Gerard Mortier, who died early today of cancer, was the most divisive, infuriating yet engaging personality in the opera world.
Depending on your viewpoint he was either (a) a wrecker of traditional values who imposed nonsensical interpretations on hallowed works, or (b) a brilliant innovator who saw the need to make the art he loved relevant for a video-driven era. Either way, he left no-one cold.
A baker’s son from Ghent, Gerard qualified as a lawyer and came to attention with a blistering denunciation of the opera in his home town in 1970. He went on to hold artistic posts at the opera houses of Düsseldorf, Hamburg and Frankfurt, before assisting in the relaunch of the Paris Opéra at the Bastille. He then returned home in 1980 as head of Belgium’s leading opera company, which he turned into a modernist laboratory. By now, he knew everyone worth knowing in the opera world. He never ceased networking, however, especially on behalf of young directors to whom he was the most considerate of mentors.
After a decade running La Monnaie in Brussels, he rode into Salzburg in 1991 as its post-Karajan saviour, flourishing a host of modern productions and infuriating almost everyone he met, including his closest allies. His co-director, Hans Landesmann, assured me that he could never trust Gerard’s word. Be that as it may, Gerard was always true to his own values and ferociously hostile to those who resisted him. He made enemies on a daily basis, and seemed proud of it.
But he was also charming, witty, attentive to his friends and occasionally brilliant – even at his most wrong-headed. The heart always rose when Gerard came on the phone. Whatever he might have to say, it would not be dull.
After Salzburg in 2001 (one newspaper greeted his departure with a mock-obituary), he went on to found the Ruhr triennale festival in Germany before being named director of the Opéra in Paris. Barely had he accepted this job than he agreed to head City Opera in New York. For a dazzling moment, it seemed the almighty Met was about to get a competitor. But Gerard withdrew within months, decrying lack of funds, and City Opera eventually collapsed.
After Paris, he moved in 2010 to the Teatro Real in Madrid. His valedication there – Charles Wuorinen’s Brokeback Mountain – brought more operatic lustre to Spain than anyone could remember. It also vindicated all that Gerard had stood for – contemporary art, daring themes, cultural and sexual diversity, restless quest.
He drove opera into the 21st century, wherever that may lead.
May he rest in peace.