $6 to $60. These notions struck Barenboim and his supporters as completely incompatible with the quality of the performances they envisioned.
Jessye Norman promised to sing at the special performance scheduled to open the house July 14, but the real opening of the Bastille is set for January of next year. Barenboim had lined up an impressive slate of artists for the first season: Patrice Ch'ereau was to give his version of ``Don Giovanni''; Pierre Boulez was to direct ``Tristan'' and ``Pelleas.'' But with the departure of Barenboim, the participation of these artists is now in doubt.
``I don't expect to make everybody happy,'' warned Berg'e, shortly after taking the job. ``It can't be harder to run an opera than a fashion house!'' But bringing down the wrath of some of the biggest names in the music world was a sobering experience, even for the self-assured Berg'e. ``It was the hardest decision of my life,'' he admits.
The flap over the Bastille Op'era has been dubbed soap opera by Americans. The intrigue, passion, conflicts, and drama are all there. Every director named so far has either quit or been fired. Gerard Mortier, director of the Th'e^atre de la Monnaie in Brussels, directed the Bastille Op'era for four months in 1985 and '86. Raymond Soubie resigned his post as president of the board of the future Bastille Op'era last November. Pierre Vozlinsky, Barenboim's administrative partner at the Bastille, was fired in May 1988. When Barenboim was fired Jan. 13, Pierre Boulez, another key figure in the opera team, left also.
Barenboim has already found a new job. He will replace Sir Georg Solti at the helm of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Sept. 1, 1991.
Berg'e is criticized for his lack of experience with opera. In his own defense, he points out that painters would not make good museum curators: ``They would only use what they like.'' It is precisely over the programming for the Bastille that Berg'e and the team that was in place before his arrival were in total disagreement.
Originally, M. Mitterand's Bastille was to be the Georges Pompidou Center of opera: open to the masses, to lesser-known artists including avant-garde, and non-elitist. With its two auditoriums, the new opera will have the capacity to give two performances an evening or some 700 performances a year, as compared with the maximum of 250 performances at the Garnier opera house. It would be possible, says a technician, to rehearse ``Tristan'' in the morning, arrange the lighting for ``Carmen'' in the afternoon, and present ``Aida'' in the evening. ``But we would have to have three orchestras, two choirs, and lots more money,'' he points out.
For the time being, the Bastille Op'era has all the makings of a huge white elephant. Which is why Berg'e is insisting upon a glut of performances - 250 a year in the main theater, and another 200 in the smaller one. Barenboim and Boulez had a more conservative figure in mind: 100 performances for the first two years, building up to a maximum of 160 in the third season.
The choice between an elitist or a populist house is now settled, with all the key members of the original team eliminated. They still argue, with some justification, that the quantity of performance will be at the expense of quality.
The big question: Are there enough opera buffs to fill the Bastille, even if it manages to offer high-quality music at football prices? No one, at this point, knows the answer.