A life lived for opera
Having studied Law and Communication in his native city of Ghent, Gerard Mortier worked for the Festival of Flanders (1968-1972) as assistant to the then director, Jan Briers. His name soon became known in the international circuit when he was head of artistic planning for Christoph von Dohnanyi and Rolf Liebermann, in the opera houses of Düsseldorf (1972-1973), Hamburg (1973-1977), Frankfurt (1977-1979) and Paris (1979-1981). He held his first position as director here in Brussels.
From the moment of his appointment at La Monnaie in 1981, he did everything in his power to put it once again on the map. Through courageous programming, through cooperation with major theatre producers with the aim of giving opera a new value as theatre, by consciously opting for a well-thought out, logical dramaturgic line with an accent on the relevance of the major repertoire of our times, by opting for a rejuvenation of the genre by bringing in contemporary composers with a feeling for opera, by pressing home the upgrading of the artistic qualities of La Monnaie by revamping the orchestra and choir and by taking on famous conductors with dramatic perceptions, by paying special attention to the homogeneity of the vocalists with as a rule young singers, and not in the least by injecting such enthusiasm that made every performance an experience, he gave the genre opera a new dynamism that once and for all radically consigned doom-laden tidings such as “opera is dead” to the wastepaper basket. For ten years – until the end of 1991 – he was director at La Monnaie. During that time, from his base in Brussels he showed the world how a dynamic opera house with a vision could be both trendsetting and high-profile in Europe in spite of being limited in resources. Theatre directors once again transformed opera into theatre: internationally celebrated artists such as Patrice Chéreau, Peter Stein, Luc Bondy, Daniel Mesguich, Herbert Wernicke, Peter Mussbach or Ruth Berghaus worked along with home-grown talent such as Philippe Sireuil or Gilbert Deflo. Together with his musical directors Sir John Pritchard and Sylvain Cambreling, he always knew how to lend musical form to the dramaturgic concept. His unfailing instinct for theatre resulted nearly every time in unanimously applauded productions. Through him, young talent had more and more opportunities. Through the Brussels’ audiences, numerous works from the repertoire opened the minds of many, or let them rediscover them, with undoubtedly the crowning glory being the celebrated Mozart cycle by Karl-Ernst and Ursel Herrmann, conducted by Sylvain Cambreling, and in which José van Dam, one of the most prominent and much-respected singers from the Mortier period, played a prominent role. While still working in Brussels, he was asked to set up a renewed structure for the Flemish Opera, a job for which he acquitted himself admirably.
Gerard Mortier’s successes in La Monnaie led him to being invited in 1992 to take over the artistic directorship of the Salzburger Festspiele. Here too he brought about a wind of change and certainly didn’t shun controversy. Not only did he attract a younger audience, through his choice of repertoire he prepared the festival to enter the 21st century. After Salzburg followed the RuhrTriennale where he became the first intendant (2002-2004). After that he took over as director of the prestigious Opéra de Paris (2004-2009), a logical continuation of his convictions from his Brussels period, where he became more and more active in the furthering of the plans for the new Opéra Bastille. Following an unsuccessful period with the New York City Opera, where due to financial restrictions his plans never got off the ground, he was appointed artistic director of the Madrid opera house, Teatro Real, where he was working until very recently.
Gerard Mortier was respected by both friend and foe for his sophistication, his unbridled energy and his visionary plans for culture. His vision on culture which knew no boundaries, yet always from a European and humanist perspective, remains a guiding light for all of us wishing to further build on his legacy.
To celebrate all he had achieved, in 1991 he was appointed Commandeur in de Kroonorde, and in the same year was awarded the Grosses Bundesverdienstkreuz in Germany. He became doctor honoris causa of the universities of Antwerp and Salzburg, Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres in France, was awarded in 2002 the silver Mozart medaille from the International Stiftung Mozarteum and became in 2005 Chevalier de l’ordre de la Légion d’honneur. For his complete works he was honoured with the Prijs van de Vlaamse Gemeenschap voor Algemene Culturele Verdienste 2004. In 2007 king Albert conferred the title of Baron on him. From this year a prize will be named after him, the Mortier Award, a new recognition for innovating talent in music theatre that will be presented, to himself, for the first time this year on 31 May by the renowned Ring Award Jury.