Gerard Mortier, who died of cancer on Saturday at age 70, is being widely eulogized for the incalculable role he played in the opera world in the years he headed opera companies in Brussels, Paris and Madrid. Most notably he revolutionized the Salzburg Festival.
I can think of no one more important than the crafty, brilliant Belgian impresario in making opera a uniquely telling, relevant, contemporary and meaningfully controversial art form in Europe.
But it wasn’t only Europe and it wasn’t only opera in which Mortier’s influence has proven pervasive. Although seldom identified as such, his footprints can, in fact, be found all over the cultural life of Los Angeles.
You don’t even have to wait long for the latest evidence. Sunday night Long Beach Opera will give the long overdue Southern California premiere of John Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer.” Mortier was the one who commissioned it for the culmination of his decade as the head of Thèâtre Royal de La Monnaie, the backwater Brussels opera company he turned into a magnet of the avant-garde.
It was at that “Klinghoffer” premiere in 1991 where I first saw Mortier in action. The opera was variously seen as pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli, with the potential to equally anger Jews and Arabs. The director was a provocative young Peter Sellars, who inflamed passions at rehearsal. Brussels was home to a large Palestinian community, and there was a fear of a terrorist attack on opening night. Security was tight and everyone involved uptight. Everyone, that is, but Mortier, who cheerfully crisis-managed with diplomatic bravura, relishing the controversy and standing up for the necessity of art to stimulate discussion and strong points of view.
Los Angeles Opera was hardly that brave. Despite our company having been a co-commissioner of the production, it didn’t dare stage it. But L.A. Opera has, over the years, been touched by Mortier in one way or another. One of Mortier’s other bold moves at Monnaie had been to make the Mark Morris Dance Group a resident ensemble of the opera company in 1988. It was that year with the Monnaie resources that Morris created his historic choreography for Handel’s “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato.” It took a long time, but L.A. finally imported that glorious Handel production to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion three years ago.
A dozen years after Kent Nagano conducted the “Klinghoffer” premiere in Brussels, he became the L.A. Opera’s first music director. Coincidentally James Conlon, L.A. Opera’s second and current music director, happened to be a casualty of Mortier taking over the Paris Opera in 2004. Conlon had been music director of the French company, which Mortier wanted to move in a more radical direction, making Conlon suddenly available for a position in L.A.
It was at the Salzburg Festival, which Mortier ran between 1990 and 2001, that he made the greatest effect on L.A. Under conductor Herbert von Karajan, the summer festival of music, opera and theater in Mozart’s Austrian hometown had become the fancy, formal, conservative, high-priced playground of the European elite. It was a good place for the continental captains of industry to do business and their wives to show off jewels. The traditionalist Vienna Philharmonic had long been the ruling orchestra.
Mortier would have none of that. He lowered ticket prices. He banned Puccini and Pavarotti. He gleefully waved goodbye to Riccardo Muti, who was offended by the bold opera productions Mortier brought in to replace the old-fashioned ones that were the Salzburg style.
In the summer of 1992, Mortier then offended Salzburg and the Vienna Philharmonic big time by inviting the L.A. Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen to be in residence for a month.
Salonen, who had just turned 34, was to become music director of the L.A. Phil that fall. Not only did he conduct several concerts revolving around 20th century music with the L.A. Phil in Salzburg that summer, but he and Sellars, with the L.A. Phil in the pit, staged a new production of Olivier Messiaen’s five-hour “Saint Francois d’Assise.” Considered a theatrical dud at its premiere in Paris nine years earlier, “Saint Francois” now proved a revelation, and the opera entered the repertory.
Sellars and Salonen, Salonen and the L.A. Phil, all were unproven when Mortier took a chance and invited them to the highest profile festival in the world. That summer marks the moment when the L.A. Phil began to be perceived everywhere as a leader of orchestras.
While at Salzburg, Mortier developed a close friendship with Beverly Hills new music patron Betty Freeman, who was the most generous and insightful donor in the nation. That friendship led to many commissions for Mortier projects in Salzburg. One was Kaija Saariaho’s “L’Amour de Loin” in 2000, one the most successful operas of the past 15 years. Mortier began spending time in L.A. visiting Freeman, and American composers accused him of leading her to focus more on European work. But Mortier hardly lost interest in L.A. artists. In 2003, he created a new festival in the Ruhr valley in Germany using deserted industrial sites as spectacular venues. One project for the Ruhr Triennial was an extraordinary installation of Long Beach video artist Bill Viola’s “Five Angels for the Millennium” in a gigantic gasometer, where fuel had been stored during the Third Reich,in Oberhausen. Later Mortier created a full staging for the Paris Opera of the Salonen-Sellars-Viola “Tristan Project,” originally created for the L.A. Phil and Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Forced to retire from the Paris Opera at age 65, Mortier was invited in 2007 to head New York City Opera. He quit after 18 months when his budget was slashed to $38 million, barely more than half of what he had been promised. He decamped to the Teatro Real in Madrid.
Although he never staged a work in New York, Mortier had great plans for City Opera. He intended to open his first season with a revival of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s “Einstein on the Beach,” and he commissioned Glass’ “The Perfect American” and Charles Wuorinen’s “Brokeback Mountain.” All were canceled when he left for Madrid.
But the “Einstein” revival was taken up by others and has proven an international sensation, including at L.A. Opera this fall. Last year “The Perfect American” and in January “Brokeback” had their premieres at Teatro Real, attracting enormous international attention.
Had City Opera risked the expense, Mortier might well have triumphed, saving it from the ignominious bankruptcy and demise it suffered when it closed shop earlier this season. And that leads to another what if.
After Ernest Fleischmann retired as executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1998, Mortier told me he was approached to take over the orchestra. He said he would only do it if he could run the entire Music Center. He supposedly asked for a salary of $1 million, then a preposterous amount, although the head of Lincoln Center makes far more these days.
Mortier would have surely done magnificent things and probably bled the place dry in the process. He always thought big. But he had identified the need for the Music Center to be an institution with a grand vision. With the center turning 50 in December, there is a lot we can learn from a great man who believed in us before we believed in ourselves.