French law requires Mortier to step down from his current position as director of the Op_ra national de Paris at age 65, which he reaches in November 2008; he received a special decree from the Chirac administration allowing him to finish out the 2008-09 season.
In the two seasons following Kellogg's departure, Mortier will serve as General Manager Designate, involved in artistic and strategic planning and fundraising. He told The New York Times that he expects to spend about one week per month in New York.
A native of Ghent, Belgium, Mortier studied law and communications at the university there before taking a job as assistant to the director of the Festival of Flanders. He then worked as artistic administrator for Christoph von Dohnšnyi in Frankfurt and Hamburg (1972-1978) and for Rolf Liebermann at the Paris Opera (1979-1981).
Mortier first earned an international reputation as an administrator and impresario at the Th_ê¢tre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels. In his decade there (1981-1991), he made Belgium's national opera house into an artistic hotbed, working with conductor Sylvain Cambreling and a company of talented young singers. Mortier also earned his reputation as an iconoclast while in Brussels, dismissing established (and native) choreographer Maurice B_jart and his company in favor of the Mark Morris Dance Group and making La Monnaie a center of the German-led phenomenon of "director's opera" (revisionist and often radical stagings of classics of the canon).
In 1991 the Salzburg Festival raised many eyebrows by engaging Mortier to succeed the legendary (and very conventional) Herbert von Karajan as director. Mortier did indeed revolutionize the Festival — presenting non-traditional stagings of familiar operas and greatly expanding contemporary music offerings. (Pierre Boulez became a regular presence there, something that would once have been unthinkable to both Salzburg and Boulez himself.) Mortier also presented the first major revival of Messiaen's epic Saint-Fran‹ois d'Assise and commissioned or co-commissioned a number of new operas, including the last stage works of Luciano Berio (Cronaca del Luogo in 1999 and the completion of Puccini's Turandot in 2001) and the first opera of Kaija Saariaho (L'Amour de loin in 2000).
Following his departure from Salzburg, Mortier founded and developed the Ruhr-Trienniale festival in Germany's Ruhr Valley region before taking the Paris Opera position in 2004.
The hiring of Mortier has struck many observers as a coup for New York City Opera — and something of a surprise. Mortier's last two positions, after all, have been at the head of large operations which are among the most prestigious in the entire classical music world, and both are lavishly funded by their respective governments. While City Opera is easily within the top 10 U.S. companies in terms of budget size and second only to the Met in season size, its budget is less than one-fourth that of the Paris Opera. What's more, the vast majority of City Opera's funding must be raised privately, and the company relies more on box office receipts than do its European counterparts.
In his public statements, though, Mortier makes these factors seem like attractions, telling the Times that he looks forward to running a smaller institution, and one less enmeshed with government bureaucracy, than his current company: "I am very seduced by being with an ensemble where I can get to know everyone." (He even indicated that he had spurned an approach from the Vienna State opera about succeeding Ioan Holender there.)
"Great challenges have always inspired me," Mortier said in the official statement released by New York City Opera. "My choice for the New York City Opera is therefore the right decision at this moment of my career. [...] Nowadays, nevertheless, everything has changed since September 11, and opera institutions also have to think about their own necessity in a new global world. In that sense, I hope to serve the New York community with my belief in opera as an art form that re-evaluates emotions and could therefore remain popular rather than become populist.
"As the future of opera will be judged on the content rather than on the package, opera in New York should not be a nostalgic dream of the past, but an inspiring, sensitive answer for the future. I will give all my energy to make New York the most exciting place in the world of opera."