A trail-blazing impresario who put directors first.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
|Gerard Mortier at the Teatro Real in Madrid.|
Image © 2012 Teatro Real.
For many opera-goers, Mr. Mortier's 33-year career including turns helming the Salzburg Festival, the Opera de Paris and most recently the Teatro Real in Madrid were synonymous with the rise of regietheater, the operatic style in which the ideas of the director guide a production, often superceding the intent of composer and librettist.
Mr. Mortier's career began in Belgium and Paris, where he worked with innovative directors like Herbert Wernicke and Mark Morris to revive the Théâtre de la Monnaie and elevate the venue to international importance. In 1990, he was chosen to succeed the late Herbert von Karajan as the general director of the Salzburg Festival and his career went into overdrive.
At Salzburg, Mr. Mortier challenged audiences, revising works by Mozart (Le Nozze di Figaro, Die Zauberflöte) Richard Strauss (Die Frau ohne Schatten, directed by Götz Friedrich) and, most notoriously Die Fledermaus, often to the horror of theater-goers. Yet singers and critics were generally favorable. In 2004, he moved to the Paris Opera, where his touch for innovation and repertory culminated in productions like Messiaen's St. Francois d'Assisse, a challenging, marathon work.
Mr. Mortier is chiefly remembered here in New York for his failed 18-month tenure as the general manager of the New York City Opera. During Mr. Mortier's reign, the troubled opera company was left rudderless and homeless when the New York State Theater was targeted for renovation and transformation into the David Koch Theater.
The renovations, urged by the largely absentee Mr. Mortier, left City Opera, as that venue's secondary tenant without a performance space or revenue from subscriptions, donors and ticket sales. In 2008, faced with a slashed budget of $36 million with which to mount a season, Mr. Mortier resigned.
City Opera went bankrupt last year.
Mr. Mortier moved on the Madrid in 2008, bringing the Teatro Real in that city back to international prominence. Offerings included rarities like Mercandente's I due Figaro and performance works like Mr. Wilson's The Life and Death of Marina Abramovíc. His crowning achievement last year was the first ever production of the opera Brokeback Mountain by the American composer Charles Wuorinen. Based on the motion picture, the story of a love affair between two gay cowboys took six years to arrive onstage in Madrid.
He was fired from his post last September.