Opera Dreams: Gérard Mortier to Resign as head of New York City Opera

By Alan Rich

AFTER 2010, WHAT? "It's been a momentous week," noted Mark Swed in Friday's "Critic’s Notebook,” and he was, even so, a day early. The worst news of last week, many weeks, was Gérard Mortier's decision to resign as head of the New York City Opera, over the unwillingness of board members to finance his dreams, before a note was sung under his administration. A forward move in operatic administration that could be likened to -- what? -- to the striding forth of the New York City Opera at its inception, -- had claimed a major leader. Mortier is, beyond doubt, opera's great contemporary creative spirit. His plans for New York were thrilling.

Here at home we are in a momentous dither over the ten weeks of RingFest that will seize our city's interest in 2010, direct our collective gaze toward a certain mode of artistic expression, adapt our taste buds toward a certain culinary ideal (mostly covered with brown sauce, if memory serves), fill our ears with massive orchestrations of unresolved dominant thirteenths. I’ve seen it happen. I was in Seattle in 1975, during early Ringmania. Glynn Ross and his opera company were venting upon the city not one but two Rings, one sung in English the other not, and United Airlines was sharing in a citywide promotion so vast that everyone you saw on the streets carried a UAL bag decorated with Valhalla images. The performances weren’t much; the sets were make-do, but that was a Ring, by God, and it ran for several years. I went up and wrote that it wasn't very good, and several shocked local critics came to interview me; nobody had ever noticed before. It got Seattle so bored with the whole Ring idea that when Speight Jenkins took over the company and started producing real opera, including a handsome, naturalistic Ring set among Northwest-style evergreens, and beautifully performed, the public regarded it as an opera, not some kind of shrine.

Anyhow – I’ve wandered – will it somehow occur to somebody here at home that Gérard Mortier would be the right man to lead the Los Angeles Opera, away from four-Puccinis-a-season and toward a contemporary distinctiveness equal to that of the Philharmonic and other arts organizations. The acquisition of Achim Freyer to create the local Ring is a great step forward; he is the legacy of the late Edgar Baitzel, who up of the moment of his death served the company nobly as what the Germans call Dramaturg and can take credit for most of the forward movement the company has shown in recent years, but Edgar is gone. He brought Achim Freyer here for The Damnation of Faust and (to lesser credit) the staged B-minor Mass. Without a dramaturg of that quality, we get The Fly and reruns of an ancient Carmen production and Marta Domingo’s hapless Traviata.

I am not so foolish as to hope that Mortier would step down the ladder from an executive post to something less with the L.A. Opera. I am suggesting that the L.A. Opera needs his executive service, under whatever title. It also needs a full time artistic administrator, not one who is also the administrator, or the singing star even entrusted with creating new productions with other companies, and is away from this, his own company, leaving operas for his wife to direct, usually ineptly, for long periods for reasons that are various common knowledge. If this requires creating an executive post with a new name, for one position or both, I am naïve enough to think that might not be so difficult. Mortier, I might naively add, has supportive friends out here. The last time I looked, he, the great patron Betty Freeman and I were going for a walk.


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