Premiere league

Four hours after my meeting with Pierre Audi, a new production of Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg is opening a few hundred metres away, at Amsterdam’s Muziektheater. Audi is doubly responsible, as artistic director of both the Netherlands Opera and the Holland Festival, yet he gives every appearance of being relaxed.

“You’re always walking a tightrope between artistic responsibility and keeping the link with your audience alive,” he says. “Tonight you’ll see David Alden, who is very American, take a very German piece and direct it with a special mixture of reverence and irreverence. I think the arts can blossom through an intelligent coming-together of artists and interpreters from different countries being confronted with another culture.

“I feel that’s my personal story, and it is reflected in my programming.”

Audi, 56, makes sparing choices that are exactly to his taste. In clothing, conversation and management style, he is understated but intense, an attentive listener with a courtly air.

Next summer is his 10th and last as director of the Holland Festival, and this month marks his 25th anniversary at the helm of the Netherlands Opera. When he was appointed, at the age of 30, he was the youngest ever to hold such a post. It was not until the 27-year-old Kasper Holten became arti­stic director of the Royal Danish Opera in 2000 that Audi’s record was bested.

“Really?” Audi seems nonplussed. “I thought he was 30. Are you sure?”

For one of the most powerful men on the European arts circuit, such self-doubt seems perplexing. But Audi recovers his aplomb in an instant. Not only was he young and comparatively unknown; he had never been to Holland, and never staged an opera by a dead composer. The Netherlands Opera’s new theatre had only been open for two troubled years; Audi’s appointment was a risk on a grand scale.

“Of course, when you take risks, you have to have the right to fail. That’s something I discussed a lot with the board when I first joined,” he recalls. “The right to fail is the only way to do good work.”

Audi has held fast to his credo, and produced his share of flops over the years. But the launch of his Dutch career was anything but a failure. With just 22 weeks to plan his first season, he assembled a programme that ranged from Monteverdi to Morton Feldmann; it included both his own production of Schoenberg’s Glückliche Hand and Klaus Michael Grüber’s iconic Parsifal.

Despite the controversial politics and management hiccups, Audi concedes that he inherited a house in good shape. “There was a loyal audience that bought a lot of subscriptions, and a very healthy enthusiasm for the new opera house. It was so wonderful to be able to play modern pieces to a full house of 1,600 seats!”

Audi and his administrative director, Truze Lodder, continued to pack houses with an eclectic mix of old and new repertoire. His quarter-century of leadership has seen 18 world premieres and more than twice as many first Dutch performances of major 20th and 21st-century works. Successes included his teaming up of Dutch composer Louis Andriessen with film director Peter Greenaway for Writing to Vermeer, the commissioning of Alfred Schnittke’s Life with an Idiot and Alexander Raskatov’s A Dog’s Heart, and his own stagings of Wagner’s Ring and Monteverdi’s operas. Although his own stage direction could no longer be described as cutting-edge, he has not made the mistake of some insecure peers of limiting the competition at home; instead, he has brought a steady flow of good newcomers in to his stable of established directors.

His appointment to the parallel directorship of the Holland Festival nine years ago raised some eyebrows. Was too much of the city’s artistic power now in one man’s hands? Audi was quick to capitalise on the synergies between his two institutions. He also pushed the Festival back to a position of artistic stability, diversifying the programming to represent all artforms and brushing up its international image.

Much of what he practices in Amsterdam, Audi admits, he learnt in his London years at the Almeida Theatre. At 20, after student productions at Oxford, he teamed up with a group of friends to bring a decaying Victorian theatre back to life as a contemporary music venue. There was grant money to be had in new music, so the young Audi wasted no time in acquiring an interest in the field. A heterogenous approach to contemporary repertoire was a novelty, but the Almeida Theatre chalked up a startling number of firsts. Audi staged operas by Claude Vivier, Virgil Thomson, Michael Finnissy and John Casken, locked swords with Nicholas Snowman over the right to perform György Ligeti, and presented the music of Pierre Boulez and Philip Glass side by side. “Today, all of that is normal, but my God I got a lot of stick for it in those years!” he recalls. “This kind of mixture is what keeps me alive and enthusiastic. Holland is really relaxed about it in a way that England was not.”

Audi traces his catholic tastes back to his youth in a Beirut that would go on to change radically in the course of his lifetime. Son of a Christian Lebanese banker, Audi reaped the benefits of a liberal education in a cultured international climate. “I went to a French Lycée,” he says. “There were concerts by Kagel and Stockhausen; Pasolini came to Beirut.”

Then civil war broke out, and his family moved first to Paris, then to London. It would be three decades before Audi returned to Lebanon; ten years ago, he began re-establishing connections with his homeland.

“It’s a tiny country with so many complexities, all dependent on the health of what happens in the surrounding countries. Everything affects Lebanon. But I have begun to wonder whether there is something I could do for the place I was born.”

Audi’s name is mentioned each time a major music leadership post comes up – and with Alexander Pereira’s premature exit from the top job at the Salzburg Festival, one obvious post is open. Would he be interested?

“The challenge would be interesting,” he concedes. “In Lebanon I felt that culture was a magnificent ray of sunshine in a problematic place. Maybe it sounds pretentious, but I feel comfortable with the idea of a mission. I think that wanting to change the world is a very important part of motivating, inspiring, and dreaming.”

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