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Gerard Mortier, A Polarizing Impresario Who Transformed Opera

Belgian opera impresario Gerard Mortier in Germany in 2003. He died Saturday at age 70.
Volker Hartmann
AFP/Getty Images
Belgian opera impresario Gerard Mortier in Germany in 2003. He died Saturday at age 70.

One of the most active and influential figures in the opera world, Belgian impresario Gerard Mortier, died Saturday at age 70 at his home in Brussels. His death was announced by Madrid's Teatro Real, which he had served as artistic director. The cause was pancreatic cancer.

Whether or not opera fans could identify this behind-the-scenes figure by name, Mortier was a tremendously important and influential administrator. In posts across Europe, he disrupted audience expectations in favor of productions that often took operas out of their historical settings and placed them squarely in the present. Mortier also championed the work of not just a host of vanguard composers, but talents like director Peter Sellars and choreographer Mark Morris as well.

Born Nov. 25, 1943 in Ghent to a family of bakers, Mortier fell in love with opera as a child. After earning graduate degrees in law and communications, he took a job at the Festival of Flanders as an assistant. There he met conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi, tho took him on as his own assistant in Germany. Mortier went on to the Paris Opera, where he first served as the assistant to the house's director, Rolf Liebermann — just as the tides rose in favor of Regietheater (director's theater), in which a director freely updates a work's geographical setting, time period or additional elements to reflect current concerns, in stagings popularly derided as "Eurotrash."

Mortier injected that kind of energy into all of his work from then on, starting with his own first major position as the director of Brussels' then-sleepy Théâtre de la Monnaie in 1981. There he premiered John Adams' Death of Klinghofferand mounted operas by Janácek. In 1987 Mortier hired as the theater's dance director American choreographer Mark Morris, who staged Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and Handel's L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato:

Three years later, Mortier left Brussels for the equally — if not more — conservative stronghold of Austria's Salzburg Festival, where he succeeded the revered conductor Herbert von Karajan. There Mortier managed to overturn the proverbial apple cart not just by commissioning works like Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin and Sellars-directed productions of Messiaen's St. François d'Assise and Ligeti's Grand Macabre, but also with updated stagings of operas by the city's most beloved native son, Mozart.

In 2004, Mortier brought his ideas to the Paris Opera, where he remounted the Messiaen St. Françoisand introduced several other now iconic projects to Europe, including Wagner's Tristan und Isoldeas produced by Peter Sellars, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and video artist Bill Viola:

In 2007, Mortier was hired as general manager and artistic director of the New York City Opera. Instead of continuing his run as a polarizing figure based on his aesthetic ideas, he became a lightning rod for another kind of controversy altogether. The already financially faltering company approved Mortier's plan to close its former Lincoln Center home, the State Theater, for renovations during the 2008-09 season, with the expectation that the company's endowment would largely cover the resulting gap in income.

But when Mortier was presented with a $30 million budget for his first season in New York — about half of what he had previously agreed to — in the shadow of the country's financial crisis, he quit before coming to New York for the 2009-10 season. Whether or not the Mortier chapter foretold or contributed to City Opera's eventual demise, the company shut its doors in October.

Yet as the City Opera crisis was building to a boil, Madrid's Teatro Real signaled that they would be interested in bringing Mortier aboard. Three weeks after he officially stepped down from the City Opera post, he agreed to become artistic director in Madrid. In short order, the Spanish audience benefited from a number of provocative commissions and productions that Mortier had originally planned for New York. These included the world premieres of Philip Glass' rumination on the inner life of Walt Disney, The Perfect American, and (which is still available for free streaming on Medici.tv). In typical fashion, Mortier got into a very public fight with the Spanish house this past fall, when he criticized management's search for his successor; they downgraded Mortier's title to "artistic adviser."

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.