After having successively run La Monnaie, the Salzburg Festival, and the RuhrTriennale – the world-renowned festival which helped to bring new life to the old industrial wastelands of North Rhine-Westphalia – Gerard Mortier became the director of the Paris Opera in 2004, a position he would hold until 2009. During his tenure here, he developed a vision of opera that was resolutely contemporary, at the crossroads of art, opening up the stage to directors from the world of theatre – Peter Sellars (Adriana Mater, Tristan und Isolde), Krzysztof Warlikowski (Iphigénie en Tauride, Parsifal, The Makropoulos Affair…), Johan Simons (Simon Boccanegra, Fidelio), Christoph Marthaler (Katia Kabanova, Le Nozze di Figaro, La Traviata…) and Dmitri Tcherniakov (Eugene Onegin, Macbeth)… - the world of cinema – Michael Haneke (Don Giovanni) – and to visual artists such as Bill Viola (Tristan und Isolde) and Anselm Kiefer (Am Anfang)… A great promoter of 20th and 21st century opera, he also collaborated with some of the great composers of our times, including Kaija Saariaho (Adriana Mater), Philippe Boesmans (Yvonne, princesse de Bourgogne), Georg Friedrich Haas (Melancholia) and Salvatore Sciarrino (Da gelo a gelo).
His “opera-theatre” - a demanding and dramaturgical form of theatre profoundly anchored in our times – was haunted by the need to reinterpret and constantly update the essence of works. The result was productions which confronted and questioned the audience whilst never leaving them indifferent. Many of those works now occupy an important place in the repertoire; among them, Tristan und Isolde which is being revived this season* and Don Giovanni which will be restaged again next season.
Those productions and the passionate debates that they never failed to trigger have helped to forge the memories that Gerard Mortier leaves behind him today: that of a man of radical and enlightened reinterpretations. In a world of opera still deeply rooted in the works of the past, one would be tempted to quote the words of René Char to describe his relationship with the repertoire: “Our heritage is not preceded by any testament.”
But it would be a mistake to focus on the controversies that have marked and will continue to mark the history of opera when the essence of Gerard Mortier’s artistic project was underpinned by a constant willingness to meet with and to engage in a dialogue with the public, a desire to share and pass on his passion – particularly to new generations – to bring together audiences, artists and other actors from the performing arts into a single community, thus helping to build a theatre which he dreamed would be – in his own words – “a religion of Humanity”.
*The revival of Tristan und Isolde to be performed at the Opéra Bastille from April 8th is to be dedicated to him.