More on Mortier

mortier.jpgTuesday night, General Manager-to-be of the New York City Opera, Gerard Mortier, gave a talk entitled “The Enchantment of The Opera” at the J. P. Morgan Library in Manhattan. The lecture was by no means an announcement of his first full season of opera programming, which will be in 2009-2010, and is said to include only opera works from the twentieth century. (Although, as C.C. reported yesterday, Mortier unofficially announced that film director Michael Haneke (“The Piano Teacher”) will be taking a stab at “Cosi”.) But Mortier’s discussion gave a much more articulate window into who he will be as a General Manager, than Peter Gelb seems to be giving cross-the-plaza rival The Metropolitan Opera.

In this, the first of at least two discussions being held in joint partnership between the City Opera and the Morgan Library (the next installment will be sometime in the fall), Mortier gave a sweetly impassioned survey of opera’s “young” history. He emphasized that, relative to other classical art forms, at around 400 years-old, opera is the youngest, and most revolutionary, countering today’s public assumption that opera is an inherently conservative genre. Even though Mortier claims not to be a musicologist, and some of his conclusion leave room for skepticism (there is even the possibility that Mortier believes that opera today is a dead art for lack of historic-cultural necessity), his ability to display in public a researched point of view on what opera was, is and can be, was reassuring.

Mortier cites the moment opera was invented, with Monteverdi in the early 17th century, not as a passionate revolution, but as a “scientific reflection” on music and theater that led to a return to Greek tragedy and a reaction against polyphonic virtuosity; Mortier describes this as a recurrent pattern in opera, happening again in the transition from Baroque modal polyphony to Classical homophony.

Mortier used Monteverdi’s “Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda” to illustrate an element that he believes to be essential to opera and that Monteverdi invented: “the transcendental moment.” In “Tancredi”, this moment appears at the very last of the work’s twenty-some minutes, when after several hundred measures of violent, combative music, Clorinda sings the final words in a rising, ethereal vocal line that moves the whole piece toward a celestial conclusion. You can certainly find this kind of moment in most of the great operas, but whether or not every new opera needs this kind of moment is certainly up for debate. To Mortier, “Tancredi” also establishes the central theme of opera’s first era: private passions vs. politics.

He then traces opera from its cosmopolitan origins (in Venice, where twenty opera theaters opened in its early heyday, drawing yet another comparison to cinema) where opera was very much about the city and everyday life (a beautiful etching of the first opera theater reveals that the de facto “set” of the theater was designed to resemble a city street), through the Baroque period where ornament begins to proliferate and the substance of theatrical song gives way to ornamental virtuosity and plasticity with the invention of the castratti. Basically, musical, not theatrical showmanship become the popular concern, until, as Mortier accounts for it, Gluck brings it all back to Greek tragedy (his own “Orfeo ed Euridice”) and musical classicism, which culminate in what Mortier thinks is the apotheosis of operatic form: the beautiful melody over a vertical accompaniment, or, homophony.

And no other composer embodies this, for Mortier–and probably for most opera scholars–than Mozart. And it is Mozart that Mortier seems to be intent on using as the model for new opera. I find this a fascinating position. On one hand, it might cause concern because it suggests, in a way, a resistance to newer forms that may not either have homophonic structures or may not end with transcendental moments; the position literally looks backward; yet, on the other hand, to take the position of wanting new opera to be more like the “ideal” of opera, might indeed be a more attractive position than what Peter Gelb seems to take, which is to look laterally toward contemporary popular idioms, a position that I have argued against several times. To summarize my position: classical music today is a form of alternative music; alternative to popular music; thus, if classical music seeks to become more like popular music, it loses its interest as an alternative, because it will sound and feel like everything else.

To be clear, Mortier also spent a large time de-classifying the contemporary image of Mozart as a stuffy aristocratic artist. He presented two portraits–the first, made five years after the composer’s death and depicted him as youthful, elegant, and upright; the other, made just before his death, showed him aged, chubby and slouching a little–illustrating the difference between the historical impression of Mozart and his personality of the time when he was a man of the people. For Mortier, it seems that opera has always been an art that, at its zenith, presents the realities of every day life and every day people.

It will be exhilarating to see how he realizes this vision during his tenure. Can a Mozartean ideal and contemporary sensibility toward classical music find a meeting point? Can Mortier stand strong enough to push for his vision to be realized in the face of the conservative societies that traditionally govern opera. I’m impressed from what I’ve heard from the man, and what I’ve seen of his productions for the Paris Opera. I think New York City–and The Met in particular–will be in for a shock when suddenly the hottest ticket in town will be for a seat at The City Opera.

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