In memoriam: "Gerard Mortier’s mission"

By Gregorio Marañón, chairman of the Teatro Real.

Gerard Mortier, after completing his Doctorate in Law and a Masters in Media, decided to devote himself body and soul to opera, making theatre, in his words, “a mission, a priesthood almost, of the religion of humanity”. His profession was his great passion in life.

Over a career spanning almost four decades he revitalised the concept of contemporary opera. First, as general director of La Monnaie, a position he took at 37 years of age, as director of the Salzburg Festival, director of the Ruhr Festival and general director of the Paris Opera; and finally, as artistic director of the Teatro Real. Not settling for a show that revolved almost solely around the beauty of the music and voices, he salvaged the dramatic dimension. For him, the theatre meant “breaking the routine of daily life, questioning violence, raising awareness in society of the problems of the human condition and confirming that the world can be a better place”. He opened opera up to new audiences, especially young people, and widened the horizon of its cultural relevance. Both traditional audiences and this more recent public bought into his ideas, which adopted a theatrical language of our time. Without neglecting to entertain, opera acquired a more profound, compelling and poignant dimension.

Mortier believed that in the current climate the progress of recent decades was under threat from a move towards restoring tradition. I think he was wrong about the real extent of this phenomenon, failing to consider that after a process of profound change, there is often a slight recoil that is in fact an adjustment that consolidates the change. But his view explains the growing radicalism of some of his approaches, and a fundamentalism with little room for compromise.

Before coming to Madrid, Mortier had received widespread recognition that signalled his stature within Europe. Honorary doctorates from the Universities of Antwerp and Salzburg, French Commander of Arts and Letters, and the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, among others. The King of the Belgians awarded him the title of Baron Mortier and he chose the motto of “virtue is in audacity”. Audacity, which is daring, and which symbolises his personality and his willingness to take any risk that would contribute to his cause.

Mortier was the only major professional in the world of opera management who joined the Teatro Real in the 12 years following its reopening. This is testament to the lack of an ambitious project to forge the institution’s identity.

His legacy, after four years heading the artistic direction of the Teatro Real, is enormous. First and foremost, there was a marked improvement to its permanent bodies: the orchestra and choir. Before Mortier many of the most prominent orchestra conductors showed a reluctance to conduct at the Real, and now everyone acknowledges the extraordinary progress of the orchestra. He also formed a new choir, in conjunction with Andrés Máspero, which has demonstrated its excellence internationally.

Mortier’s second achievement was to make the Teatro Real Spain’s leading opera house, both for its position in cultural life and its international reputation. As Ansón wrote: “Mortier unleashed a cyclone on the Teatro Real. The great coliseum was languishing. The tension, the debate, the passion, the generational contradiction had faded among opera fans. Gerard Mortier gave back the essential controversy to the Real and to Madrid’s opera-goers. He put opera back at the heart of Madrid’s cultural life”. And the recent première of Brokeback Mountain has made Madrid the world epicentre of opera.

He also significantly increased the Teatro Real’s production capacity, at a time when many theatres are no longer innovating and relying on their old repertoires. This season the Real produced seven new operas, some of them already commissioned out to international theatres.

For Mortier, a good opera manager has to take risks, demand utter professionalism, position the theatre within society, handle communicative mechanisms magnificently and manage finances well, aware that opera houses can no longer depend on public funding. With him, the Teatro Real went from having an artistic project making sizeable losses, to having one that is contributing, in a meaningful way, to the financial stability of the institution.

The shows in its programme, approached in an eclectic way, include some that will remain forever in our memory: Tristan und Isolde, The Indian Queen, The Life and Death of Marina Abramovich, Iolanta/Perséphone, Rise and Fall of the city of Mahagonny, Alceste, Saint François d’Assise and Haneke’s Così fan tutte, for instance. As Peter Sellars said, Mortier delivered some of his best productions in Madrid. Of course there have been others that did not succeed, but clearly those who take risks sometimes get it wrong, while those who never take risks are always wrong.

Thanks to Mortier’s contribution and, of course, the magnificent work done in recent years by Ignacio García-Belenguer, the Teatro Real is now Spain’s fifth most important cultural institution, and it is the only opera house that appears in this significant ranking.

I think I am among those most familiar with his time in Madrid, because of the relationship of friendship and trust we had, which meant he sent me lengthy emails explaining his anxieties, his disappointments, his dejections, and reflections that were at times ill-considered, typical of the pessimism of a sleepless night. For him they were years when he experienced a certain amount of solitude; he never felt understood in Madrid. For someone who learned to argue and teach with the Jesuits, an ignorance of the intricacies of a language is a major obstacle to social communication. I have known few people with such an ability to seduce, when he was interested in a given interlocutor; few people so good at talking for the purpose of achieving a goal, and incapable of conceding anything in that conversation, however many hours it lasts; few people with such rational intelligence, though it was not always complemented by emotional intelligence; few so committed to their friends and, at the same time, so demanding of the unconditional commitment of others; few so firm in their ideological, professional and life principles, and at the same time so vulnerable.

Three weeks before dying, he asked me to read a text to the media expressing his gratitude to Joan Matabosch for behaving like a “great gentleman” this season, congratulating him for the presentation of the next season with the conviction that “it will attract a large audience and strengthen the international reputation of the Teatro Real”. He also thanked him for preserving some of his iconic projects, such as the creation of El público, based on texts by García Lorca, and La ciudad de las mentiras, by Elena Mendoza. He congratulated him for the appointment of Ivor Bolton as musical director, and ended with a meaningful “long live the Teatro Real”.

A few days earlier, he asked me to renew his appointment as artistic advisor, adding, with his sense of humour, that we should do it “for life, knowing that it’s limited”, to which I of course answered that that is what we would do. He added with pride what his next accolades would be, which, alas!, he would not be able to collect. They could have included some of our own that he was unaware were being arranged.

A few days ago he wrote to me for the last time to tell me that he was travelling to Russia to receive an alternative treatment, because there was nothing more that conventional medicine could do for him, concluding with an ambiguous “we’ll wait and see”. The day after his return, his wait, and our hopes, ended. Inside, all is peace and silence. Outside, he is showered with recognition, some that would have made him smile. On the stage, the production of Alceste has been dedicated to him: he presented it to us as a reflection on death. He leaves us with a brilliant and audacious collection of works, which transcend him and which we will continue. Mission accomplished.

Gregorio Marañón is chairman of the Teatro Real.