Gerard Mortier, European opera impresario, dead at 70

Gerard Mortier, who headed the Opera National de Paris and the Teatro Real in Madrid, has died at 70.
(Paul White / Associated Press)

Gérard Mortier, the colorfully cosmopolitan opera impresario from Belgium whose taste for edgy, risk-taking productions earned him admiration around the world, has died. He was 70.

Mortier died Saturday at in his residence in Brussels, according to a spokesman for Madrid’s Teatro Real, where Mortier served as artistic director until last year. No cause of death was given, but Mortier had recently undergone treatment for pancreatic cancer.

In a four-decade career that took him to prominent European companies, Mortier forged a reputation for shaking up the operatic profession by embracing new works and hiring directors with strong visions who reinterpreted the classics in contemporary ways.

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He served as the head of the prestigious Salzburg Festival in Austria from 1990 to 2001 and as general director of the Opéra National de Paris from 2004 to 2009. His last job was at the Teatro Real, a post he accepted after his appointment to the financially troubled New York City Opera fell through in 2008 before he began the job.

Mortier worked with such renowned directors as Peter Sellars, Michael Haneke and Abbas Kiarostami. He was an early champion of American choreographer Mark Morris and collaborated with avant-garde artist-directors Achim Freyer and Los Angeles’ Bill Viola.

In Madrid, Mortier secured the world premieres of operas that included Philip Glass’ “The Perfect American,” about the death of Walt Disney, and the recent “Brokeback Mountain,” an adaptation of the Annie Proulx short story about two cowboys who fall in love.

Mortier was outspoken by nature and sometimes got into trouble. Last year, he told a Spanish newspaper that no qualified Spaniards could fill his shoes and that he would cut short his term at the Teatro Real if a successor was named who did not meet his approval.

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Shortly thereafter, the company announced that Mortier was departing and that Joan Matabosch, the artistic director of the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, would take his place.

Mortier was born in 1943 in the Belgian city of Ghent. He first rose to international prominence as the general director of La Monnaie opera company in Brussels during the ‘80s and early ‘90s.

Under Mortier’s tenure, the company premiered in 1991 John Adams’ controversial opera “The Death of Klinghoffer,” about the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro and the murder of the Jewish American passenger Leon Klinghoffer.


Information on survivors wasn’t immediately available.


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