G_rard Mortier Wants to Bring Audiences from the Movies to the Opera (Not the Other Way Around)

Classic Arts News   G_rard Mortier Wants to Bring Audiences from the Movies to the Opera (Not the Other Way Around)
Observers in the Big Apple already know that G_rard Mortier has big plans to remake New York City Opera when he becomes the company's artistic director in the fall of 2009. What they may not know so well — yet — is his penchant for tossing ideological cherry bombs.

Last week, for instance, he said that the Metropolitan Opera's initiative of broadcasting opera performances into cinemas is going in "exactly the wrong direction." Giving the opening address of a conference titled "European Dramaturgy in the 21st Century" in Frankfurt on September 26, Mortier told the audience of directors, theater administrators and dramaturges that encouraging audiences to see opera onscreen was giving up the crucial element of the art form, the live experience, according to a report from Deutsche Presse-Agentur.

"We shouldn't bring opera to the movies; we should bring people from the movies to the opera," he said.

The incoming City Opera chief was almost certainly speaking out of personal ideology rather than concern about cinema simulcasts drawing audiences away from live opera. So far, at least, any such worries would seem unfounded. The Met saw its first increase in ticket sales in six years in the 2006-07 season, the first to include the movie theater presentations, and early ticket sales for the new season have been extremely successful so far. What's more, at least a few regional U.S. opera companies, far from feeling threatened by the Met's simulcasts, have been actively promoting them, seeing them as a way to win new fans for the art form.

Mortier also expressed strong opinions about the operatic canon and the design of new theaters, according to DPA. He even offered a new revolutionary slogan: "Out of the houses!"

He was referring to opera houses, which, he pointed out, have for centuries had only two basic forms: the Greek-style amphitheater and the Italian layout with orchestra-level seating, tiers and boxes. "There have only been four architects who had innovative ideas for opera house design," Mortier said. "Palladio, Schinkel, Scharoun and Wagner." (The 16th-century architect Andrea Palladio created the modern indoor theater with proscenium stage; Karl Friedrich Schinkel developed, with his 1821 Schauspielhaus, now the Konzerthaus in Berlin, a theater which incorporated fly space and lighting above the stage and machinery underneath it; Hans Scharoun pioneered, in the Berlin Philharmonie, the "vineyard" style of auditorium with terraced seating rising around the stage on all sides; Richard Wagner's Festspielhaus in Bayreuth features a recessed, covered orchestra pit and a double proscenium.)

"If we get no more new [styles of] theater," said Mortier, "let's not build any more, but rather play in industrial buildings in the future." (The incoming City Opera head has already revealed his plan to present Messiaen's Saint-Fran‹ois d'Assise at the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue as part of his first New York season.)

As for the standard operatic repertoire, Mortier thinks it should be reduced to "a healthy size," according to DPA, suggesting to his Frankfurt audience that, a century from now, there ought to be as many works from the current repertoire surviving in active performance as there are now of Greek tragedy — which is to say, only a few, but the important ones. "Opera ought not be a supermarket with a little bit of everything," he said. "I, at least, would be very happy if certain operas were to disappear from the repertoire completely."

Which works might those be? "I hate 'veristic' operas," he said, referring not just to the works classified as verismo, such as Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci, but also to operas such as Puccini's, citing their attempts to illustrate reality on the stage. "They did not understand what opera is. Verisimilitude and opera — that is a contradiction in itself."

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