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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

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