Audi - He Revolutionized Opera (Part of the text has been
taken from 'Lebanese Imprints on the Twentieth Century', Volume
I, Asma Freiha and Viviane Ghanem, 2006)
Born in 1957,
he is the eldest of Raymond Audi and Andrée Michel Fattal's
three children. He grew up in a large family, originally from Saida,
and went to school at the French Lycée in Beirut. While there,
he started a cinema club and invited Jacques Tati and Pasolini to
speak at conferences and debates. "I have always been an animator,
but haven't always known it."
He moved to
Paris for family reasons and attended the College Stanislas. At
that time, his passion was film and image; he would watch up to
five movies a day and dreamt of becoming a producer. Nonetheless,
he went to Exeter College at Oxford to study medieval history but
in his last year at university directed Shakespeare's Timon of Athens.
In doing so he discovered his true passion and another outlet for
his obsession with image - one that had the added benefit of being
live, and involving actors, lighting and stage sets.
by the stage the young graduate, aided by two Oxford friends, found
a disused theatre that had at various times been a Victorian library,
a music hall, a Salvation Army refuge and a toy factory. The theatre
was on Almeida Street in London's Islington. The friends spent two
years raising the funds and were able to secure generous funding
from the Greater London Council that enabled them to open the Almeida
Theatre in the late 1970s. It was to be an experimental theatre
that intentionally seated only 300 people in order to promote intimacy
between the audience and the stage. This formula had been tried
with success elsewhere but was not very typical of trends in British
was to direct the Almeida for the next ten years and under his stewardship
the theatre became famous for its operatic and contemporary dramatic
arts repertoire. He also made his mark with the Almeida Festival
of contemporary music, dance and theatre which began in 1981 and
was held in lslington over ten days every July.
the audience derived from an evening at the Almeida was the result
of Audi's personality and his openness of mind, which he translated
on stage in his direction of works by translated authors and composers
such as David Rudkin, Boho Strauss, Claude Vivier, Wolfgang Rihm
and Michael Finnissy. What these works had in common was their individuality,
the challenge they offered and a sense of the never-before-seen.
Against all expectations the theatre was always teeming with a European
audience starved of contemporary music and theatre.
He had built
up a strong reputation since he had founded the Almeida and in his
nine-year directorial career; he was respected for his artistic
originality and innovation and his cosmopolitan outlook - Pierre
created trends rather than followed them. In fact, his reputation
was such that in 1998 Pierre Audi was invited by the Netherlands
Opera to become its artistic director in Amsterdam, replacing Jan
Opera was crippled with problems when Pierre Audi joined the company.
It was carrying a large deficit and audiences had dropped to an
all time low; everything pointed to Audi's appointment being a hopeless
cause, especially since many observers did not believe that he was
the right man for especially since many observers did not believe
that he was the right man for the job. Not only was this Lebanese
director considered too young for the position (he was only thirty)
but he also had no experience of traditional opera. He had never
been to the Netherlands before his first interview and did not speak
a word of Dutch.
A brief historical
overview of opera in Amsterdam will shed light on the matter: until
very recently, opera was considered a peripheral art form in Holland.
Willem Mengelberg had directed the Concertgebouw Orchestra which
had long dominated the Dutch musical scene, between 1895 and 1945,
but he was not a fan of opera.
Second World War; there were several unsuccessful attempts to found
national and regional opera companies, and it was only in the late
1970s that the Netherlands Opera began performing in The Hague and
finally settled at the Musiektheater in 1986, but it was beset by
many problems. The building's architects had created a strange hybrid
of a building: it was both Greek amphitheatre and Roman theatre,
had a vast and difficult to manage stage, poor acoustics and no
rehearsal space for the orchestra.
director Jan van Viljmen, who was a composer, had a difficult task
on his hands. Although there was a chorus, he needed to create a
new repertoire simply because the productions in the old repertoire
were unsuitable for such a large stage. The merging of three different
orchestral groups created a new orchestra - an obvious recipe for
trouble. To Cap it all, budgetary and management problems arose
rapidly and Jan van Viljmen tendered his resignation within fifteen
months. There Audi was plunged into a very troubled context and
only had twenty weeks to prepare for his first season. He made inspired
choices with unconventional works such as IL Ritorno d'Ulisse in
Patria, Monteverdi's last composition first performed in Venice
in 1640, and Schoenberg's Die Gluckliche Hand. In fact, these productions
met with such success that he was able to produce whole cycles of
Monteverdi and Schoenberg in subsequent seasons.
Audi chose to
bet on baroque opera because it essentially focuses on the singers,
and though it is actually an early operatic form, it is in keeping
with the current desire and curiosity of contemporary audiences
to rediscover older art forms as new, while grand opera concentrates
on staging and orchestration. Audi worked with Truze Lodder, the
administrator and manager of the company, who was able to cover
the deficit and clean up the company's financial situation. They
made a very good team and Audi was thus able to focus on opera rather
than worry about finances and budgets.
In a bid to
reach out to all audiences, he included some more traditional operas
in the repertoire and personally directed la Bohème and Die
Zauberflote. However, his greatest satisfaction was derived from
the staging of Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea (which was
given at the 1993 Brooklyn Academy of Music), IL Combattimento di
Tancredi e Clorinda, and La Favola d'Orfeo.
He also worked
to bring contemporary opera with its synthesis of music, dialogue
and visual art to a skeptical public but he acknowledges that this
art form is in crisis. "Two types of opera are currently being
written: those spontaneously created from the vision or ideas of
a composer such as Schnittke's Life with an Idiot, which the public
is enthusiastic about, or those written to order for a special occasion
or season, which 99% of the public usually rejects."
He insists that
one must take risks in order to succeed. He presented five contemporary
operas between May 1994 and May 1995: Symposion by Peter Schat,
Freeze by Rob Zuidam, Esmee by Theo Loevendie, Rosa a Horse Drama
by Louis Andriessen and Noach by Guss Janssen. When Punch and Judy
by Harrisson Birtwistle was staged, nine thousand five hundred people
flocked to the theatre, an audience unheard of for contemporary
Opera usually gives ten performances of each of its ten productions
in an average season, and these productions, be they of contemporary,
baroque or traditional opera, play to a sell-out house at the Muziektheater.
one can do things that would not be possible elsewhere. There is
no real opera tradition and audiences are very receptive to what
we produce. I can therefore be more inventive in terms of the repertory
and production styles, be directly involved in the creative process
and do a lot with young artists and contemporary music. I don't
find it particularly interesting to produce an opera with very famous
singers who can only spare three days for rehearsals. Of course
it is always a pleasure to hear them sing, but I don't think that
our audience in Amsterdam is looking for that; they would be going
to Vienna, Munich, Covent Garden, Milan or Paris instead. For instance,
it was a wonderful experience for us to produce a Don Giovanni with
young artists because it is not usually possible to see that elsewhere.
We fulfill a different need. I am interested in opera as an integral
art form and not as a vehicle for stars. In a way, I am taking risks,
but had I not taken risks at the Almeida, I would not have been
asked to come here... I love the theatre and the auditorium here.
With a theatre like the Muziektheater, audiences tend to have high
expectations while they welcome new experiences and risk taking."
2001 Audi received the Teater Prijs from Prince Bernhard of the
Netherlands for his work and his contribution to the arts in Holland
as director of the Netherlands Opera. One week later, he received
the French Legion of Honor from France's Ambassador to the Netherlands.
festival (2008), which ran from May 30 to June 22 and had as many
as eight performances a day in venues throughout Amsterdam, operated
on a budget of less than $5 million, which is chicken feed for a
major arts festival. But because of Audi's reliance on state-sponsored
Dutch organizations such as the country's orchestras, new music
groups, dance and theater companies and Netherlands Opera (which
included both "Saint François" and "La Commedia"
in the festival), most of that money could go to bringing in outside
Audi said he
doesn't plan to remain at the Netherlands Opera after his contract
expires in five years or at the festival beyond the four additional
years he has agreed to. He feels 25 years in one place is long enough.
Even he wasn't so sure he'd last the first three.
by coming here," he said, "I became the kind of foreigner
who's adopted but who becomes kind of the international conscience
of the place. That turned out to be my destiny."
Yet Audi also
said it was too soon for him to think about his post-Holland future.
After all, he's never been busier working on operas. Still, his
name is now a no-brainer for the short list whenever a major festival
in Europe or even America is searching for a new leader. And now,
thanks in good part to the remarkable Amsterdam experiment, moving
opera solidly into the 21st century doesn't seem such a bad idea.
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