Last month, at the request of El País, Peter Sellars wrote a tribute to the late Gerard Mortier. Here, courtesy of the author, is the English text.
Gerard Mortier was a mercurial operatic visionary who transformed the art form—not with a particular production or body of work, but with an attitude. Wherever Gerard was and whatever he was doing, you knew it would be exciting. His imprimatur guaranteed challenge, engagement, pleasure, and the kind of adventure informed and made possible by profound conviction and deep connoisseurship.
None of us who knew and worked with Gerard will ever be the same. His visionary, always practical, and constantly generous presence enlivened each conversation, each rehearsal, each project. Perhaps more amazingly, many of Gerard’s rivals, critics, and adversaries will never be the same either. They also did what they did and are doing what they are doing in response to Gerard’s vision, leadership, and permanent challenge. Gerard’s particular brilliance is to be equally vital and ultimately influential to his friends and to his enemies.
Gerard’s rare gift was his sense of the delicate alchemy of collaboration. Most of us have met some of the most important artistic partners of our lives courtesy of Gerard’s inspired insight and at Gerard’s elegant invitation. The results could be seen and heard on stage, but many of Gerard’s commitments and innovations remained backstage. While he enlarged, opened, and filled the public spaces of the Théâtre de la Monnaie and the Salzburg Festival with art and light, he also redid the bathrooms, created new rehearsal spaces, and in Salzburg, opened a new canteen for artists and staff that finally served good food. He always took care of the people who remain unknown to the public but who create and sustain the deep ecology of craft and meaning and well being that elevates the atmosphere, and ennobles the fineness of the work that comes out of it.
This hyper-delicate, deeply cultured man was also a fighter. His chivalrous nature demanded dragons, and if they weren’t there, he could create them. His sharp tongue and unquestioned moral high ground made him enemies wherever he went. But his fighting spirit was not grudging or depressed. His relish for the battle brought out his high wit, his wicked humor, his daring, and ultimately revealed his uncanny equilibrium. His unquenchable joy energized everything he did—so he took pleasure in the battle, as he took pleasure in food, fine hotels, friendship, art, and in high ideals.
He took artists out for dinner most nights at his own expense for the sheer pleasure and stimulation of intellectual sword play, good gossip, fine wine, and excellent service. He appreciated the finer things in life, including people. He had an eye for young talent, and an ear for an emerging singer, a new conductor, or a good argument. He read constantly, and placed himself in the heart of the conversation focused on the future of Europe. He epitomized a European ideal—sparkling with enlightenment zeal, cultivated, nuanced, and with a permanently progressive stance that was the fulfillment of a hard-won philosophical heritage. And tradition.
One important tradition was scandal. Gerard knew that it was good for business. He understood that angry responses and devastating reviews guarantee a place in history and make sure you’ll be talked about. He knew that human opinion tends to shift, and that a flaming controversy will create the occasion that no one will forget, and that will insist that everyone takes sides. And then, human nature being what it is, those sides quietly begin to shift. Gerard’s delight in provocation as he engaged some of the most conservative institutions and individuals in Europe testified to his courage and confidence. Perhaps Gerard’s own greatest art form was the press conference. The ebullience that flowed from his public dialogues, his dazzling presentation of his artistic agendas, the intellectual fire that came into his eyes, and the virtuoso replies to his detractors, made every press conference an unforgettable occasion.
He was a master of the creative budget—Gerard structured the available money around his creative priorities rather than the opposite. His insistence that the economics exist to serve the ideals of society rather than the other way around was embodied in every financial plan. The last years of budget cuts for culture in Spain were painful, but Gerard responded positively, responsibly, with seasons of breathtaking artistic ambition, unintimidated and undeterred by financial pressures, emerging with his deepest beliefs intact and in front of the public.
Probably nobody before Gerard who ran an opera house ever had his depth of belief in the possibilities of the art form. Gerard believed deeply that opera was a contribution to social and political well-being, and not a luxury item. His artistic discernment insisted to the end on the highest standards of performance and artistry of the greatest refinement, but he believed passionately that this high-end product belonged, exactly because it was so finely made, to every citizen. He believed that it was the right of every citizen to participate in the finest achievements of a democratic culture, a culture that by definition embraces controversy and elevates dialogue. The baker’s son knew that music was a path that led forward and upward.
A glance at the season of most opera houses reveals a fairly random list of titles. A season crafted by Gerard Mortier is, by contrast, built around the content of the works, their contribution to a larger discussion, and their place in relation to the most powerful issues that face humanity today. Opera, as imagined and presented by Gerard Mortier, was not an entertainment option, but an essential embodiment of the society itself, lifted into a realm of confrontation and exhilaration—the conflict and the contradictions translated into a multi-vocal, multi-leveled fugue that touches transcendence. That is the art form.
Gerard Mortier believed in it deeply.
— Peter Sellars, March 9, 2014