Prima-donna politicians stage operatic battle: Row over director's dismissal hits the high notes in the latest act of a long-running French farce

AT THE Paris Opera, the real prima donnas can be found backstage. Last week, a new twist in the saga of the Opera- Bastille, one of the Mitterrand era's grands travaux, designed to put the President's stamp on the capital, was played out in front of television cameras.

Defying a court order to re- instate Myung Whun Chung, the South Korean-born conductor who has been musical director since the Opera opened five years ago, Jean-Paul Cluzel, the director-general, refused to allow Chung into the building to take the rehearsals for Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, which is opening the autumn season.

The 41-year-old conductor was sacked last month after refusing to renegotiate his contract. But on Friday, a labour court told the Opera to pay Chung FFr50,000 ( pounds 6,000) a day until it allowed him to work normally. Mr Cluzel protested that he had maintained the ban on Chung pending the outcome of an appeal this week.

The shimmering glass structure of the Opera, which dominates the Place de la Bastille, has been a stage for disaster and political rivalries since the beginning. With state-of-the- art theatre technology, it was meant to take over from the elegant but creaking Opera Garnier as a 'people's opera' worthy of a Socialist president.

But almost immediately, artists complained that it was cold, and that they felt distant from the audience. Stagehands complained about scenery lifts and other machinery being prone to breakdowns. Both opera houses sank deep into debt.

These problems might have remained in proportion and proper solutions sought had it not been for the politicians.

Although the original Bastille project was a Socialist idea, it was the right, during the first 1986-88 'cohabitation' with the Socialist President, which appointed Daniel Barenboim as musical director.

Once the left was firmly back in the saddle in 1988, Pierre Berge, the chief executive of the Yves Saint Laurent fashion house and a good friend of Mr Mitterrand, was appointed head of the Opera.

He set about getting rid of Barenboim, an event that turned into a public row. When Barenboim left, the lower-profile Myung Whun Chung was preferred. With a contract until 2000, the conductor could expect FFr3.58m in an average year from salary and fees.

Then the right returned to power last year. The forthright Jacques Toubon, a Gaullist, became Culture Minister, taking over from Jack Lang.

Under Mr Toubon, the two opera houses were given a new management structure. Hugues Gall, who had prepared a report on their finances, was appointed overall director.

Chung, who had had a free hand to choose the programme and the artists, was told he would come under Mr Gall's authority when the new director took over next August. In addition, Chung was invited to renegotiate his contract and take a pay cut. The conductor refused; the Opera announced his departure, and he sued for wrongful dismissal.

The problem, Mr Gall said last week, could have been avoided if, in the first place, Barenboim had not been sacked. 'Pierre Berge,' he said, 'who is now shouting 'foul', got rid of Mr Barenboim, who had a remarkable plan for the new Opera, in a way which I should prefer not to discuss.'

With the next act of the Opera-Bastille drama opening in court this week, musicians have said that they may strike if Chung is not reinstated. This would be no new departure since the Opera has long been afflicted by strikes.

One stoppage dates back to the mid-1970s when Valery Giscard d'Estaing was president. He had adopted the practice of having himself invited to dinner in ordinary homes, in order to hear grass-roots views.

So numerous were the invitations that, to thank all those who wanted him at table, Mr Giscard d'Estaing organised a gala evening for them at the Opera Garnier. As the guests made their way to Paris, trade unions at the Opera called a snap strike - and hundreds of the President's most loyal citizens found themselves all dressed up with nowhere to go.

(Photograph omitted)

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