Vale Gerard Mortier
Gerard Mortier has died. Imagine someone with the ruthless drive of a Gordon Ramsay, masked by neat attire, remarkable intelligence and the adventurous taste and exquisite sensibilities of a Medici. Put them in charge of a few significant festivals and opera houses and let the fun begin.
Others will better list and explain Mortier’s significance to the culture of our time. I’ve only had a glimpse of his greatness, and the sides of him that infuriated or devastated people as often as he inspired others. I travelled to a conference for artist managers (agents) and presenters in Europe in 2006, as a convenient way to meet many of the people I usually work with only via email. There were a couple of revelations there: one such, that northern hemisphere swans – being white – blend in really well with floating ice. When I exclaimed about this I had a moment of cultural reversal, a glimpse of the impact it made on explorers, as I had to explain to a surprised German colleague that our Australian swans are black, the better to hide in leafy shadows I suppose.
But the other ‘take-aways’ were from speeches. Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen talked about the human need for classical music, and theorised as to why some people only come to it later in life. When serious grown-up things begin to happen to you, and you go looking for an emotional reflection of them, sometimes a three-minute pop song just doesn’t cut it any more. Art music can fill that need, but only if you know it’s there. Classical music education is a social justice issue.
And Gerard Mortier told a story, of how he annoyed the cleaning ladies at the Opéra National de Paris because he always arrived too early while they were still working on his office and would get in their way. So he would sometimes chat while they finished their work. The cleaners were all black women. One day while talking to the head cleaner, he discovered they had never been to a performance in this very building they worked in. A travesty! He arranged ten tickets for a forthcoming concert, which he thought would be a nice first experience: Sweet Honey in the Rock, a wonderful black female choir from America. All was agreed.
The concert came, and Mortier was infuriated to see all the A reserve seats he had carefully put aside for the cleaners stayed empty. Next morning he arrived early, bristling with fury at the ingratitude. He described how he thundered at the head cleaner, ‘Where were you? Those were very expensive seats! Why didn’t you come?’ And she looked very embarrassed and confused, and said ‘I’m so sorry. We did come…We got as far as the stairs.’
So of course his anger died in a moment and he asked more questions of her.
And then he asked us, a room full of arts managers, to consider how daunting are the very buildings we work in, their temple-like grandeur, their sense of ‘specialness’; and to consider the impact that has on people who may consider such buildings are not for them; that the art which goes on inside them, is not for them, has no connection to their lives.
It’s a small anecdote, but it has stayed in my mind. Why should classical performing arts be something only the wealthy know how to enjoy? Is it at all right and just, that some children grow up knowing how to go to a concert and others don’t? How can we accept that the arts, a potential source of joy and consolation, is simply not available to many people around us?
Director of Artistic Planning, Concerts