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6.12.04

Gérard Mortier at Paris Opéra

Other Articles:

Gérard Mortier, The Good, the Bad, and the Cultural Industry (address to the International Society of Performing Arts Foundation's International Congress in Vienna, Austria)

Michael P. Steinberg, In Salzburg, a Fresh Skirmish in the Culture Wars (The New York Times, October 17, 1999)
If you missed it, you might enjoy reading Fernanda Eberstadt's article Storming the Bastille (New York Times Magazine, December 5), about the new director of the Opéra de Paris, Gérard Mortier, and his commitment to challenging, avant-garde productions. If you are a regular reader of Ionarts, you will already have read my posts about Mortier's productions in Paris so far this year (Pelléas et Mélisande, September 21; Saint François d'Assise, October 12; Kát'a Kabanová, November 9; and Dialogues des Carmélites, November 10). However, there is a lot more interesting information beyond that:
For 30-odd years, in his positions at many of Europe's most important opera houses and festivals (Salzburg among them), Mortier has been a champion of the modern, creating solid audiences for 20th-century masters like Janacek, Schoenberg and Berg -- and training a whole new generation of directors who share his vision. It was Mortier who commissioned John Adams's 1991 "Death of Klinghoffer," based on the Palestine Liberation Front's fatal hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro, an opera that, directed by Sellars and choreographed by Mark Morris, explored political terrorism, American intervention in the Middle East and the endlessly incendiary relations between Israelis and Palestinians.

Mortier is one of the foremost practitioners of an increasingly widespread effort to modernize the staging of operas, bringing artists, film directors, fashion designers and sometimes circus acrobats together with conductors and singers to reconceive classic works. It is an approach that first took hold in postwar Europe in the work of directors like Peter Brook in Britain, Giorgio Strehler in Milan and Walter Felsenstein at the Komische Oper in East Berlin and that today has its proponents in opera houses all over the world. At one end of this spectrum, you have frenetically topical directors like the Catalan Calixto Bieito, whose productions of Mozart, as Michael White wrote in The New York Times, are "enlivened by relentless scenes of anal rape, fellatio, masturbation and drug-crazed couplings." At the other end is the American director Robert Wilson, a purist who seeks to return theater to its non-naturalistic sacral origins, using light and starkly delineated sets. If such techniques have become common in vanguard theatrical venues, many opera houses still cling to 19th-century stagings, with period costumes, elaborate wigs and sets that meticulously evoke the drawing rooms of landed nobility or the pyramids of Egypt.
I suppose that opera all comes down to that eternal question that must be answered: anal rape or elaborate wigs? While I admire Mortier's ideas, I imagine that the perfect director would be a compromise between Mortier and someone more traditional.

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