Newspapers this morning headline the death of Gerard Mortier. The former head of La Monnaie, Salzburg Festival, Opéra de Paris and Teatro Real is described variously as ‘opera director’ (Financial Times: he never directed), ‘avant-garde opera director’ (Guardian: much of his work was quite traditional), ‘opera impresario’ (LA Times: he was never an investor or businessman), and other things even remoter from reality. Der Spiegel had ‘Musikmanager’, for heaven’s sake.
BBC News, to its shame, headlined him first as ‘Spanish opera director’, then after protest as ‘Spain opera director’, finally as ‘opera director’: all untrue. (Tony Hall, you need to get a grip.)
The New York Times did well with ‘opera visionary’; it captured Gerard’s futuristic impetus. El Mundo came closer, calling him ‘el agitador de la opera’, a man of boundless passion and commitment who refused to let opera continue as it was. But the headlines as a whole showed up the cultural ignorance and linguistic impoverishment of newsdesk journalists, unable to come up with a phrase to capture a man whose name they have never heard and whose function they cannot comprehend.
I remember shifts when a BBC newsroom was staffed by a Hindemith biographer, a poetry publisher and the niece of a well-known painter. When a cultural giant died, we put our heads together and sent them to heaven with an apt label.
‘Opera chief’ would have done for Gerard Mortier; he would have liked that. ‘Opera reinventor’, even better. ‘Opera agitator’ best of all.
The mot juste remains elusive, like the man himself.
photo (c) Marion Kalter/Lebrecnt Music&Arts