Holland's exciting minimalist

Times Music Critic

IN 1988, the Netherlands Opera appointed as its new head a 30-year-old Lebanese-born theater director with no background or experience in traditional opera. His passions were avant-garde music, theater and visual art. The opera world was aghast. One prominent New York opera administrator I spoke with at the time said that Pierre Audi would be lucky to last three years and that the Netherlands Opera would be lucky to survive him. Not that anyone outside Holland was likely to notice or care, so provincial was the company.

Last month, while sitting in Audi's sleek office in the Muziektheater, Amsterdam's modern opera house, and waiting for him to arrive, I looked around for evidence that he had been running the company for 20 years and had made it one of the most exciting and imaginative in the world. There wasn't much. Audi has minimalist tastes. His glass desk was not cluttered; the walls were free of art or photographs. Cardboard moving boxes on the floor gave the impression of a guy always prepared to make a quick getaway. Clearly, Audi could have been packed and out of there in an hour.

But he would have had to pack another office as well. Audi is also artistic director of the Holland Festival, a major international showcase for music, dance, theater and visual art that runs annually through most of June. In that instance, he turned around a foundering festival in a mere four years and, like the opera company, it too is now among the (if not the) liveliest and most adventurous of its kind.

What's more, Audi has a third career as an opera, theater and film director, and that's flourishing as well. Los Angeles Opera's brilliant productions of Monteverdi's "The Return of Ulysses to His Fatherland" and "The Coronation of Poppea" were his. In Austria, the Salzburg Festival will once more this summer mount his gorgeous and goofy "Magic Flute." The Metropolitan Opera has hired him for a new production of Verdi's early opera "Attila" in 2010, which Riccardo Muti will conduct and the Swiss architecture stars Herzog & de Meuron will design. Every few months, another striking Audi production, either one he's directed or one he's commissioned at the Netherlands Opera, comes out on DVD. In August, Opus Arte will release John Adams' "Doctor Atomic," which Peter Sellars directed in Amsterdam last year.

When Audi arrived at his office to meet me, he was wearing all black, from his tunic to his Prada sneakers. He has a baby face, easy smile and gracious manner. He was surprisingly relaxed given that this was the last week of his opera season and of the Holland Festival, in which there were two of his own productions among the dozens of events.

Indeed, Audi seemed happy to spend an hour talking about art and opera and his strange story. His family fled Beirut during the Lebanese civil war in 1974, settling in France, but he chose to go to England to study history at Oxford.

"Those years in Beirut before the civil war," he explained, "had been golden years. I met [Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo] Pasolini, I met [German surrealist] Max Ernst, I met [Argentine avant-garde composer Mauricio] Kagel. Stockhausen did seven days of concerts. Thousands of wonderful things were going on. I was open to everything. So my enthusiasms didn't come out of the blue. I do owe them to my adolescence there."

Getting started

WHILE AT Oxford, though, he discovered a decrepit Salvation Army hall, the Almeida, in the outer London borough of Islington. With the help of family money, he set about restoring it as a venue for avant-garde music and theater. And almost immediately, the 20-year-old impresario began making news by producing provocative new plays, commissioning far-out chamber operas and inviting the most sophisticated European composers of the day to his little festival.

A decade later, the Netherlands Opera figured it could profit from the Almeida approach. That Audi knew next to nothing about opera other than the kind of work he produced at the Almeida and had never run any other organization didn't seem to matter. The company was in financial trouble and lacked pizazz. A new opera house had opened two years earlier, in 1986, and was unpopular architecturally and, because it was built on marshland, was environmentally controversial as well.

At first, Audi acknowledged, he made plenty of mistakes. He pointed to "a terrible 'Idomeneo,' a terrible 'Un Ballo in Maschera' " -- productions that, although directed by others, revealed his own lack of experience with Mozart and Verdi, respectively. But he also had triumphs. A 1990 "Parsifal" caught on, got picked up by the Royal Opera in London and was remounted as recently as last year. And Monteverdi's "The Return of Ulysses to His Fatherland," the first opera Audi directed in Amsterdam, spawned his now classic three-opera Monteverdi cycle.

Certainly conventional wisdom didn't get in Audi's way. In 1991, he directed Morton Feldman's one-act "Neither," for which Samuel Beckett had written the 88-word libretto. The 1977 opera's premiere in Rome had been a disaster, and the work immediately fell into obscurity. Audi invited the beloved American soubrette Reri Grist to tackle the one-woman opera, which has a punishingly high tessitura.

Once again, the opera know-it-alls couldn't believe what a naif Audi appeared to be. Grist, who specialized in light Mozart, Rossini and Strauss roles, had never sung modern music and at 59 was significantly past her prime and semi-retired. In the event, she was a sensation.

The Netherlands Opera's short mission statement is unlike that of any other major company. "Our purpose and goals," it begins, "are to provide innovative music theater productions of high quality in which each theatrical discipline takes an equal part." In fact, Audi's mission is to treat opera as a vital contemporary art form, and he believes the visual arts must play a role in that. In his own productions, he likes nothing better than to invite a noted visual artist to create the decor.

He built "Neither" around a set by the Greek sculptor Jannis Kounellis. His "Magic Flute" was designed by the Dutch painter Karel Appel. This fall in Brussels, he will direct a new production of Debussy's "Pelleas and Melisande" designed by sculptor Anish Kapoor.

"Working with artists has always been interesting for me," he said. "When you work with an artist, the dramaturge is the artist. An artist can only come up with one idea. With a set designer, you can say, 'Offer me five options, offer me a menu.' But every artist I've ever worked with is incapable of doing that.

"As a director, you have to look at the result and then figure out: How do I tell the story? How do I make it work? But what is fabulous about working with an artist is that this degree of concentration offers the possibility of a new meaning. If all you want is options, you should ask a set designer."

That approach plays into Audi's minimalist aesthetic. His productions are never fussy. "I'm a storyteller," he continued. "I'm incapable of not telling the story, and what is nice, paradoxically, is for a storyteller to work with a visual artist, who is not necessarily a storyteller but a symbolist. These are not compatible approaches, but two points of view living together can make a production very interesting."

Audi has followed this path most notably with his production of Wagner's "Ring" cycle, in which he placed the orchestra onstage and created the action around it, and also, last month, with a profoundly moving production of Messiaen's epic "Saint Francois d'Assise," in which the orchestra was also onstage and a simple set came to represent religious awe, thanks to radiant lighting by Jean Kalman.

Audi insists on premiering at least one new opera a season, and he always devotes several of each season's dozen or so productions to contemporary and Baroque repertory. That, he conceded, is possible because of Holland's support for the arts. The government supplies 73% of the company's $50-million budget, guaranteeing low-priced tickets. Virtually all 100 performances a year are sold out.

Audi has also found a thirst for international work among the cosmopolitan population of the Dutch capital. The late Prince Claus left a fund to commission an African opera, and it was realized last year with the premiere of "Bintou Were" from Senegal. Although much of the new work is Dutch -- Louis Andriessen has written four memorable operas for the company, including the recent masterpiece "La Commedia" -- Audi has also worked with Chinese composer Tan Dun, and he commissioned the famed Russian composer Alfred Schnittke's "Life With an Idiot."

In addition, Audi receives support from the Dutch media. All Netherlands Opera productions are broadcast on the radio; some are televised. Leave it to the Dutch: "Doctor Atomic," about the creation of the first nuclear weapon, was televised on Christmas Day.

Holland Festival gets new life

LIKE THE Netherlands Opera, the Holland Festival began in the wake of World War II. It was part of Holland's attempt to reestablish itself as an international arts destination. In the '80s and '90s, the festival turned more inward, focusing mainly on Dutch drama, which is not exactly an international draw. Audi was brought in to revitalize the programming.

"It was stupid to lose trust in the formula," he said. "Every country needs an international festival which is iconographic, which is a window into what is going on in the country and also a window looking out on what is happening in the rest of the world.

"For me, this is a way of getting back to my old loves of new music and of programming theater and dance and visual arts. I can only do a little bit of this in opera, so this allows me once again to support the work of a much broader range of artists."

This year's festival, which ran from May 30 to June 22 and had as many as eight performances a day in venues throughout Amsterdam, operated on a budget of less than $5 million, which is chicken feed for a major arts festival. But because of Audi's reliance on state-sponsored Dutch organizations such as the country's orchestras, new music groups, dance and theater companies and Netherlands Opera (which included both "Saint Francois" and "La Commedia" in the festival), most of that money could go to bringing in outside groups.

Audi said he doesn't plan to remain at the Netherlands Opera after his contract expires in five years or at the festival beyond the four additional years he has agreed to. He feels 25 years in one place is long enough. Even he wasn't so sure he'd last the first three.

"But somehow, by coming here," he said, "I became the kind of foreigner who's adopted but who becomes kind of the international conscience of the place. That turned out to be my destiny."

Yet Audi also said it was too soon for him to think about his post-Holland future. After all, he's never been busier working on operas. Still, his name is now a no-brainer for the short list whenever a major festival in Europe or even America is searching for a new leader. And now, thanks in good part to the remarkable Amsterdam experiment, moving opera solidly into the 21st century doesn't seem such a bad idea.

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mark.swed@latimes.com

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