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Heather Mac Donald
Eclipsing Beauty
Gerard Mortier threatens to “update” City Opera—with trendy nihilism.
1 March 2007

With the appointment of Gerard Mortier to head New York City Opera, one of America’s leading houses may be about to plunge headlong into the anti-musical narcissism now prevalent in Europe. The consequences for American musical life could be dire, not least for that great institution across the plaza from City Opera, the Metropolitan Opera.

Gerard Mortier, who ran the Salzburg Festival for 10 controversial years and now heads the Opéra National de Paris, is committed to radical updatings of opera—and not just any old updatings. It’s not enough to wrench a work from the musical world that it inhabits and dump it among the detritus of modern society; it also helps to throw in plenty of violence, darkness, and sex that the score and libretto nowhere adumbrate.

Mortier’s Fledermaus at Salzburg ignored the music’s effervescence and smothered the work in cocaine- and blood-soaked political commentary about Vienna’s Nazi past. His Idomeneo changed the ending of Mozart’s score to eliminate its Enlightenment celebration of reconciliation and social balance. His Don Giovanni is a violent business scoundrel in a modern office tower. The Marriage of Figaro takes place in a dingy Eastern European marriage bureau with such musically barbarous gags as Susanna banging away at a typewriter during the gossamer “Canzonetta sull’aria” duet.

In fairness, Mortier has also brought forth some delightful productions, such as Mozart’s La Finta Gardiniera, seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1990. And he declared that Paris wasn’t ready for one of the more inflammatory directors working in Germany, Peter Konwitschny. But these unimpeachable judgments don’t seem to represent any consistent tendency.

The style of opera production that Mortier champions is known as Regietheater (German for “director’s theater”). In Regietheater, the director’s concept of a work trumps that of the composer; the director, not some two-bit tunesmith like Mozart, is the real star of the show. The operatic score is at best a faint starting point for the director’s more important artistic vision, though in the most hateful examples of Regietheater, such as those of Catalan director Calixto Bieito, it’s clear that the director takes absolutely zero cues from the music or text. Of course, most—but not all—practitioners of Regietheater will piously claim to be following the composer’s intentions. The results speak for themselves.

The disregard for the past embodied in Regietheater, the belief that a work can only be “relevant” to present audiences if it apes our popular cultural obsessions, represents the art-world ascendancy of the génération soixante-huit. While Belgian-born Mortier’s fellow students were trashing universities and other sites of the “establishment” across Europe in 1968, Mortier was disrupting opera productions he considered too conservative, according to a New York Times magazine profile. Now he sits atop the world he once sought to overturn, exploring, as he puts it, “socio-political associations” in opera. Mortier is the musical equivalent of the academic tenured radical—Roger Kimball’s famous phrase for 1960s campus protesters who now run universities.

American opera houses have hardly been immune from the depredations of Regietheater. Peter Sellars wreaked havoc on Mozart’s da Ponte trilogy at the PepsiCo Festival in Purchase, New York, in the 1980s; after PBS broadcast his stagings on television, Sellars’s trademark gimmicks spread throughout the land. City Opera’s own estimable Handel revivals have featured some crude updatings, and this season’s L’Elisir d’Amore, directed by Jonathan Miller, traded the opera’s Italian pastoral setting for kitschy 1950s Americana, complete with a slang-laden translation making references to Elvis and Popeye. One can easily find far worse conceptions across the country.

But Regietheater is not yet the norm here, as it is in Germany and, increasingly, in the rest of Europe. Pamela Rosenberg tried to bring the gratuitously provocative stagings she had backed while head of the Stuttgart Opera to San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, but her reign there ended in deficits and a sharp box office loss. Her dismissal seemed to send the salutary message that American audiences by and large still want opera productions to respect the music that it’s their duty to serve.

Mortier may change that. His European star power will attract a huge press scrum to every new production he mounts. He will undoubtedly bring to City Opera sexier directors and designers, who will create their own buzz. Whether he can adjust to the economic demands of an American opera house, however, remains far from certain. Mortier has spent his entire career in the accountability-free zone of European government arts subsidies—a zone that looks with scorn on the incessant fund-raising and marketing required at American opera houses. Pierre Bergé, former head of Yves St. Laurent, bragged about snaring Mortier for the Paris Opera: “At the Met, you are smothered by sponsorship—Mrs. So-and-So’s paying for it, so we must give her Zeffirelli. In Europe, we can still do something great. Gerard Mortier will show the way,” the New York Times reported his saying.

For at least a while, however, Mortier will be a magnet for well-heeled donors aspiring to hipness. These are precisely the donors that Peter Gelb, the almost-as-new general manager at the Metropolitan Opera, has hoped to attract with his unprecedented publicity blitz, which, until yesterday, enjoyed a monopoly position in the press. And so the most immediate question that Mortier’s ascension poses is what effect it will have on Gelb.

So far, Gelb has steered a delicate path between promising cutting-edge new productions from the crème of the movie and theater worlds and renouncing any intention to bring “Eurotrash” to the Met. If the music press goes ga-ga over Mortier’s “transgressive” updatings, though, Gelb will face a monumental choice: follow suit or distinguish the Met as the anti-Mortier house, the place where operagoers can still see operas as the composers intended and where beauty is not a taboo word.

It’s not clear whether Mortier will face a receptive press, should he start to bastardize our musical legacy. American music critics have been more skeptical of the madness pervasive in European houses than their Continental counterparts. But the Mortier mystique may be more than they can resist. If so, it will be up to audiences, both at City Opera and at the Met, to demand productions that serve the music, not cancel it out. And it will be up to Gelb to honor the traditions of the Met and of American opera in general.

If so much were not riding on the coming competition between Gelb and Mortier, the prospect of what will undoubtedly be a titanic battle of egos at Lincoln Center would be something to look forward to with unclouded delight. And in the short run, the face-off and its attendant publicity will be an undeniable boon for opera. But if the outcome of this epic matchup is the eclipse of the beauty and grace called forth by operatic scores, City Opera’s decision to hire Mortier will go down in American cultural history as the moment when the music started to die.

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More by Heather Mac Donald:
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