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Exit Interview: Gerard Mortier

Gerard MortierGerard Mortier's tenure at the head of the Opéra national de Paris officially came to an end on July 22, to be followed by the era of Nicolas Joel, who will take the reins this September. For all of the criticism of Mortier, especially by more conservative opera fans on this side of the Atlantic who were pleased that his plan to take over New York City Opera failed, his work in Paris will probably be thought a success. Mortier is proud to take responsibility for the average age of the audience at the Opéra de Paris decreasing from 56 to 42 and for the improvement of critical approval of the playing of the Orchestre de l'Opéra, now thought of as the best in France. Ticket sales have been exceptionally strong, 92.5% of the house for operas and 88.7% for ballets, meaning that the self-financing part of the company's budget, from ticket sales, is up from 39% to 45%. However, criticism against Mortier from conservative opera supporters has been strong. Christian Merlin asked him a few questions about it in an interview (Gerard Mortier : «J'ai voulu faire réfléchir» [Gerard Mortier: I wanted to make people think], July 22) for Le Figaro (my translation):

LE FIGARO. You have often been perceived as a provocateur who loves to shock the bourgeoisie.

It's a big misunderstanding. I have a passion, and I seek to share it. My intention is not to brutalize the listener, I believe deeply in what I do. That is not to say that I succeed every time. On my desk I always have a reminder of that saying of Beckett's, "Fail, fail again, but fail better." In any case, during the farewell cocktail given by the members of the Association pour le rayonnement de l'Opéra de Paris, those people told me that they were happy to have been bowled over by me, even if they had not always understood everything. One has to accept not understanding: does one understand everything when one reads Rimbaud?

People criticize you for programming what you like instead of a diverse selection.

It's not a question of liking but of my conception of opera. I know that all I have to do is program La Bohème or Tosca to fill the house, but I do not feel compelled to do so. I think first of what work can teach me something about our society. Richard Strauss is not one of my favorite composers, but I know that I must program him. In Madrid I will begin my first season with Kurt Weill's Mahagonny, a reflection on the economic model that is in crisis today, and I will end it with Saint François d'Assises. So, we will have the two poles of the contemporary world, materialism and spirituality. That is how I create a season, even if I sometimes have to bend over backwards to satisfy the artists: I did Werther at the request of Rolando Villazón and Susan Graham, and I am going to do Puccini's La Fanciulla del West because Eva-Maria Westbroek begged me to do it, even though I detest those operas.

You see it more as reflection than entertainment?

Reflection is essential. "The sleep of reason brings forth monsters," says the Goya painting, of which I have a reproduction in my office. And thus an opera theater is not an institution for entertainment, especially with public money. I have a mission: one cannot do Broadway with 100 million in government financing.

Do you have any regrets or frustrations from your time in Paris?

The nightmare was the cancellation of the premiere of Kaija Saariaho's Adriana Mater because of a strike. During my tenure there has not been a single strike due to internal causes, only to national movements like the intermittents or the retirement issue. I would have loved to mount Zimmermann's Die Soldaten, but it is too difficult to stage in a theater where one routinely alternates among productions. Schoenberg's Moses und Aron and Wagner's Die Meistersinger would have been dear to my heart, but the main character in them is the chorus and the chorus of the Opéra de Paris was not exactly up to the task. Other than that, the great wound will remain the reception given to Sylvain Cambreling, even though he has been recognized in Germany as a great conductor.
Mortier is certainly right that he did not always succeed and his brash approach is often too confrontational and off-putting. At the same time, it is hard not to think that the upcoming Paris season looks a little, well, plain compared to most of the Mortier seasons, in which there were few tired revivals and lots of unusual things that seemed like yet another good reason to fly to Paris. The good news is that Marc Minkowski, banned under Mortier, will be back in the pit conducting Gounod's Mireille to open the season, in a production directed by Nicolas Joel himself. Also not bad are a Willy Decker production of Korngold's Die tote Stadt and the Bastille's first Ring cycle, directed by Günter Krämer. Of course, La Bohème is back, and so are L'elisir d'amore and Barber of Seville. Given Joel's record in Toulouse, however, seasons after the first, transitional one will surely be lots more interesting.

Mortier ends the discussion by saying that it is not true that he does not like being contradicted, that in fact he loves discussion and never hides what he thinks, although it is true that he "reacts viscerally" when he does not understand another person's likes. He gives as an example Merlin's high regard for the Bruckner symphonies as directed by Philippe Herreweghe: "That I cannot understand coming from you, who know this composer as well as I do. It's beyond me!"

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