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Gerard Mortier
(1943-2014)

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Dmitri Tcherniakov

I have known Gerard Mortier for only eight years. On September 1st 2006, after the opening of “Eugene Onegin”, he caught me somewhere in the backstage corridors of Bolshoi theatre and immediately dove into an active, almost offensive conversation. Although it wasn’t so much of a conversation as it was his continuous monologue. He was talking about everything at once, in a very ardent manner. I have seen him like this many times through the years. That was his style – takeover, seduction, recruiting. And at some point you inevitably began, if not to consent, then to follow his line. You even found yourself involuntarily nodding.
When speaking to me, smiling in euphoria, constantly adjusting spectacles on the nose bridge, it was if he were all alone and talking to himself. Many times I observed him speaking to others in the same manner. This might have been due to his juridical upbringing and the years spent in a Jesuitical school along, but also his unbridled idealism.
Now when I think about him, I am reminded of a character from the Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo,” who regardless of all the obstacles, even reality itself, dreamed of building an opera theatre in the middle of Peruvian tropical forests populated by savage Indians. Having personally met quite a number of people who are the movers and shakers of the opera world today, I now understand that he was a rare breed, a slightly odd man, a man of very uncommon qualities. Namely these were his insatiable idealism, his fanaticism, and his unquenchable lust for fight. All that might seem a little old-fashioned, but today I know no one even remotely like him. With his disregard for the practical and the material, always followed with accusations of irrational expenditures. And it all served solely his desire to prove his point to the whole world. As theatre is always a manifestation of either solidarity, or a protest.
I remember his face in the moments of failure. Oddly enough, it was the same as in the moments of success and glory. In either case, he would become quiet, flaccid. He would sit somewhere in the corner, his gaze blank, his smile absent mindedly responding to something only he and he alone knew. To me he seemed locked up, switched off. I could never determine if he felt anything or if he was happy or unhappy. The only times when I felt he was completely on, was when he faced adversity, he was energized by the fight. Having an opponent, an enemy, was for him, a vital need. Immediately, he would begin functioning. The smell of a combat animated all his skills and talents. Anyone who witnessed this metamorphosis was, I assure you, truly impressed.
At our first encounter in Bolshoi, his aggressive and intensive energy knocked me down. With this attack, I turned quiet, I was perplexed. To me, he entered the Bolshoi corridor from some distant world of Michael Haneke, Olivier Messiaen, Patrice Chereau, Bill Viola and Robert Wilson. And at that moment, he offered me a place in the circle of people with whom he was making theatre. That was generous and honest of him. I on my side felt cowardly - I was not a safe, approved choice for him, I was a newcomer to whom he was led by his intuition. He trusted his instinct. In his artistic love for those he invited he was reckless. He never asked for guarantees and he was eager to forgive.
I remember very well our February 2008 conversation in Paris. I was going through yet another neurotic collapse of relationships with my new “Macbeth” production. Feeling fatally blocked, with the deadline rushing toward me and seeing no way meet my commitment, I came to him to resign. Mentally preparing myself for the role of the defaulter who derailed the plans of the Paris Opera, I was expecting many different reactions, none of them pleasant. Still I was ready for any reaction, except for the one that he had. Mortier tried to console me! He offered to help my dilemma by brainstorming and handing me books from his library. He also offered himself, as a friend and confidant asking ‘Where do you want to be these next months? I could come if only I could be of any help? We could simply walk and talk about the piece. Getting some project on time is not my goal. I want you to give me something that would make you happy in the first place”.
It was important for him to engage as many new people as possible, to find new names, to discover those people who are not easy to notice, those who might seem strange at first glance. Few opera theatres, few directors are ready to take such risks. But they would all gladly work with the ones whom Mortier first discovered. Canadian Opera in Toronto, Lyon Opera, Brussels theatre ‘La Monnaie’, even the Bavarian Opera in Munich – all these houses are steered by those whom Mortier with his reckless sense of trust introduced to the opera world.
He kept refreshing his circle. At different times he was surrounded by different people. Some of them vanished, their names never to be uttered by him again. In the last years of his life, he was making opera plans with Pedro Almodovar and opening productions with Michael Haneke. He was looking for the most unobvious combinations. He picked interesting people from outside the opera world, took them by the hand and brought them in as if saying: “Look, opera is not what you thought it was. It is interesting, it is actual, it is deep, it is intellectual, it is about you and it is for you.”
I don’t think that he ever was happy. His whole life was the process of overcoming something. Of course, the Salzburg festival was the most successful time of his life, but even then he was eternally criticized. Later, Mortier’s time in Salzburg would be spoken of with nostalgia, and all the festivals that followed the years after him would be regarded as the lowering of the standards.
Madrid hasn’t become a place where he could realize his beautiful utopia. I saw how corrosive the pain of this was on him, how he was shuttering in self-isolation as if locking himself in a tower. One of his last letters to me was about the cancellation of my production of ‘The Troyans’ by Berlioz. It was cruelly shut down due to the lack of financing. He finished his letter saying that writing those words was painful for him because it would have been our last work together after so many years of wonderful collaboration. Yet he was hopeful that in the future, he would be able to find some decent company capable of bringing to life my exciting ideas. Unfortunately, he, poor fellow, will have to stay away and enjoy my work from the side of the audience.
Recently there had formed around him a small Russian circle to which I belonged. Both Madrid and Paris hosted many Russian singers and conductors. His trip to Moscow was the last one of his life. Three weeks ago, terminally ill, he arrived to Russia keeping hope for some miraculous therapy which as he found out was available in Moscow. He spent ten days in Moscow living isolated, almost incognito, barely leaving his hotel room. And it was in Moscow where he attended his last opera performance. Even though completely consumed by his illness, he desired to be taken to the opera theatre. His stamina fleeting, he could only get through the first act of the premiere “The Tsar’s Bride” performance.
Just like the character of Klaus Kinski in ‘Fitzcarraldo’, Mortier was a rare example of a man obsessed with what he does, a man who tries to move mountains, no matter what. Overlooking the praise and damnation, he aimed to bring to reality the utopia which shapes he longed to see.