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How to Sell Art to the Masses

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.”

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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