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5/16/08
How to Sell Art to the Masses
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Warning, this post is on the long side, but I promise it’ll be fun to anybody with a passing interest in the live arts. And if you follow opera, it’ll be doubleplusgood, with copious hissing and dissing, but also words that should bring hope to those who yearn for a democratic and provocative culture.

A few days ago, the New York Times ran an interview with Gérard Mortier (also previously profiled on here on SundayArts), the Belgian-born incoming manager of City Opera—the house entwined in a long-running sibling rivalry with the richer, glitzier Met, sitting across the Lincoln Center plaza. As interesting as the Times’ piece was, it either didn’t ask the right questions or Mortier opted for diplomacy.Mortier is finishing up a stint at the Paris Opera, where he programmed daring contemporary works like Luigi Dallapiccola’s Il Prigioniero and radical stagings of classics, such as a recent Parsifal that made references to Nazis and used footage from Roberto Rossellini’s neorealist Germany Year Zero. Witness the tumultuous reception at the beginning of the dress rehearsal of Parsifal’s Act III, with Mortier himself going on stage to confront the whistlers: “You have no sensitivity. We won’t go on until the hecklers leave.” Shades of The Rite of Spring!

Here are some choice excerpts, translated by your truly, from a rather revealing hour-long interview Mortier gave on French public radio a couple of weeks ago.

When asked if he’s happy, Mortier replies, “I’m always happy when I can fight for something, like 20th-century operas or new ways to see things. If we have a large audience, it’s because we’ve changed it. For instance I introduced Wozzeck to the Salzburg audience every night, and I feel that people want to listen to what I have to say about the piece, Berg and Büchner. I love direct contact with the audience, and through the years it’s helped me convince people who may have been in opposition at first. Which brings me to the Met: I’m completely opposed to [the HD broadcasts], I think they are false prophets. It’s just another way to generate publicity.”

The show’s host says that still, it’s pretty impressive that people line up on the Champs-Elysées to watch live opera in a theater (the last Met broadcasts have been shown in France). Mortier disagrees: “I don’t think so at all, and here’s why. Live broadcasts can be a way to reach people, but I’m against the publicity awarded them. What are the operas that are chosen? Always the same: La Bohème, Tosca—blockbusters. It’s what sells a lot. These choices precipitate the shrinking of the repertoire. They put the accent on stars, and that’s what I’m against.”

Mortier goes on to talk about his bringing opera to the Parisian suburb of Nanterre, where a large percentage of the viewers was 15- to 18-year-old kids, and stresses that this is where the renewal of the opera audience really lays. “Opera is about live performance,” he says. “Orpheus didn’t send a videotape to Hades to free his Eurydice. When I see young people at the opera, what touches them is seeing live singers.”

About asking David Lynch to direct Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann: “When I saw him it was for Salzburg, about ten years ago, and he said, ‘I can’t do it because I create a rhythm with visuals.’ I saw him after Inland Empire and he mentioned something I hope we do in New York: He wanted to create a sui generis work. Maybe something based on Tales of Hoffmann, something based on Offenbach’s music, but that we would create together. But right now he’s in a very spiritualist phase, I don’t know if we can bring him down to Earth a little. But I’m talking to a lot of other people. For instance in New York I’d like to do a piece around Verdi with Alain Platel, where I use the music to tell stories of today’s New York. Verdi’s music could be used by a filmmaker like Almodóvar to tell stories. Almodóvar uses music to tell stories that are very deep but also very popular.”

Asked about how to widen an audience without resorting to demagogy, Mortier argues that the Paris Opera is a true people’s institution (ahem) then adds, “I’ve always felt, throughout my career, that the audience is assumed to be too stupid, people who only want to see My Fair Lady. Of course I like Il Barbiere di Siviglia, I’ll put it on and get 30,000 people, but we have to demand a lot of the audience. We get public subsidies so we can’t only do entertainment—we have to say something about our society. The average age at the Met is 70 [not true says the Met: two years ago, so before Peter Gelb really started, the average age of Met subscribers was 65]; at the Paris Opera, it’s gone down from 56 to 46 years old. We work on ticket prices—we have a total of about 350,000 seats priced under 60 euros [$92, still far from chump change]. It’s still a lot but it’s affordable.”

Mortier is reminded that quite a few opera goers in Paris don’t like the stagings he puts on the schedule, wondering why everything has to be so dark, why Nazis have to be brought in Parsifal, etc. “I get 100 millions euros in state subsidies [quick comparison: the NEA gives out $72 million a year, plus $48 million to state arts councils], which gives me the responsibility to address our society. If these critical people want entertainment, they have plenty of options, like private theaters or, in New York, Broadway. That’s private money, not state-funded. As soon as public money is involved, the director must fill a public function and deal with our society.”

Interestingly, Mortier credits his Jesuit education in Ghent with his intellectual training, reading Sartre, Camus, Ibsen, Nietsche in 1961. “I loved the dialectical spirit of that education. Everybody had to be intellectually involved. It was always about dialogue and debate. Debate is what makes the world move forward.”

He also recalls growing up in a lower-middle-class family (his father was a baker), something that taught him that you can enjoy the arts even if you don’t come from an unlikely background. (Contrast this with the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, who grew up with a silver metronome in his mouth.) “My parents were very young when the war broke out. I always felt they wanted to learn. My father read a lot; my mother loved music—but not La Bohème, more Beethoven, Brückner. I’ve always wondered how she got to that. Which means that people who assume only those from intellectual families read are wrong. Every man and woman has potential to be interested, but they’re often not given the chance. I deeply believe that everybody can be moved by art, but they must be guided. And I feel that public institutions today don’t take that into account. They always want to go down the stairs—maybe it’s not the right image—instead of climbing it with the audience. That may disturb some opera lovers but it must be done.”

Will Mortier rattle the American audience?

“Oh yes, of course. But rattling the audience isn’t my main goal—my main goal is to tell people something. That will be even harder in America, because there they see opera as something nostalgic. They created opera in America to remind themselves of the Europe they left. If I offer opera that tells them something about their society, it may be difficult, but I feel they’re at a point in New York where they know something must change. It’s something you feel with the presidential debates, that America has lost something it had for many years; it was the symbol of a certain freedom and they lost that image. I couldn’t do it just about anywhere in America, but I think I have a chance in New York.”

  • Henry Holland

    Thanks for the great post (I found it via Steve Smith’s Night after Night blog). Although I live in Los Angeles, I travel for opera and I have big hopes that Mr. Mortier will widen the repetoire at City Opera to include more of the 20th century stuff I love. He’s absolutely right about the HD broadcasts too; it doesn’t help that the Met is so stodgy in their rep, of course.

  • Barbara Vaughn

    Enjoyed the post. I grew up in a family that enjoyed music, but opera wasn’t available. When my husband and I lived in Germany, I was able to see traditionally performed operas in Wiesbaden and interestingly presented operas in Frankfurt. I was glad for both experiences and the availability of opera and other arts because of the government support of the arts.
    I love the Santa Fe opera productions because they have presented new opera or standards with delightful sets and costumes.
    I love live performances, but they are not always available so I am glad that opera is performed and broadcast.

  • Susan

    Mr. Mortier’s disapproval of the HD broadcasts seems rather elitist to me!
    As a long time subscriber to the Met (about 20 years), I can’t tell you how happy I am that the operas are being broadcast both in the theater and on public television. The trip into NYC is becoming prohibitively expensive and quite difficult to negotiate as the price of gas and tolls increases and number of cars traveling into and within the city grows by leaps and bounds. I am approaching the age where the challenge of this commute will be too great for me to take on. Thus, I am relieved by the hope that I will then be able to see and hear current performances in HD at the theater. I have also welcomed the ability to record these programs to tape from PBS for my repeated viewing and listening pleasure. How many times I have enjoyed my recordings of Samson and Delilah, Marriage of Figaro, Pagliacci and many others from the 80′s and 90′s! The absence of broadcasts in the first half of this decade was a great disappointment to me and I am very grateful to Mr. Gelb for his part in restoring this wonderful gift to us!
    While HD broadcasts are certainly not the same as attending a live performance at the opera house, they are much more satisfying than simply listening to the performances on the radio without the benefit of subtitles or the visual component. As for Mortier’s comments regarding the mundane repertory, I would agree that last year’s selections were quite safe, but this year’s broadcasts included infrequently performed works such as Peter Grimes, La Fille du Regiment and Macbeth. Broadcasting too many unknown works will BORE the masses and defeat the purpose of the broadcasts which is to expand the audience for this demanding genre. Finally, I would suggest that the use of “stars” in these broadcasts seems quite sensible to me – who would be better suited to make people take note of Opera than those who are the best and brightest in their field, such as Hvorostovsky, Netrebko, Fleming and Flores.
    If I were fortunate enough to meet Mr. Gelb, I would have TWO things to say to him:
    “Thank you so much for the HD broadcasts!” AND “Keep ‘em coming, please!”

  • http://determineddilettante.blogspot.com Elisabeth Vincentelli

    I haven’t seen any of the Met’s HD broadcasts myself but overall I’m happy they exist. My mother lives in France, for instance, and told me she’d love it if they were at a theater in her area.
    The thing is, I don’t think we’re facing an either/or choice in terms of reaching more people: We can have broadcasts in theater AND try to widen the overall repertory, as well as the way it’s staged. (Full disclosure: I’m not adverse to radical Regietheater on principle!) Opera should use every tool in its arsenal to widen its audience. I do agree with Mortier when he says that you need to reach people directly and explain clearly what you’re doing and what a radical staging is about. Prepared audiences are a lot more open than too many managers in the US would assume.

  • Daniel

    Recently, more or less, the NY Times ran a critical article about Public Television’s programming. Defenders of some Public TV stations may cite its virtues, such as New York and Boston, but we’re only given enough reprieve in Los Angeles from Susie Ormond, who never quite fades away, for Roy Orbison fundraisers to remind us that he had long ago; it’s only ironic they’ve got here nightly reruns of Keeping Up With Appearances. Opera: fugetaboutit. Yet LA’s best kept secret is its adventurous music and theater audience that every major producer perversely brags about but wouldn’t bank on—quicker a subprime real estate deal that will go belly up. Send Mortier this way.

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