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New Boss, Emphasis on the New
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May 7, 2007

New Boss at Opera, Emphasis on the New

No “Carmens,” no “Bohèmes,” at least for the first year.

Instead, Gerard Mortier, the next general manager of the New York City Opera, said he plans a “very demanding program” focused on 20th-century works for the 2009-10 season, the kind of operas “where you need to convince people” to go.

In an interview in New York last week Mr. Mortier, whose appointment was announced in February, gave the most extensive comments yet on his plans to reshape the “people’s opera,” long known for accessible, lower-cost, American-oriented productions.

Mr. Mortier, while declining to be more specific, said his choices would be along the lines of operas by Janacek and Bartok. But he did say that the season would open with a new staging of Stravinsky’s “Rake’s Progress.” The number of productions will drop to 8 from the current 13, and all will be fresh to the company. City Opera will move to presenting one opera at a time, adopting the European “stagione” system, instead of sprinkling different shows throughout the week in the more standard American repertory scheme.

Mr. Mortier said he expected to stage a production at the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue, adding that Messiaen’s “St. Francis of Assisi” was high on his wish list for that show. Another production will be at City Center, although plans for these off-campus runs are not yet final. In another foray outside Lincoln Center, Mr. Mortier said he wanted to present a small-scale work at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

“I want to find something to attract the black community,” possibly casting an African-American singer to perform an orchestrated version of Schubert’s song cycle “Winterreise,” he said.

The Belgian-born Mr. Mortier, 63, a major international figure in the opera world who has angered critics and audiences with radical productions, is succeeding Paul Kellogg, who leaves after next month. He will spend about a quarter of his time in New York over the next two seasons while finishing out his contract as director of the Paris National Opera. His first completely planned season will be 2009-10, when he takes over full time.

Mr. Mortier said he would continue the house’s tradition of promoting young American singers but would also bring in fresh European faces as directors. He said he would not rule out popular operas like “Carmen,” but would present them only in “very interesting productions.”

High on his agenda is cooperating with Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, to make sure they do not duplicate efforts. He said he hopes to meet regularly with Mr. Gelb, which would be unusual for leaders of the two houses. “I want to know what he has in mind,” Mr. Mortier said.

For his part Mr. Gelb said that it would make sense “for us not to be stepping on each other’s toes artistically,” but that they would not coordinate in detail. “There’s no formal Versailles treaty,” he said. “I did not take Mozart and give him Verdi.”

Mr. Mortier said he had not decided on whether to change ticket prices, which are meant to be more affordable than the Met’s. If there is an increase, he said, “it will not be a dramatic increase because I do not want to lose the audience.”

Mr. Mortier said two prospects “scared” him. One is having to raise large amounts of money from private donors without the kind of government money that finances the Paris National Opera. The other is dealing with the shortcomings of the New York State Theater as an opera showcase. “It’s very difficult working there,” he said. “If I want to make good things, I have to make good working conditions.”

His goals are to find more rehearsal space; enlarge the pit by making the front row of seats removable and add a platform that can raise and lower the orchestra; create a removable rake for the stage; build a sound-reflecting frame around the stage; and seek to eliminate use of the house’s amplification system. He said he was still talking to Lincoln Center officials about how to pay for the changes, which he expected would necessitate a two- or three-month closing. The New York City Ballet, which also calls the State Theater home, would presumably also have a say.

During the 90-minute interview over tuna tartare and black bass, Mr. Mortier sought to soften his image as a “bad boy” of opera, a reputation garnered through provocative, sometimes outrageous productions at the Paris Opera and the other institutions he has led, including the Salzburg Festival in Austria and the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels.

But has his reputation for presenting difficult works with shocking effects hindered his efforts to raise money with New York’s moneyed class, who are not known for revolutionary tendencies? “At the moment not too much,” he said with a smile. “It will come.” He said he hoped he could bring such donors around to his way of thinking, and said he would present three lectures next season at the Morgan Library to explain his vision of opera.

Asked for the three-minute version, he responded: “When you do opera, you have to know that the central force is the singing. The singing must be so strong to the public that nobody in the place asks, ‘Why are they singing?’ and that they are moved by the singing.”

Opera, he said, is a place for us to recover “deep emotions” lost in a media-saturated world. Most important, opera staging should cause the audience to reflect on the present. “They have to think that it’s something for them,” he said. “I use opera from the past to tell something about today.”

That point of view was evident in his sketch of his first season. He wanted to open with “The Rake’s Progress,” he said, because he perceives of City Opera’s home as “a Stravinsky theater,” thanks to the powerful dances set to Stravinsky’s music by George Balanchine and presented there by his New York City Ballet. He wants an opera by Bellini — to him redolent of nostalgia for a quintessential kind of opera — for City Center, the City Opera’s first home.

Mr. Mortier said he also plans commissions. New operas should be about subject matter that lends itself to musical exploration, he said: “I would love to make an opera on Walt Disney. He was a figure who made in kids’ films what he thought was the American dream.”

Mr. Mortier said he would seek to enlarge the budget, which the company said was $40 million, to $60 million. The extra money would go toward increasing the size of the orchestra to 85 players from nearly 70, adding rehearsal time, paying for costlier new productions and doubling the top fee for singers, to $7,000 per performance from $3,500. Leading singers at the Met can earn $15,000.

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  Tags:   OPERA HOUSE    Opera    New York    Gerard Mortier


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