Audience report: Gerard Mortier at the Morgan Library

March 12, 2008, 5:30 PM
By New York City Opera
We welcome your comments to the items we post to this blog, and from time to time, we will also post stories from our audience's perspective.  Pete Matthews, an opera lover who is a member of our Big Deal! program for operagoers ages 21 to 39, attended last evening's talk given by our incoming General Manager, Gerard Mortier, at the Morgan LibraryHere's Pete’s report:
The auditorium was buzzing with excitement when Gerard Mortier arrived for his first public appearance in New York since being named City Opera's next General Manager last February. 
In his introductory remarks, the Morgan Library's director, William Griswold, referred to Mortier as "one of the leading figures in the world of opera," rattling off his by-now-familiar resume: General Manager of Brussels' Théâtre de la Monnaie (1980-1991), Artistic Director of the Salzburg Festival (1991-2000), founding director of the Ruhr Triennale arts festival, and, since 2004, director of the Paris Opera.  Griswold also said that this was to be the first in a series of three lectures, in which Mortier would present his vision of opera to New Yorkers in advance of his arrival here in the fall of 2009.

Gerard Mortier at the Morgan Library
Gerard Mortier at podium with slide show behind him
The audience greeted Mortier warmly as he began his lecture, entitled "The Enchantment of the Opera."  Most of what New Yorkers know of Mortier stems from his "bad boy" reputation as a presenter of radical, often controversial productions of both classic and contemporary opera, so it would be reasonable to suspect that Mortier's purpose in these lectures was to defend his practices -- and prepare us for the worst.

Instead, Mortier's multi-media presentation, which lasted 90 minutes, took the form of a music history lecture, focusing almost exclusively on early opera.  "For a lot of people today, opera is a conservative art form," he said.  "But opera was, at the beginning, a revolution in music."  He praised Monterverdi as a "radical genius" and spoke of Gluck as if he was the 'emo' rock star of his day.

He saved his highest praise for Mozart, whom he considers to be "the absolute peak" of opera, comparable to Shakespeare in the impact he had on the art form.  He praised the "totally new genius" of Lucia Silla, written when he was only 17.  He said Idomeneo, which Mozart wrote when he was 22, was "by far the greatest opera ever written, until that time."  And he played for us a recording of the end of Act II of The Magic Flute, calling it "one of the greatest moments in the history of opera."

Gerard Mortier discusses Mozart

He spent less than ten minutes speaking about all of late-19th Century opera, mostly in terms of its dramatic innovations.  "For the first time," he said, "the hero is a loser."  He also highlighted the growing divide between opera as entertainment and as serious art form, showing photos of Wagner's Bayreuth Festpielhaus and Paris' Palais Garnier, both built in 1876.  "See this design?" he said, pointing to a drawing of the Festpielhaus.  "Do you see anywhere to have a drink there?  No."

Mortier ended his presentation by returning to Mozart, playing video clips of two productions of Don Giovanni: the 1954 Met production, directed by Paul Czinner, and the 2006 Paris production, directed by Michael Haneke.  The difference could not have been more striking.  The Met production used period sets and costumes and felt chirpy and frivolous, emphasizing style over dramatic substance.  The Haneke production was set in the cocktail lounge of a modern hotel, the characters all dressed in business suits.  The acting was extreme to the point of disturbing: the Don went after his servant Leporello as if he was his mortal enemy; Donna Elvira looked grotesque sitting at a table behind a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue, her lipstick applied in clown-like thickness.  The implicit message was: this is opera as theater, where the music is in service of the drama, not the other way around.

The gauntlet, ladies and gentlemen, has been thrown.
We encourage you to visit Pete Matthews’ own blog,, which he calls "a journey through the music of New York (and occasionally other places)." 
To inquire about contributing to the City Opera blog, please email


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