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Controversial opera impresario Gerard Mortier dies of cancer

10 March 2014, Brussels, Belgium

Gerard Mortier in 2013
Gerard Mortier in 2013(Photo: Javier del Real / Teatro Real)

Gerard Mortier, one of the great opera managers and impresarios of recent times, died of cancer last Saturday at his home in Brussels, aged 70.

Mortier was a charismatic and controversial figure throughout his career, described by his colleagues variously as a visionary, an iconoclast, a dictator and a shameless self-publicist. He held several prominent posts in the opera world, starting in 1981 when he was appointed general manager of La Monnaie Theatre in Brussels, transforming a parochial opera company into an international phenomenon. He went on to run the Salzburg Festival, challenging the festival’s traditions and upsetting the ultra-conservative audience by introducing a new generation of radical directors. At the end of his tenure at Salzburg, he founded the Ruhr Triennale, a festival of culture celebrating young performers and innovative work. From 2004 to 2009, he held the post of general director of the Paris Opera, again inspiring a mixture of devotion and loathing among the demanding Parisian opera-going public, whose conservatism he refused to accommodate.

While still in Paris, he accepted an invitation to go to the US to turn around the fortunes of the ailing New York City Opera, and immediately set about programming a daring (some would say foolhardy) season consisting entirely of 20th-century opera. However, after clashes with the company’s board over budgets, he resigned from NYCO before he had even officially started his tenure there, saying: ‘I cannot go to run a company that has less money than the smallest company in France – you don’t need me for that.’

Having flirted unsuccessfully with the idea of running the Bayreuth Festival, Mortier’s final years were spent as general director of the Teatro Real in Madrid, where he once again set about transforming a respected but parochial company into an international player, presenting a raft of contemporary work and new commissions including, last month, the world premiere of Charles Wuorinen’s Brokeback Mountain.

Flemish by birth, the son of a baker and raised by Jesuits, Gerard Mortier studied law before embarking on a career in opera. Confrontational throughout his career, he felt he had a mission to engage an opera-going public with the intellectual rather than sentimental aspects of the art form. He dismissed Puccini as ‘superficial’ and tended to champion challenging modern work such as Berg’s Wozzeck and Messiaen’s François d’Assise over popular, lyrical operas from the 19th century. ‘Opera audiences are, almost by definition, conservative,’ Mortier told Opera Now in our last interview with him. ‘They feel that opera should be no more than a form of amusement or a purely aesthetic pleasure. I fight against that. OK, great singing is part of the enjoyment of opera, but all great opera has a political and social dimension which needs to be engaged with.’

Wherever Mortier went, controversy was never far behind. He caused consternation at his first press conference in Madrid, when he suggested that Spanish singers had no grasp of style and couldn’t tell the difference between Puccini and Verdi. Provocative to the last, he always thoughtful and even his most unpalatable views were delivered with a twinkle in the eye: ‘It’s true that everywhere I go, I have enemies,’ he said, ‘but I don’t seek out controversy. I have a very clear idea of what I want. I think that comes from my Jesuit upbringing. You’re taught to question everything and never accept anything at face value.’

Mortier announced shortly before his death that his successor should not be Spanish, in order to prevent the Teatro Real from sliding back into provincialism. In fact, Madrid house appointed Joan Matabosch, artistic director of the Liceu Theatre in Barcelona, to take over from Mortier last September.

In spite of a difficult tenure in Madrid, Mortier was commemorated at the Teatro Real yesterday with the dedication of yesterday’s performance of Gluck’s Alceste to his memory. A minute’s silence was observed and the flag in the theatre square was flown at half-mast. The opera house announced that at a future date, it would be organising a tribute to celebrate Mortier’s investment in young talent and new work.

  • Gerard Mortier, opera director and impresario, born 25 November 1943; died 8 March 2014

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa takes her final bow at the opera

7 March 2014, London, UK

Dame Kiri te Kanawa as Desdemona in 'Otello' at the Metropolitan Opera, 1974
Dame Kiri te Kanawa as Desdemona in 'Otello' at the Metropolitan Opera, 1974(Photo: Louis Mélançon / Metropolitan Opera Archives)

She’s had one of the most spectacular and successful operatic careers of our time, but as she turned 70 this week, Kiri Te Kanawa announced that she would be giving her silken vocal chords a rest – for good.

Last night, the redoubtable Dame celebrated her birthday in the place she has referred to as her ‘second home’ – the stage of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. She made her debut there in 1971 as a recent graduate of the National opera Studio, and now it looks as if she won’t be back. Her current performances as the comical aristocrat, the Duchesse von Crackentorp, in Donizetti’s delightfully screwball La Fille du régiment have been billed as her final appearances at the opera.

In truth, Te Kanawa retired from the operatic stage some time ago (Donizetti’s ludicrous Duchesse is officially a non-singing cameo role that doesn’t really give a lot of scope for vocal gymnastics). Her last major operatic incarnation was as Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, which she sang in Monaco in 2004. Since then, her appearances have been mostly on the concert platform and in fundraising events for the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation for young singers: to celebrate her 70th birthday, she has awarded £70,000 in grants to young artists this year. ‘Behind every great career is a great teacher,’ she says, ‘but a decent singing lesson costs between £50 and £100 these days – that’s a lot for a student to find.’

Not that this will be the last we hear from Dame Kiri. She remains an active teacher herself, and a shrewd mentor to young singers. She is also patron of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, a position which allows her to be a powerful advocate for the opera profession, while roundly condemning those whom she feels are failing a new generation of talent – uncaring agents and ignorant conductors in particular have been at the sharp end of her criticism: ‘I don’t think there’s a real understanding of what a singing voice is, how it works these days,’ she told Opera Now. ‘Recently, I was talking to a doctor who told me that the workload on singers is just horrendous – they’re expected to take on large roles all too close together. So we’re seeing serious vocal problems among opera singers throughout the world. Even professionals who should know better don’t recognise that singing without microphones is the essence of opera and makes huge demands on voices.’

In spite of her prodigious success and huge popular appeal beyond the operatic stage (which has included a guest appearance in the latest series of Downton Abbey and a recording of Maori folksongs which has been an unexpected hit), Dame Kiri still has some regrets: ‘I wish I’d learnt more roles and been better at languages. I never really got to grips with Russian opera, which is a sadness, and I should have been able to speak at least three languages fluently by now.'

As far as performing is concerned, Dame Kiri is keeping an open mind about the future: ‘I might try some acting if the right roles came my way. I really don’t intend to do another opera, but it’s silly to say “never” about anything.' She might well find herself quoting the words of her fellow Antipodean Diva, Dame Edna Everidge, who at the end of ‘her’ Farewell tour of the UK last month, announced at the curtain call: ‘You’ve been a lovely audience, and I look forward to seeing you all again at my next Farewell Tour…’

Metropolitan Opera reports falling attendance

30 January 2014, New York, US

Peter Gelb
Peter Gelb(Photo: Dario Acosta)

New York’s Metropolitan Opera has announced that ticket sales figures for its live performances fell to just 79 per cent last year, achieving only 69 per cent of its potential total box office revenue – significantly less than at any other time over the past decade.

Although income from fundraising and cinema screenings increased during the same period, the company has been left with a budget deficit of US$2.8 million for 2012-13.

High ticket prices are thought to be one reason for the shrinking sales: in February last year the Met acknowledged that attendance fell after prices were raised by around 10 percent. Responding to this trend, the average price of a ticket for the current season has been lowered to $156 from $174.
Commenting on the figures, the Met’s general director Peter Gelb said they reflect ‘the challenges that opera companies face in wooing an audience’.

Gelb told the New York Times: ‘We have been, I think, successful in getting younger, newer audiences to come to the Met. But there’s no question that our older audience is ageing, and not attending as frequently as they once did. This is a reality we have to live with, and we’re trying to meet that challenge by keeping our artistic standards as high as possible, introducing new productions and having the greatest singers in the world on our stage.’

Wagner’s Rienzi opens Riga 2014 European Capital of Culture

30 January 2014, Riga, Latvia

Opus in images: Wagner's 'Rienzi' at Latvian National Opera
Opus in images: Wagner's 'Rienzi' at Latvian National Opera(Photo: Kaspars Garda)

Review by Karyl Charna Lynn

Wagner composed the overture and first two acts of Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes in Riga, before fleeing to Paris. That connection was the reason the opera, in an abbreviated version, was chosen to open Riga 2014, European Capital of Culture.
Rienzi, based on the real-life Italian Cola di Rienzi, deals with power, revenge, class struggle, and star-crossed lovers – universal and timeless themes. It follows Rienzi’s rise to power as a populist leader against the nobility’s tyranny until he became a tyrant himself, and falls from power as the people and Church turned against him.

This production of Rienzi, condensed to two hours and two acts (from six hours and five acts), was renamed Rienzi, Rise and Fall. The Rape of Lucretia ballet was replaced by a classic snippet from Bayadère, performed to Voldemārs Jansons’ electronic music, and the opera opened with a boys chorus singing (Wagner’s song) Der Tannenbaum to set up the evening’s ‘surprise ending’, when the boys chorus (so corrupted) took up arms and aimed at the audience.

Director Kirsten Dehlholm conceived the opera as an opus in images with a message, suffused with symbolism and dominated by a white horse that traditionally represents Fate in Latvia; a projection of Vienna’s Spanish Riding School was the production’s only ‘scenery’. The characters’ costume and make-up took on a larger role, embodying their psychological states and positions: Rienzi wore ‘Tannenbaum’ green, face blackened with soot of sin; Irene (Rienzi’s sister) wore ‘water’ blue, still haunted by her brother’s drowning death; Adriano (Colonna’s son) wore rose, signifying sentimentality in sacrificing his life trying to save his love Irene; and the Roman noblemen (Paolo Orsini and Stefano Colonna) dressed in yellow, recalling their cunning to keep power. Characters often moved in a stylised manner, and the ever-present chorus walked back and forth in place to add motion to this action-deprived work.

Modelled after French Grand Opera, Rienzi exuded a tone more French than German, recalling Les Huguenots and La Juive, but also numerous sounds from Wagner’s next opera, Der fliegende Holländer. The flowery, occasionally bombastic music, lushly played by the Latvian National Opera Orchestra, was efficiently led by maestro Modestas Pitrenas. The cast, especially Torsten Kerl (Rienzi), Elisabet Strid (Irene), Ursula Hesse (Adriano) executed their roles with aplomb.

Scottish Opera scores a hit with their new Don Pasquale

27 January 2014, Glasgow, UK

Alfonso Antoniozzi as Don Pasquale
Alfonso Antoniozzi as Don Pasquale(Photo: K K Dundas)

Review by Neil Jones

If Scottish Opera’s new production of Donizetti’s opera buffa was a cup of Italian coffee it would be a very frothy cappuccino. Smooth, exceptionally tasty and without a hint of bitterness, created lovingly by a trio of top class baristas.

The baristas in question were director Renaud Doucet, designer André Barbe and lighting designer Guy Simard. Opening the visual feast of this production during the overture they produced a largely black and white cartoon-like book projected on the front curtain, complete with turning pages that told a new backstory of Pasquale as a cat-loving but feline allergic hotel owner, desperately searching for a cure with the help of his doctor friend.

The main course though was Don Pasquale’s abode, a small, old-fashioned – bordering on seedy – pensione in the 1960’s, complete with a handful of equally dubious and decrepit staff. Barbe’s set design was a masterpiece, akin to looking at the set through a fish-eye lens, the central section more or less normal but the edges curving dramatically and vertiginously towards the vertical.

Initially, the top of the building was hidden by a screen of drying sheets, pillow cases and towels, which were dramatically whipped away just before Ernesto’s arrival in Act I to reveal a rooftop restaurant.

If visually this production was entertaining, it was matched musically and vocally by an orchestra and cast at the top of their game. Scottish Opera’s former music director, Francesco Corti, returned to conduct the Scottish Opera Orchestra, rowing them along with such sparkling energy that there was a danger that they could have overwhelmed the singers had not those singers been well capable of holding their own.

Making his company debut was Alfonso Antoniozzi as Don Pasquale, delightfully unkempt in vest, scruffy trousers and braces – an Italian parody of Alf Garnet – with a splendid voice that belied his wonderful ‘dirty old man’ characterization.

Also debuting for the company was Aldo Di Toro as Ernesto, at his best in the sadder arias ‘Sogno soave e casto’ and ‘Cercherò lontana terra’ with a lovely clear voice, as beautiful as it was technically adept.

Equally delightful was Nicholas Lester as Doctor Malatesta, perhaps too young to be credible as Pasquale’s ‘friend’, whilst Ruth Jenkins-Róbertsson was both vocally and visually gutsy as Norina, making her a strong, delightfully duplicitous character.

Andrew McTaggart completed the solo singing cast as the Notary whilst the afore-mentioned pensione staff included Sandra Haxton as a fag addicted maid, watching the action with a knowing and cynical eye!

With brilliant solo performances and excellent ensemble singing, this was a hugely entertaining and memorable take on this most consistently performed of Donizetti’s operas.

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