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February 23, 2008 12:47 am
There was a collective intake of breath. Whoever America’s largely conservative operatic world expected as the next director at the New York City Opera, it was not the musical agent-provocateur Gerard Mortier. And whatever Europe expected of Mortier, it was not that he would land a job in New York.
Within weeks of the announcement last year that Mortier was to take over the leadership of the New York City Opera, there were rumours. The sponsors would leave in droves. The tickets would never sell. The renovations would be a catastrophe.
In his spacious office above the Opéra Bastille in Paris, where the Belgian has held the post of general director since 2004, he gives a ghost of a Gallic shrug. Over the past couple of weeks, he says, he has had two very productive meetings. One foundation committed $2m after just an hour. But a third private sponsor, horrified by Mortier’s determination to programme only 20th-century music in his first New York season, has pulled out.
“OK, so I have to accept that too, you know? We will lose some sponsors, but we will win new ones.”
Mortier has a history of ruffling feathers. He dragged Brussels’ La Monnaie up to international standards and into debt in the 1980s; offended his conservative public and redefined the nature of European music theatre during his explosive reign at the Salzburg Festival in the 1990s; made waves as the first intendant of the innovative Ruhr Triennale; and met plenty of resistance when he arrived in France.
As examples of the fare he has been serving in Paris, over the next few weeks three openings – The Rake’s Progress, Parsifal and Woyzeck – boast three controversial directors who are likely to deliver the sort of stagings that would cause much of America’s opera-going public to recoil in horror.
But clearly there are powerful individuals on the board at Mortier’s new American home who find the director’s deliberately anti-establishment attitude exciting. And three-and-a-half years into his five-year Paris term, Mortier, the quintessential European, says that he is happy to be heading for the New World in 2009.
“I have no fear, because it’s my last job. I will be 65. I have nothing to defend. I know what I can and can’t do. Maybe it’s wrong, what I want to do in New York, but for me it’s a great chance. In Europe, I have done everything that I could do. For once in my life, I wanted to feel what it means to find for yourself the money that you need.”
Does he really mean that, or is it just rhetoric? “I wanted that,” Mortier replies emphatically. “I thought in the past that the American system was less democratic, because a private person decides about what he wants you to do and if he supports it. Here at least the budgets are discussed in parliament, but only a very few politicians know about art.
“In New York, you meet people who have artistic taste, whether you like it or not. European politicians are saying that there should be more private participation. Maybe after New York I will be in a position to make some recommendations.
“In Paris I have tried to establish a certain programme, but I already know that six months after I have left, it will be completely different. Paris is a place where you give a lot and you don’t get very much back. I would say of all the periods in my life, this will have been the least interesting. I don’t have the impression that I will leave a real legacy.
“Rolf Liebermann [the general administrator of the Paris Opera from 1973 until 1980] did. He changed the system. The only thing I have done is to introduce 35 per cent contemporary repertoire and to bring down the average age from 55 to 46. Paris at the moment is deeply conservative. It is a reactionary city that does not have the courage to think about its situation in Europe. I feel very alone in this town.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Mortier lays the blame for such cultural attitudes partly at the door of Parisian philosophers Alain Finkielkraut and Daniel Gluckstein, never mind Bernard-Henri Lévy.
“I don’t appreciate their philosophy. It’s really not my cup of tea. They are not the great thinkers. It’s not about real action, it’s not about real reflection. And the real minds in literature – like [Lebanese novelist and journalist] Amin Malouf, who is living in Paris – should be in the centre of what’s happening here. [Austrian playwright] Peter Handke is living in Paris, and the only thing they have done is to cancel his play [Voyage to the Sonorous Land, or the Art of Asking] at the Comédie-Française. There are so many things which hurt me. This country needs an enormous change.”
The feeling is not necessarily mutual. France bent its own retirement-age laws to allow Mortier to stay an extra year. Rather than being forced to retire on his 65th birthday in November, Mortier is to see out his term until 2009. He will take the reins of the New York City Opera in September that year, by which time, if all has gone well, the theatre will have been renovated.
Mortier dismisses with an impatient exhalation rumours that he will clash with Peter Gelb, the controversial general director of the Metropolitan Opera since 2006. “Opera is not a museum. Peter Gelb is already doing things, making things much more modern. He is doing the greatest changes possible.
“Peter Gelb and I are completely different in one respect. He is the marvellous marketing man, and I work more on content. But together, it could work – it could have an impact. There will be conflicts, that’s for sure. But I think there is enough work to do in New York for us to be able to complement each other.”
Mortier plans to fight for a new audience, taking the company out to the East Side Armory, the downtown Hammerstein theatre, Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, and the Rose Theatre, with further plans to reach out to black and Hispanic audiences.
His first season will focus exclusively on 20th-century classics, including Olivier Messiaen’s five-hour Saint François d’Assise, the Jesuit-educated director’s calling-card at every opera house and festival he has directed. Operas of Britten, Janácek, Debussy, Stravinsky, Weill, Glass and Adams fill out the list. “Of course some people say to me that it’s suicide,” Mortier says. “But I wanted to arrive in New York fighting for the 20th century. The pieces are all great classics.
“And I believe it’s a question of insisting. I like to fight.”
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