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Holland's exciting minimalist

Pierre Audi had no business heading Netherlands Opera, many said. But by treating opera as vital, modern art, he's made the company into one of the world's best.

July 20, 2008|Mark Swed | Times Music Critic

AMSTERDAM — IN 1988, the Netherlands Opera appointed as its new head a 30-year-old Lebanese-born theater director with no background or experience in traditional opera. His passions were avant-garde music, theater and visual art. The opera world was aghast. One prominent New York opera administrator I spoke with at the time said that Pierre Audi would be lucky to last three years and that the Netherlands Opera would be lucky to survive him. Not that anyone outside Holland was likely to notice or care, so provincial was the company.

Last month, while sitting in Audi's sleek office in the Muziektheater, Amsterdam's modern opera house, and waiting for him to arrive, I looked around for evidence that he had been running the company for 20 years and had made it one of the most exciting and imaginative in the world. There wasn't much. Audi has minimalist tastes. His glass desk was not cluttered; the walls were free of art or photographs. Cardboard moving boxes on the floor gave the impression of a guy always prepared to make a quick getaway. Clearly, Audi could have been packed and out of there in an hour.

But he would have had to pack another office as well. Audi is also artistic director of the Holland Festival, a major international showcase for music, dance, theater and visual art that runs annually through most of June. In that instance, he turned around a foundering festival in a mere four years and, like the opera company, it too is now among the (if not the) liveliest and most adventurous of its kind.

What's more, Audi has a third career as an opera, theater and film director, and that's flourishing as well. Los Angeles Opera's brilliant productions of Monteverdi's "The Return of Ulysses to His Fatherland" and "The Coronation of Poppea" were his. In Austria, the Salzburg Festival will once more this summer mount his gorgeous and goofy "Magic Flute." The Metropolitan Opera has hired him for a new production of Verdi's early opera "Attila" in 2010, which Riccardo Muti will conduct and the Swiss architecture stars Herzog & de Meuron will design. Every few months, another striking Audi production, either one he's directed or one he's commissioned at the Netherlands Opera, comes out on DVD. In August, Opus Arte will release John Adams' "Doctor Atomic," which Peter Sellars directed in Amsterdam last year.

When Audi arrived at his office to meet me, he was wearing all black, from his tunic to his Prada sneakers. He has a baby face, easy smile and gracious manner. He was surprisingly relaxed given that this was the last week of his opera season and of the Holland Festival, in which there were two of his own productions among the dozens of events.

Indeed, Audi seemed happy to spend an hour talking about art and opera and his strange story. His family fled Beirut during the Lebanese civil war in 1974, settling in France, but he chose to go to England to study history at Oxford.

"Those years in Beirut before the civil war," he explained, "had been golden years. I met [Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo] Pasolini, I met [German surrealist] Max Ernst, I met [Argentine avant-garde composer Mauricio] Kagel. Stockhausen did seven days of concerts. Thousands of wonderful things were going on. I was open to everything. So my enthusiasms didn't come out of the blue. I do owe them to my adolescence there."

Getting started

WHILE AT Oxford, though, he discovered a decrepit Salvation Army hall, the Almeida, in the outer London borough of Islington. With the help of family money, he set about restoring it as a venue for avant-garde music and theater. And almost immediately, the 20-year-old impresario began making news by producing provocative new plays, commissioning far-out chamber operas and inviting the most sophisticated European composers of the day to his little festival.

A decade later, the Netherlands Opera figured it could profit from the Almeida approach. That Audi knew next to nothing about opera other than the kind of work he produced at the Almeida and had never run any other organization didn't seem to matter. The company was in financial trouble and lacked pizazz. A new opera house had opened two years earlier, in 1986, and was unpopular architecturally and, because it was built on marshland, was environmentally controversial as well.

At first, Audi acknowledged, he made plenty of mistakes. He pointed to "a terrible 'Idomeneo,' a terrible 'Un Ballo in Maschera' " -- productions that, although directed by others, revealed his own lack of experience with Mozart and Verdi, respectively. But he also had triumphs. A 1990 "Parsifal" caught on, got picked up by the Royal Opera in London and was remounted as recently as last year. And Monteverdi's "The Return of Ulysses to His Fatherland," the first opera Audi directed in Amsterdam, spawned his now classic three-opera Monteverdi cycle.

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