PARIS — Eight years after its conception as part of President Francois Mitterrand's cultural legacy, and after almost as many years as a political football, the new home of the Paris Opera--the $400-million Opera Bastille--opened Thursday. There was a little music, a lot of pomp, and a ton of security to watch over Mitterrand and more than 30 other heads of state here for the bicentennial celebrations of the French Revolution.
But the real fate of the Opera Bastille as a functioning opera house is in the hands of a man who was not to be on the podium for the weeklong opening celebrations. He is Myung-Whun Chung, the 36-year-old South Korean-born, American-trained conductor who in late May was named--to the general stupefaction of Parisian music circles--music director of the new house. He in effect succeeds Daniel Barenboim, who was flamboyantly dismissed in January by Pierre Berge, president of the Yves Saint Laurent fashion enterprises, friend and supporter of Mitterrand, and since last fall the president of the combined Paris opera theaters.
The problem for Chung is that all Barenboim's planning for three seasons went down the drain too, and he finds himself committed to opening in February, starting from scratch--this in a business in which leading singers, conductors and stage directors make plans at least two years in advance. Lately he has been coming to Paris between conducting engagements to hold auditions, among other things, and on one of these found time to talk about his new job.
He was originally approached in March, he recalled, to conduct the opening production, then planned to be Verdi's "Don Carlo," and while that did not work out--the work requires six top-flight singers--the talk turned in time to filling the yawning vacancy left by Barenboim's departure.
"My reaction was yes. I had never any doubt about this position. It was very strange because even my closest friends, even my family members, said I shouldn't even be talking to them about the opening production. Just don't get involved with this crazy mess, why do you want to do that? They knew that this kind of complicated situation, that involved politics and administrative responsibilities, was the last thing that I wanted to do--a thing I have consciously avoided for the first 36 years of my life."
If anything, Chung said, "I am overly serious, overly careful. So this goes quite contrary to that, and I can only explain it in that there is another small side to my character, and that is that I am a gambler in a certain way--if I believe something instinctively to be something I should do, in the end that wins out over logic or the advice of other people. That doesn't mean that it's infallible, it simply means that I have to follow it."
Chung said he felt ready to take on the Bastille because "contrary to what a lot of people think, I really do believe that this will work," mainly because enough people "are sick and tired of this mess; enough people are ready to make a change."
Chung avoided talking about specific repertory, but said he was aiming for the same pace that Barenboim had planned for the first half of 1990--four productions, two or three new ones and one carried over from the old Opera, the Palais Garnier, now to be devoted to ballet. He made it clear that the new house could not expect to be up to speed until 1992 at the soonest.
He spoke of "two pillars" to the repertory. One is the French repertory, because it is a French house. The other is the contemporary repertory because it is a house that should look forward.
So much for the \o7 moderne. \f7 As for the \o7 populaire, \f7 the other half of the catch phrase that has been kicked about in connection with the Opera Bastille, "my view of popular opera is a very simple one, kind of a crude definition, I suppose: It means a full house, and if it's really popular it means people waiting outside to get in. It doesn't necessarily mean repertoire that you can sing in the street."
As for the extent of his authority, "From a personal point of view, first I must convince the people around me about my ideas. If I can't convince my own people I can't expect to convince the public. From a contractual point of view, there cannot be one note sung, one step made on the stage without my approval."
Chung began playing the piano in Korea at 4, and moved to Seattle with his family--which includes his sisters, the violinist Kyung Wha and the cellist Myung Wha--at age 9. At 18 he went to the Mannes School of Music in New York, then won a second prize in the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow, then surprised his friends by entering the Juilliard School to study conducting. He left Juilliard to become assistant to Carlo Maria Giulini at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and he remembers his three years there a decade ago as crucial.