Gerard Mortier, visionary and artist, an opera director with a penchant for theatricality, died early Sunday, March 9 of cancer. He spent much of his life redefining the opera art form for the contemporary world. His bold, sometimes infuriating approach to the form could appear senseless, his interpretations bordering on being an imposition when it came to the long-cherished works he loved, but which he felt needed a touch of modernizing. Or his proposed innovations could be seen as brilliant and more in keeping with the demands of a MTV-mad world. He could divide or conquer, please or exasperate, but he was always engaging. No one was ever left unimpressed.
Mortier was a baker’s son from Ghent, Belgium, a city and a municipality located in the Flemish region of Belgium. Ghent is the capital and largest city of the East Flanders province. While living there, Mortier enjoyed the perks of being a baker’s son – pastries, cookies, and breads – but that was not a profession he chose to pursue with his father. Mortier studied law and qualified as a lawyer. He wasted no time in starting his profession.
When the opera in his home town was denounced in 1970, it woke him up; he knew he had to do something about the artistic platform he loved. He left Ghent in search of opera houses in need of an advocate, and he found them.
From that moment on, Mortier made opera his life. He proceeded to secure artistic positions at several opera houses: first Düsseldorf, then Hamburg and Frankfurt. With that work done, he went to Paris, where he assisted in the revival of the Paris Opéra at the Bastille. In 1980, he returned home to Ghent; he became the head of Belgium’s leading opera company. He proceeded to modernize his beloved opera house into an artistic sanctuary of entertainment. After working with opera houses for a decade, he was well acquainted with everyone in the world of opera. He was constantly networking to stay in touch with the changes happening within his profession, and often served as a mentor to new, inexperienced directors. He vowed to himself, that before he died, he would spread his artistic vision of opera around the world, and this is what he strove to accomplish.
Mortier remained true to his own values throughout his life, even at the cost of alienating his closest allies. In Brussels, he ran la Monnaie opera house for ten years before going to Salzburg in the early nineties. There he recommended, with his usual flourish, a long list of modern productions, which infuriated most of the people he encountered. They were not ready to move into the modern, exasperating world he proposed. But Mortier defended his ideas with unflagging passion, openly hostile to anyone who resisted him, and he made enemies. No one, however, could get past his charm, his infectious wit, and the attentiveness he displayed toward his friends. He could be bull-headed, but brilliant, and that brought everyone to their knees. He was never boring.
From Salzburg, he went on to the Ruhr valley in Germany for a short stay. He was soon named director of the Opéra in Paris and almost gave that up for a position at the city opera in New York. The Met beckoned, but a lack of financial support for what he would propose made him decide against it. He stayed in Paris until 2010.
Madrid Spain was his next, and last, artistic conquest. His work with the production of Brokeback Mountain at the Teatro Real in Madrid brought him high acclaim, as well as operatic splendor to Spain. This would stand out as his vindication of all that he believed in — the contemporary, daring productions that spanned cultures, with a cutting edge of a restlessness that defined the man. Gerald Mortier, artist and visionary has died, but his ideas and his innovations live on.
Editorial by Christine Schlichte