US conductor jumps in at Paris Opéra without notice

US conductor jumps in at Paris Opéra without notice


norman lebrecht

February 14, 2022

A slightly bemusing photo-caption from James Gaffigan in Paris:

James Gaffigan: With Alexander Neef right before a beautiful performance of “Le Nozze di Figaro” with Gustavo Dudamel. At intermission he asked me what I was doing tomorrow afternoon. I said “Nothing”… and then he said, “Do you want to conduct ‘Don Giovanni’?” I said, “Why not,” but he said that it would be the Vienna version. I said, “I’ve never done the Vienna version” to which he responded, “You will love it” and I did!! An amazing cast and orchestra following a wonderful opening of “Manon” this past Friday with the Opéra national de Paris.

Memo to mestros: Always go to the Opéra on spare nights. You never know when you might be needed.


  • I like the way the complexities of opera obligate conductors to be competent journeymen (or women) doing their job without the hollow hoopla that surrounds jet-setting stars. Good traffic cops the orchestra, chorus, and singers can rely on, good tempos, breathe with the singers, adapt for staging issues, etc. This seems to be a new model for conductors. I hope it will become the standard and the huge fees paid to celebrity conductors something of the past.

    I also note that Neef was appointed Director of the Paris Opera by the President of France–at least on a ceremonial level. The company receives about 100 million Euros per year from the government. Imagine that acknowledgment and support happening in the USA.

    Neef is leaving his position as the Director of the Santa Fe Opera, an institution deeply dependent on wealthy donors, and inevitably so plutocratic in its mindset that it bears little connection to the city and state in which it exists aside from a few token gestures. The people are left in the cold when it comes to outreach, children’s programs, the use of local musicians, etc. When will the USA join the rest of the “developed” world and properly support the arts in a democratic manner? When will a single mainstream journalist write about these problems with our funding system instead of dutifully manufacturing consent?

    • V.Lind says:

      When the US decides everyone paying taxes in order to improve the common weal is better than rich individuals deciding what is worthy of their support. In other words, never.

    • James Weiss says:

      And how much in additional taxes are you willing to pay – and impose on others – to fund this new ideal in the USA? Especially since the vast majority of US citizens don’t give a flying f*** about an art form that we love?

      • Peter San Diego says:

        It would be a budget increase of about 0.1% — if that. I’d be willing to pay another 0.1% in income tax, especially if the top few percent (and their corporations!) paid their share of income tax at all.

    • MB says:

      Conductors are expected to do more than keep time. With one day’s preparation, and no rehearsal, what would you expect him to do.

  • Sixtus Beckmesser says:

    Looking forward to hearing him conduct Tristan und Isolde in Santa Fe next July.

  • John Borstlap says:

    It’s true. There are special trains from Germany to transport as many conductors as possible to Paris, all anxious for their next big chance, and all focussing their hope on the well-know irregularities at the well-equiped house.

    They fill-up ca. 30% of the audience at every premiere. After that, the percentage shrinks to ca. 25%.

    Some even pay members of the personnel to ignite one of the strikes.

  • Oslomannen says:

    Staten Island’s finest! JG os a wonderful man and a great conductor.

  • Anon says:

    The difference between James Gaffigan and someone like Kirill Petrenko come to mind here: the outgoing, self-promoting US conductor vs. the understated and discrete European maestro.

    Gaffigan seems to be all about getting his own name out there and making a lot of noise about everything he does. He was just named as MD at Les Arts Opera in Valencia. It’s a tough job. Why isn’t he focusing on that and trying to make it work (as a sign of respect, at least, in his first year) instead of advertising his adventures on social media?

    I’ve never worked under Gaffigan or seen him conduct, but he’d better be damned good for all this noise he makes about himself.

    • pjl says:

      years ago he stood in for Krivine in Cologne and did not include the D’INDY piece that led me to travel from England for the concert; so I am biased against! To be fair, after this lunchtime concert he turned up at the interval of a 4pm Janacek opera down the road & was discussing the Ravel concerto with Gerstein as they were to repeat it the next day (nice to see Gerstein going to the opera straight after performing)

    • NYMike says:

      Having watched him conduct here in NY, I can attest to the fact that he is “damned good.”

    • Barry Guerrero says:

      You know, you’re right. Instead doing Neef a solid in short notice, he should have said, “listen, I need to tone down my profile, being a self-promoting American and all. People coming to see the opera might get the wrong idea. After all, it’s all about the conductor, you know. Perhaps you should see what Petrenko is up to on one day’s notice”.

    • M2N2K says:

      As someone who has worked with James Gaffigan several times, I can tell you that he is a very fine conductor indeed and a really pleasant person too.

      • Anon says:

        I recall that in 2010, James Gaffigan came out as being not particularly supportive of older musicians in orchestras. There have been undercurrents of his ageism among US orch musicians. Big red flag for many in the profession.

        Again, this is in contrast to a fine European maestro like Fabio Luisi who has come out strongly in support of older players. I remain skeptical of Mr. James Gaffigan.

        • M2N2K says:

          According to everything I know about Fabio Luisi, he seems like a very decent human being. But that does not mean that James Gaffigan is not. My highly positive opinion of the latter is based on personal experience of working with him on numerous occasions and not on something I – definitely an “older” musician, by the way – heard or read somewhere.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Working with people is definitely the best way of figuring-out their capacities and personality.

          • Anon says:

            I’ve followed much of Mr. Gaffigan’s career since the ageism accusations hit. I’ve noticed that he has something of a cult following in the US. You and several others here look to be part of that. Neither good nor bad. Just an observation.

    • debuschubertussy says:

      Um…show me a young (or young-ish) classical musician today who isn’t engaging in some form of self promotion through social media.

      Go check out the IG accounts of Danill Trifonov, Hillary Hahn, Yuja Wangy, Vikingur Olafson, just to name a few… Social media presence is a regular and accepted part of being a classical musician nowadays.

      • Anon says:

        OK, so how do think the folks at Les Arts Opera in Valencia, where he was recently appointed MD, might react to this?

        It’s a big job, they just hired him and he’s already out announcing his engagements with other companies? Out of respect for Spain and the exceptional sense of pride Valencians hold for their opera company, he should have been more discrete at this particular time.

    • Piston1 says:

      It’s “discreet” — and JG is a damned good conductor who deserves to get his name out there.

      • Anon says:

        Not when he was just hired by a major opera company in Spain which is counting on him right now. A husband should at least wait a year after marrying his new bride before he starts publicly announcing his dalliances with other women.

        It looks really bad, knowing that he’s the one who put this news out. Tacky and inconsiderate, IMHO.

        • M2N2K says:

          There is nothing “tacky and inconsiderate” about conducting in Paris on a day when one is not scheduled to work in Valencia. The “husband” and “dalliances” comparison is inappropriate on several levels.

          • Anon says:

            No, nothing at all tacky about the conducting part. What’s tacky is advertising it on social media as a blatant form of self promotion.

            The lack of consideration is for those he serves in Valencia, Spain, who just appointed him as there MD. Out of respect, he could have conducted quietly in Paris, at least while he’s still in his honeymoon phase in Valencia.

            As an American, I see this move as typically US. As a woman, I can tell you that the analogy is perfectly appropriate.

          • M2N2K says:

            So, “as a woman”, you believe that marriage is a contract that specifies how many weeks a year (usually not more than 15) you spend together and has no limits on outside activities for the rest of the year? That is definitely not how my wife and I understand it. He has no reason to hide his perfectly appropriate additional work when he is not conducting in Valencia, especially considering that hiding engagements such as with Paris Opera is definitely not possible.

          • Anon says:

            Again, big difference between hiding it and loudly publicizing it on social media himself. He put this news out himself. It speaks volumes.

          • M2N2K says:

            All it says is that he is justifiably pleased with being invited to conduct in a major opera house, and Valencia should be happy and proud that “their” maestro whom they have under contract can sometimes be welcomed and valued by a world-class organization such as Paris Opera.

    • Lis PERRY says:

      He is brilliant….totally the best

  • Spencer Sweetbreads says:

    Disgusting that they thought it appropriate to remove their masks for this ‘photo op’.

    The elites, who keep running around acting like this pandemic isn’t real, must be stopped AT ANY COST.

  • he says:

    Lesson for maestros: always take a selfie with the general manager so that he knows you’re in the house

  • Maria says:

    More to the point, as you’re all experts on here, what is the difference between the version the vast majority do and this obscure Vienna version?

    • John Borstlap says:

      In the Vienna version the Don is killed at the end of the first act by Anna, Ottavio and Elvirare, and the remaining acts consist of extensive discussions by all participants whether this was a morally appropriate action or not, in relation to the intentions of librettist and composer. This version was commissioned by the emperor who thought that giving the Don so much space and platform to expose his bad character would undermine civil society.

  • True North says:

    So, before Neef *happened* to see Gaffigan at the performance, what was his plan for the next day’s show? Was no conductor already booked? Without knowing more of the story, it seems like a rather casual approach to running an opera house.

  • Bone says:

    How are they both not dead from COVID? THEIR MASKS ARE DOWN! THEY SHOULD BE ARRESTED!!!!

  • RW2013 says:

    Don’t fondle the maestro Alex.
    Or is there no #metoo in France?

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    “G . . A . . FFI . . GAN spells Gaffigan. He’s an MD we all can play for. The just the sort of chap to save a date for. G . . A . . FFI . . etc., etc.

  • Alexander says:

    may I kindly ask if he was paid for that or t’was “on friendly terms” 😉

  • Frank Flambeau says:

    It sound like the Dude is having problems.

  • Um says:

    Sorry to mention this, but isn’t there a young conductor/assistant in the house who would have benefitted far more from the opportunity to conduct this performance than an already established conductor who has enough already with jobs and performances?
    It’s once in a blue moon that the opportunity to jump in or perform happens for young conductors with potential who are working their way up and actually in need of the experience, and it seems somewhat baffling and very frustrating that these sorts of opportunities are just passed over across the ‘great maestros’ like buying each other a sandwich at pret a manger

  • Sir David Geffen-Hall says:

    They tried to get Gilligan but only Gaffigan was available.

    The Skipper, however, was able to do the stage direction.

    • Barry Guerrero says:

      Yes, but some of these suspicious types think Gaffigan was awarded a mulligan.

    • Sixtus says:

      It is my understanding that the production was funded by Thurston Howell III with the stipulation that the performances should not exceed “a three-hour tour.”