Art in the press

Pierre 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.

Now fascinated 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 theatre.

Pierre Audi 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 enjoyment 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 van Vlijmen.

The Netherlands 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.

Following the 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 in Amsterdam.

The company 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.

The company's 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.

The Netherlands 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.

"In Amsterdam 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."

In November 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.

This year's 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 groups.

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.

"But somehow, 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