9 March 2014

Gerard Mortier, 70, Intendant Who Courted Innovation and Controversy in the Opera House, Has Died

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GERARD MORTIER
Ghent, Belgium, November 25, 1943 — Brussels, Belgium, March 8, 2014 

Innovation and controversy were the two constants in Gerard Mortier's career. As director successively of the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, the Salzburg Festival, the Paris Opera and Madrid's Teatro Real, he was an unswerving advocate of modern opera and of radical approaches to the standard repertoire, pursuing a vision of opera as a vital part of contemporary society. Along the way the Belgian impresario consistently garnered admiration and indignation in equal measures. Provocation was his element, and nobody in the world of opera was better at delivering it than he was.

Mortier, who died on March 8 after a long bout with cancer, was an incendiary even as a student at the University of Ghent, where he organized a club protesting the dowdiness of Belgium's operatic fare: the students would hurl rotten tomatoes at the end of dull performances. After studying law and journalism, he became an opera administrator, apprenticing with Christoph von Dohnányi in Frankfurt and Rolf Liebermann in Paris. He was appointed head of La Monnaie in 1981, and set about revitalizing the repertory by bringing in directors like Patrice Chéreau, Peter Stein and Peter Sellars. He also instituted a complete physical overhaul of the house itself. His ambitious initiatives ran up impressive deficits, but also brought unprecedented prestige to the company and to the city of Brussels itself. 

Typically, his tenure at La Monnaie set off its share of imbroglios. He commissioned John Adams's Death of Klinghoffer, a work whose ambiguous treatment of Palestinian terrorists still raises hackles. He installed Mark Morris and his troupe as the resident dance company; Morris rankled the staid Brussels audience by disparaging his predecessor, Maurice Béjart, and by choreographing a piece where everyone onstage ended up nude.

But the commotion that Mortier created in Brussels paled in comparison to the furor that surrounded him in Salzburg, where he took over in 1991. He was an odd choice for the post: Salzburg for decades had been dominated by the late Herbert von Karajan, who presided over lavish, deeply conservative productions of the standard repertory, with superstar singers on stage and the Vienna Philharmonic making lush sounds in the pit. Mortier made no secret of his desire for change, antagonizing the hidebound Austrian press with denunciations of the old regime and the deadening influence of the big record companies. A week before the start of Mortier's first Salzburg season, Riccardo Muti, a mainstay under Karajan, walked out in protest rather than lead a revisionist production of La Clemenza di Tito. The signature offering that summer was Peter Sellars' production of Messiaen's monumental St. François d'Assise — as spectacular in its way as anything Karajan ever offered, but lightyears away in sensibility. The opening-night curtain call brought a cacophony of cheers and boos; no doubt, this was just the response that Mortier had desired. 

In his ten years in Salzburg, Mortier offered the festival's first productions of Lulu, The Rake's Progress and Le Grand Macabre, along with new works like Berio's Cronaca del Luogo (starring Hildegard Behrens). Despite the defection of portions of the haute bourgeois crowd that formerly flocked to Karajan performances, the box office remained healthy and the festival solvent during Mortier's tenure. In 2000, when Jörg Haider's far-right Freedom Party joined Austria's coalition government, Mortier resigned from Salzburg in protest, then later rescinded, returning that summer and the next to serve out the remainder of his contract. 

The scandals continued. A 2000 Hans Neuenfels production of Così fan Tutte earned the public opprobrium of its prima donna, Karita Mattila, who was required to sing "Come scoglio" while leading two leather-clad men around the stage like dogs. But Mortier saved his biggest affront for last, saying farewell to Salzburg during the 2001 festival with a Neuenfels-directed Die Fledermaus that featured Orlovsky as a cokehead, Frosch as a Marlene Dietrich imitator, and Eisenstein and Rosalinde as Hermann Göring and Eva Braun. This desecration of the beloved Viennese confection was widely, and no doubt accurately, seen as Mortier's final gesture of contempt for Austria and its politics. 

After Salzburg, Mortier became founding director of the Ruhr Triennale, the avant-garde festival of music, theater, dance and art located in the abandoned factories and industrial plants in German's North Rhine-Westphalia. Next he landed in Paris, starting at the Opéra in 2004 and bringing his patented mix of unusual repertory (St. François was part of his initial season) and iconoclastic takes on the classics. In 2007, facing the Paris post's mandatory retirement age of 65, he embarked on the strangest and most contentious leg of his career by accepting the general directorship of the struggling New York City Opera. He mandated the cancellation of an entire season, 2008–2009, while the New York State Theater, the company's home, underwent acoustic renovations. He planned an all-twentieth-century season (including St. François) for 2009–2010, but it never came to pass: when the company's board raised only $36 million of a promised $60 million budget, Mortier resigned. NYCO never quite recovered from the unfortunate episode; the company ceased operations in 2013. 

Mortier took over the Teatro Real in 2013, once again mounting St. François — this time in a sports arena — along with fare like a production of Così fan Tutte by the film director Michael Haneke that turned the farce into a grueling bout of sadomasochistic gamesmanship. In the fall of 2013 Mortier revealed he was being treated for pancreatic cancer, meanwhile criticizing the company's decision to consider only Spanish candidates in the search for his replacement. In retaliation, the executive committee fired him, but quickly brought him back onboard as "artistic advisor." In this role, he oversaw the premiere in early 2014 of Charles Wuorinen's Brokeback Mountain, a pet project originally intended for City Opera. Gaunt but proud, he gave a series of interviews at the time that proved his fighting spirit was still very much intact. "Although death is near," he told the Spanish newspaper ABC, "I will not change my ideas about theater." 

For all the range of Mortier's activities, what was most remarkable about his career was its consistency. From first to last, he remained true to his aesthetic and moral vision. "I agree that art should entertain," Mortier said in 1995. "But it should also ask questions and stir us up." spacer 

FRED COHN

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