Opera world mourns passing of “firebrand” Gerard Mortier

Director stirred controversy as head of Madrid’s Teatro Real

Former Teatro Real artistic director Gerard Mortier.
Former Teatro Real artistic director Gerard Mortier.Javier del Real

Gerard Mortier, the Belgian opera director who died on Saturday after a bout with cancer, was praised by the Spanish colleagues who worked with him during his controversial tenure at Madrid's Teatro Real.

“He was one of the great figures of opera at the international level and we should be proud of having been able to enjoy him,” said Joan Matabosch, the man who replaced him at the helm of the Madrid opera house in September 2013.

Mortier, who died at the age of 70, was “a firebrand,” said the chairman of Teatro Real’s board of trustees, Gregorio Marañón.

The director was a highly controversial figure in Spain, where more conservative opera lovers hated and challenged his innovative vision of the art form. He positively seemed to relish confrontation, openly seeking it with his audiences and even regional politicians.

Mortier was thought to despise all things Spanish because of the lack of Spanish names on the programs he drew up during his tenure at the Teatro Real from September 2010 to September 2013. This perception was heightened when he announced his illness in an interview with EL PAÍS, and said he would not stand for the Spanish government appointing someone he personally did not approve of as his replacement. He also stated that he would prefer to see a non-Spaniard succeed him.

Mortier was summarily fired just days after making these statements, although he retained a symbolic position as the Madrid opera house’s artistic advisor.

Yet Mortier did hire contemporary Spanish artists and performers to create sets for his productions, including Eduardo Arroyo, La Fura dels Baus and Agustín Ibarrola. He also asked three Spanish composers – Mauricio Sotelo, Elena Mendoza and Alberto Posadas – to write new operas for him.

Mortier (l) and theater director Peter Sellars.
Mortier (l) and theater director Peter Sellars.marion kalter

In late January, right after his release from a German hospital, he traveled to Madrid to present the premiere of the opera Brokeback Mountain, based on the film by Ang Lee, at Teatro Real despite running a 40ºC fever. The effort sent him right back to bed.

“I don’t ask to live a lot of years, just a while longer with enough lucidity to keep working,” he recently said. Although his struggle with pancreatic cancer lasted less than a year, he continued to read and write articles until the end.

The man who replaced Herbert von Karajan at the helm of the Salzburg Festival, who transformed La Monnaie in Brussels from a third-rate theater to a major opera house, and who slammed the door on the New York City Opera, died at home in Brussels surrounded by friends and family.


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