Cher Public

Gerard Mortier 1943-2014

Update: Impresario Gerard Mortier died earlier today of pancreatic cancer, according to De Morgen. He was 70.

Here is Mortier’s final great success, a production at the Teatro Real of Gluck’s Alceste conducted by Ivor Bolton, directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski and featuring Paul Groves and Angela Denoke.

  • Henry Holland

    Maybe reports of his death are greatly exaggerated? The Facebook link doesn’t work and a Google News search doesn’t turn up anything about him dying either.

  • louannd

    Just been watching this production on Arte where the entire performance is available.

    If you are not friends with Barry Banks on FB, I doubt the link would work for you.

    • Henry Holland

      The link provided by LC goes to Catherine Malfitano’s FB page.

  • Papagena Dimitrova

    Both Catherine Malfitano and Sam Ramey are mouring him on FB. I would imagine them to have pretty reliable sources when it comes to Gerard Mortier…

    • Henry Holland

      True, he’s been in very poor health recently, so it’s not a shock. RIP.

  • Camille
    • Henry Holland

      That’s a good interview, interesting that he thinks he should have left the Paris Opera a year early to take up the NYCO opera job. His defense of taking a year off didn’t work then, it doesn’t work now. I still regret that the Saint François d’Assise at the Park Avenue Armory never happened.

      • ML

        Henry, Saint François d’Assise is a weak oratorio of twice the length it needs to be.

        • oedipe

          That is, of course, a personal opinion and should be presented as such.

          • ML

            … and it was Pompidou or Mitterand who forced the poor guy to do it, against his better judgment.

          • oedipe

            I attended the prima at Garnier and it was a revelation. Politics has nothing to do with it. For me, it’s one of the 20th century masterpieces.

            • ML

              Ah, with Eda-Pierre. Lucky you! (I was there three years earlier for a Varviso Holländer with Behrens and van Dam.)

              It was OM himself who said Pompidou told him it was his duty, or something along those lines, to write the opera.

            • Buster

              The Ozawa recording of Saint-Francois is still fabulous, with the young (and for me more moving) van Dam. I prefer it to both Nagano recordings, and the Metzmacher DVD.
              Agree with Oedipe it is a masterpiece, but you have to hear it live to find out. No way a livingroom can hold all those sounds. The finale is one of the most magical moments I have ever experienced.

            • oedipe

              The finale is one of the most magical moments I have ever experienced.

              And that’s how it’s supposed to be, of course: a magical and transcendental moment.

            • ML

              Buster, I have only heard the thing live. It clearly is not an opera, lacking drama. The Sellars word “ritualization” comes to mind. Or really eight ritualizations. Musically it is all about harmonies and color, and these are not rich enough or sufficiently developed and structured to sustain the length. Half the length, perhaps. Much editing was needed but did not happen. Messiaen simply lacked this critical ability. The epic scale of something should not automatically trigger the accolade “masterpiece” — which ought to reflect mastery, no?

            • Not all theatrical traditions so neatly compartmentalize the concepts of “drama” and “ritual”. This emphatically includes European and American musical theater after, say, 1965 or so. The MET recently had a big popular and critical success with “Satyagraha”. It’s a little late in the day to claim that Aristotelian drama is the only legitimate form of musical theater.

            • ML

              @ M. Croche, Einstein o t B is the reference here, not Satyagraha, a much more coherent work than St François — and if you’re holding Einstein up as an “opera” then we can’t converse.

            • “Satyagraha” is decidedly non-dramatic in the Aristotelian sense. Indeed, scenes such as the prologue from the Kuru Field of Justice strikes me as highly ritualized. And yet it was a critical and popular success at the Metropolitan Opera. “Saint Francois” has also been a critical and popular success in the opera houses that have performed it. “Einstein on the Beach”, too, is an opera -- a fantastically successful one. Your definition of “opera” strikes me as old-fashioned and ossified.

              As for the length of “Saint Fraincois” -- I think Messiaen is something of a polarizing composer. Some people have a hard time “getting” him. Charles Rosen never warmed up to Messiaen, but he understood that colleagues adored the music. Not all works or all composers speak to everybody. “Saint Francois” speaks to some and not to you. That is all.

            • ML

              @ M. Croche, I admire your advocacy of broader and Eastern forms, but we can’t just throw labels around.

              — you brought up Aristotle, a dead end

              — I described Satya as coherent, not dramatic, and its success at the Met is unrelated to St F

              — St F was such a flop in Munich that its sets were sold off last month after just 3 perfs

              — Einstein we must disagree on, as to its nature and its success

              — I’m in the “old-fashioned and ossified” market, with the best stuff

              — St F does speak to me, only as an overlong and non-dramatic work

              — Messiaen’s Éclairs, Turangalîla, Quatuor, Et exspecto, Canyons, and several piano pieces are all better works than St F, and I’m sure Messiaen would agree

            • ML

              — fwiw, I would rate Nono’s Prometeo (nine cantatas or one cantata in nine sections, and again not an opera) as a greater achievement than St F

            • — Messiaen’s Éclairs, Turangalîla, Quatuor, Et exspecto, Canyons, and several piano pieces are all better works than St F, and I’m sure Messiaen would agree

              Messiaen at this time is unavailable for comment.

              — St F was such a flop in Munich that its sets were sold off last month after just 3 perfs

              Should be amended to read: “Hermann Nitsch’s highly-controversial production of St. Francois was such a flop etc.” Nagano’s work was generally praised, Nitsch’s was generally pilloried.

              And to state the proposition bluntly: “Drama” is not necessary for opera. There are great works of literature where “reading for the plot” is largely beside the point (“Tristram Shandy”, “Ulysses”, “Pale Fire”). The same may be said of opera.

            • ML

              Messiaen, RIP, is on record as stating he had no feel for opera or for the stage. He had concluded he should not write St François when the French president, no less, urged him on. Being the kind of man he was, this left him with a sense of duty to create the opera, with which he struggled for up to 8 years.

              All new productions in Munich are pilloried these days, but most are revived, sometimes several times. Saint François left no one interested in revisiting it. The piece is much too long for its material and lacks action — let’s use that word instead of drama.

            • I’m sure we would all like a citation of the exact quotation from Messiaen, or is this something he mentioned to you casually in conversation?

            • ML
            • Four paraphrases of an indirect quotation of the same unsourced anecdote, which, even if the imagined dialogue should happen to be what was really spoken, actually proves nothing. So what if Messiaen said before the fact he didn’t think he had a talent for music drama? Since when are composers accurate critics of their own talents? What if, just to choose one possible scenario, Messiaen simply didn’t want to take on this sort of large-scale project because he was elderly and didn’t relish the prospect of spending the last years of his life locked into such a major commission. What if Messiaen was wary of taking on a project that would involve two levels of politics (national and opera house) and all that hassles and squabbles attendant?

              This story may shed interesting light on Messiaen’s personality, but (even if it’s accurately reported in these third-hand accounts) I don’t see how it defines the piece as a failure. You seem to have some stake in thinking of it that way, but that doesn’t mean the world has to agree with you.

            • ML, I think you are reading too much into very little. Messiaen was not a young man. He would have realized that an opera would have required enormous effort conceiving and writing the libretto, composing the music, orchestrating the music, and copying out the score. Small wonder that he would express hesitation before such an immense, daunting task.

              But the sheer amount of work the composer put into the opera is sufficient testament to the importance of “Saint Francois” to him. This confidence increased through the first performance. Kent Nagano recalled, “Messiaen told me that his life’s work was finished -- “I’ve lived to write Saint François and I feel that I’m not going to write anymore” -- and he said this in such a way that I felt he was referring to the end of his life. You have to remember that I was a true Californian, so of course I tried to lighten up the situation, saying, “C’mon, Olivier, it can’t be that bad.” He didn’t find this amusing at all: “No, no, I’m serious. I feel something is happening. I tell you honestly, Kent, if I live long enough to hear the first orchestral rehearsal I’ll be happy.” Then after the first rehearsal Messiaen said, “I just wish I could see a rehearsal on stage.” So we got into the opera house and did the first rehearsal on stage, and I breathed another sigh of relief, but Messiaen said, “You know if I could hear just one complete run-through of my opera then I’ll know it’s been created.” We had the dress rehearsals, and then the first performance, and Messiaen not only survived but by the and was in remarkably good health.”

              There are plenty of indications that one point, Messiaen intended “Saint Francois” to be his opus ultimum and opus summum, the work in which he poured a lifetime’s worth of thought about music.

              Asked by Jean-Christopher Marti during an interview shortly before his death how easy it was to recover from composing the opera, Messiaen replied: “afterwards, I felt empty, I imagined that I had said everything, I thought that I could stop composing.”

              [Both citations are taken from Christopher Philip Dingle’s monograph “Messiaen’s Final Works”]

            • ML

              Yes, your two what-ifs sound plausible to me. After all, he was a realist.

              As to whether his self-assurance in opera climbed over the eight-year gestation, there are probably interviews from the time of the 1983 premiere that address this.

              My own assessment is that he became a better composer, in a technical sense, for the experience. Éclairs would not have been possible without the opera — and that is his finest large-scale work, imho.

              I think people coming away with the notion of Saint François d’Assise being a “masterpiece” are reacting more to its size (and their own sunk energy and time) than to quality.

              In contrast, Mozart’s Ave verum is a masterpiece — he has conquered the motet form — and it lasts two minutes.

              Saint François d’Assise isn’t defined (by anyone) as a failure because Messiaen didn’t consider himself up to the task. It is a failure because its material and workings do not sustain its length, or anything close, and because it has no drama, an essential ingredient of opera, which is what it claims to be.

            • ML

              … that was in reply to La C.

            • ML

              @ M. Croche, nobody is disputing the importance of St F to Messiaen, either the subject or the composition.

            • I’m sure Messiaen would agree.

      • A. Poggia Turra

        I’m devastated at the news of Mr. Mortier’s death -- his work in many ways paved the path to my discovery of the wonders of modern, innovative productions (I’ll never forget that 2001 Salzburg ‘Fledermaus’.

        Henry -- Mortier did finally get to stage that “big” production, in the Madrid Arena:

        My understanding is the the Queen of Spain herself attended, and did not leave early.

  • operaassport

    Very sorry to hear it. RIP.

  • This definitely is true. Christine Goerke just posted something about it. RIP.

  • How can anyone receive pleasure from Denoke’s wailing is beyond me.

    • Jack Jikes

      Given the circumstance, this is a shitty remark.

    • Feldmarschallin

      The man is barely cold and the vultures already are out I see.

    • I heard Denoke as Marschallin, she didn’t wail. But even if she did how is a comment like this appropriate right now?

    • phoenix

      I assume the ‘Alceste’ video has been removed from this thread -- I can’t find it now and I didn’t hear it when it was first broadcast on the radio.
      -- As far as criticism of Denoke’s wailing in said video, this site has always encouraged freedom of speech & opinions. I heard Denoke sing a beautiful Marschallin on the radio a few years back but a dreadful Kundry from London recently. Not being a fan of Gluck’s Alceste, I will pass it by and leave it to those of you who are.
      -- I don’t understand how a simple criticism of a still-living singer in a video produced by a deceased opera director can elicit such moral condemnation -- if Lindo heard wailing, then he heard wailing -- respect his opinion and leave it be instead of persecuting him about it. When I read what Lindo wrote about the wailing, I immediately thought of the ancient moirologists (mourners) first mentioned in Syriac-Canaanite documents dating back to 14th century BC and sort of linked it up to the ancient Alceste legend.

      • oedipe

        Wise and diplomatic post, Phoenix. I agree with what you are saying.
        I am not a great fan of Denoke either and I have little desire to hear her as Alceste. Maybe it’s just me, but I am very much looking forward to hearing Gens as Alceste at Garnier next season.

      • louannd

        Denoke as Alceste is a wonder as far as her acting is concerned. What’s more is that it is a magnificent piece of theater which we can credit to Mortier and Warlikowski. Here is the link which I hope works for you:

        • Quanto Painy Fakor

          Spoiler alert: The production is really special. I cannot think of any live opera that I’ve ever seen begin as this one does. But I also can’t imagine Mortier being able to watch very much of it or even singing in the chorus, for it is extremely emotional with so many visible symbols of end of life.
          It’s well worth watching. Try to find it.

      • Jack Jikes

        phoenix -- Being offended by an inane comment (given its context) is a free-speech issue?

        • phoenix

          All is (or should be) freedom of speech & opinion -- but how about showing a little respect for someone else’s opinion? -- you can always show us the legitimacy of your own opinion without having to attack anyone else’s.
          -- IMO: Lindo is not a ‘vulture’ nor are his comments ‘shitty’.

          • Jack Jikes

            The issue is essentially respecting a memorial to a dead man and you just don’t get it.

            • peter

              I’m having a hard time understanding why people are upset that someone made a comment about a singer he doesn’t care for on a thread about a director that just died. He was not commenting on Mortier but a singer in a video. This is a blog. People make very opinionated comments here and on other blogs. It’s to be expected. I agree with Phoenix that what is more offensive is when people trash other people for expressing their opinion.

            • phoenix

              You’re right Jack, I don’t get it. Are we supposed to curb our personal opinions about a performance because said performance has been designated as the ‘final great success’ of the deceased? What has happened to expression of personal opinion?
              -- Who are you to dictate the honest opinions of anyone about any performance -- be that performance ‘memorialized’ or not; and even more so, who are you to dictate how others deal with death?
              -- I repeat- Lindo did not refer to the dead opera producer or anyone in the video as a ‘vulture’ or ‘shitty’. Respect the living while they are alive.
              -- Is Angela Denoke now above reproach, the Holy Mother of this memorialized relic video that we are all supposed to venerate, according to your wishes?

            • spiderman

              well said, phoenix!

          • Translated from the French, what this comment means is, “Angela Denoke is not French, so she has no business singing a French opera role. Therefore any criticism of her is valid, the harsher and cruder the better.”

            • Feldmarschallin

              Well I just finished watching the Alceste and Denoke is stunning. The production was breathtaking especially the scene before hell. The more I see of Warlikowski the more I like him and find him one of the best directors today. I hope he comes back to the BSO soon since he was highly regarded here for his most recent FroSch and the Onegin also is one of the best of Bachlers reign.

            • spiderman

              I think you forgot to switch on your loudspeakers, Feldmarschallin … Alceste is just beyond Denokas technical abilities.

            • figaroindy

              And, we’re back!

              Funny, that’s how I felt back when it was “bash the Brits” day about American Opera jobs…but I’m an American. Translated from the American, this quote ends “…cast the first stone.”

          • armerjacquino

            you can always show us the legitimacy of your own opinion without having to attack anyone else’s.

            Not always, phoenix. And not here, either. Jack’s opinion was that lindoro’s comment was in poor taste: no way to express that opinion without criticising Lindoro’s.

            Personally, I’d say Lindoro had every right to make the comment and Jack had every right to express his distaste, but then I’m just a tree-hugging old liberal.

        • Jack Jikes

          C.1996 the tenor Richard Versalle suffered a a fatal heart attack on the opening night of a new production of The Makropulos Case. He was halfway up very tall ladder and had just sung the line “You can only live so long” when his hands let go of the ladder and his body hit the stage
          with a lifeless thud. After some delay the audience was reassembled
          and told of the death and that he performance was canceled.
          A man started screaming something like -- “That’s what covers are for!
          The opera should continue.” Irate parrons told him to shut up and respect the dead. Did the man have the right to make the outburst? Yes. Did the patrons have right to be outraged? Absolutely.
          Lindoro’s comment is an offense of a similar sort if not to the same degree. It’s a question of morality commingled with aesthetics

          • phoenix

            I haven’t read that Mme. Denoke passed away during a performance of Gluck’s Alceste -- if so, may she rest in peace. If she is still alive, what is the similarity in the two incidents and how do you juxtapose these two events? I suggest you limit your fatwa condemnations to members of your own clan, the rest of us don’t have to buy into it.
            -- Lindo did not mention anything about the opera director that passed away, nor did Lindo criticize his production in any way (that I read) -- if so, enlighten me about it.

            • Jack Jikes

              La Cieca featured the production to honor Mortier calling it a great success. Denoke was Gluck’s eponymous heroine and labeled by Lindoro as a wailing, anhedonic entity. That comment boldly reflects on the production.
              Whither goest your plea for freedom of speech and expression?

            • phoenix

              Jack, you have now earned La Cieca’s endorsement!

    • papopera

      merda !

  • Jack Jikes

    He was a very great man. More than anyone else he represented how opera productions can achieve the transporting realm of the sublime, the intelligent and the illuminating. I regret that I was not under his aegis my entire opera-going life.

    • ML

      I think of his work as managing, assembling projects around other people’s talent and money.

      • Jack Jikes

        Which describes what ALL opera producers do. Mortier was easily the best of a kind.

  • Feldmarschallin

    Very sad loss. I decided to watch the first 2 hours of the Alceste last night and found the production so far brilliant. Denoke has a big part in it and never knew how much Alceste has to sing in the opera. She is riveting to watch on stage needless to say. I will watch the end this evening thinking of Mortier.

    • louannd

      I completely agree!

  • Feldmarschallin

    This form of cancer is especially horrible and fast acting. Pavarotti also died of this cancer.

    • semira mide

      Yes, it is a horrible form because it is usually caught too late. But Marilyn Horne beat the odds. We can all be grateful for that!

  • Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin


    “Gerard Mortier was one of the rare artistic director personalities who fought incessantly for the arts and their social importance – not even severe illness could stop him. His death is a terrible loss,” said Festival President Helga Rabl-Stadler in a very personal statement about the death of Gerard Mortier, who was the Salzburg Festival’s Artistic Director from 1991 to 2001.

    “Gerard Mortier was a steadfast follower of the philosophy of Giuseppe di Lampedusa, who wrote in his novel Il Gattopardo: ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change’.”

    “Mortier wanted the Festival to remain the best and most important one in the world. He knew that he had to change a lot of things after the death of his all-powerful predecessor Herbert von Karajan, and he wanted to change them. Thus, he succeeded in having the Karajan era followed by a Mortier era. It was wonderful to work with him when he used his competence and passion to realize programs which seemed impossible at first, for example ‘Saint François d’Assise’ by Olivier Messiaen. It was difficult to work with him when his delight in provocation hurt colleagues and artists.”

    “At his best,” said Rabl-Stadler, “Mortier succeeded in making the killer term ‘random’ disappear from the newspaper’s cultural pages as a description of the Festival’s program. His motto was, ‘I want to create a Festival community which is a community of our times. An audience which confronts the great questions of a complex world – on the other hand, the artists must reflect upon the meaning of art’.” She describes him as a crusader. “He wanted everyone to be passionate about his program, intellectuals and ordinary citizens alike. Together, we lived for the conviction that no festival in the world can be pushed through against the wishes of the local population. Mortier was tireless in his efforts to get the citizens of Salzburg to consider and support the Festival as their own Festival.”

    She added that she was particularly pleased when Mortier recently gave an interview looking back with affection: “The Salzburg Festival was the greatest enrichment of my life, not just because of the encounters with so many outstanding artists, but also with the composers and writers. There is no other cultural institution in the world offering the same chance. Salzburg gave me incredible joy.”

  • Buster

    So sorry to to hear this. Two great losses in a row for Belgium. Jan Hoet last month, and now Mortier:

    • olliedawg

      Shitty way to go…sorry to hear about his death. Hard to lose someone so passionately devoted to an art form we all love and want to perpetuate.

  • operaassport

    Gerard Mortier and Patrice Chereau both gone within 6 months of each other. So sad, so very sad. Two irreplaceable giants.

  • Eh?

    “In 2004, he began a five-year stint at the Opéra de Paris, followed by an abortive appointment to New York City Opera -- a posting which he accepted in rage after being passed over for the top job at the Metropolitan Opera, an organisation he had always longed to reform.”