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OPERA

Charting His Own Course

Pierre Audi made his name in Europe with cutting-edge productions. Now he's making his L.A. Opera debut with 'The Return of Ulysses.' Forget about grand.

May 04, 1997|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Pierre Audi is no traditionalist, but his artistic motto could well be: "Something old, something new." The 39-year-old director first made his mark in London's avant-garde theater and music scene. More recently, however, he has garnered acclaim for staging some of the oldest operas on the books.

His eclectic tastes have, in fact, been key to his success as artistic director of the Netherlands Opera since 1988. In addition to producing the classics, Audi has commissioned new works and brought an array of iconoclastic artists to work on both familiar and all-but-unknown operas.

His appointment was unexpected given his limited background in the field. Yet his lack of experience in the often-regimented world of grand opera--along with his experimentalist temperament--turned out to be an asset. Los Angeles Opera General Director Peter Hemmings says that despite initial surprise at the appointment, Audi's eclectic approach to repertory has allowed him to develop a large and faithful audience. "The Dutch are more interested in experimental things," Hemmings says.

Audi says his strategy has been to challenge the received wisdom.

"Opera is really a very free form, but it's been hijacked by tradition and convention and packaged into this kind of iconographic art form which is a vehicle for stars and so on," Audi says. "I decided to approach it from an open way, to question why I love opera and what makes opera vital to a young audience today."

Audi makes his L.A. Opera debut with his Netherlands Opera staging of Claudio Monteverdi's "The Return of Ulysses (Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria)," opening Tuesday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Unlike grand opera, with its emphasis on spectacle and orchestration, Baroque opera is more of a chamber form, focusing on the singers. "The Return of Ulysses," first performed in Venice in 1640, is Monteverdi's last opera and one of only four of the prolific composer's works in the form that have not been lost.

Yet old as the Baroque opera may be, it has more in common with late-20th century scores than might be readily apparent. Like a

new work, for instance, it will be unknown to most audience members.

"People have difficulty sometimes in accepting new works, because they are unfamiliar and foreign or because they're making sounds that don't belong to our sense of what melody is," Audi says during a rehearsal break interview in the L.A. Opera offices. "But I think equally bizarre is a return back to what Monteverdi did. Of course, he does take you through the words in a recognizable melodic way. But the form of the event is very fresh to an opera audience.

"For me, Monteverdi's form is the most radical. I was interested in going to the heart of why it's radical. For me, after 'Ulysses,' opera starts to go wrong. It became a much heavier form, with a large orchestra and the conductor dominating."

Audi, who was born in Beirut and reared there and in Paris, read history at Oxford University in England from 1975 to 1978. After completing his studies, he decided to pursue his longtime interest in performance and music.

He launched his career by founding the Almeida Theatre in London in 1979. A center for musical and theatrical innovation with a decidedly internationalist bent, the Almeida quickly gained a reputation among the European avant-garde community. The theater's contemporary music festival, in particular, became a gathering spot for artists from around the world.

Nearly a decade after starting the theater, however, Audi was ready for a bigger challenge. Still, when he took the helm of the Amsterdam-based Netherlands Opera in the 1988-89 season, it was, he recalls, "a big shock."

Right away, he had to start planning the first season he was responsible for, in 1990-91, and that's how he came upon Monteverdi.

"I found it on the shelf when I arrived there," Audi says in his dulcet Oxford English. "It was a score that was being considered by my predecessor, but the project had been abandoned."

"Ulysses" tells the story of the wandering Greek hero's return home to his wife, Penelope, who has been waiting 20 years for him, and of how he displaces her suitors to regain his mate and throne.

Although Audi found the piece compelling, he had some reservations about the project: "The auditorium in the Netherlands is very difficult. Coming from a small, experimental 300-seat theater, I was very daunted by the idea of making a production for such a big house," he says, comparing the Almeida to the opera's 1,500-seat theater.

It was a departure for Audi in other ways as well.

"It was my first production of an opera by a dead composer," he says. "Until then, I'd done mostly modern pieces. I was mainly interested in 20th century theater and opera."

Fortunately, the Netherlands' then-new Muziektheater was a flexible space, and that convinced Audi to attempt the piece.

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