Mortier studied law and journalism at Ghent University. He pursued apprenticeships in opera administration under Christoph von Dohnányi in Frankfurt and Rolf Liebermann in Paris. He served as the general director of La Monnaie (De Munt) in Brussels from 1981 to 1991.
Mortier was the founding director of the Ruhrtriennale arts festival in Germany, leading it from 2002 to 2004. He was inspired to "a social and artistic experiment: how to attract new audiences to the classics and galvanize a depressed corner of Germany." At the same time, he was able to work his own interests in flouting tradition and attracting new audiences to the Ruhr. He put intimate productions into expansive, renovated industrial spaces. In 2003, he offered an ambitious season of
"23 productions with 129 performances in 15 spaces, along with additional concerts, a fringe festival and what promises to be an astonishing installation of a Bill Viola video spectacle, Five Angels for the Millennium, inside a mighty, gorgeously restored gas tank in Oberhausen."
Planned was a production of Messiaen's Saint François d'Assise in September 2003. Mortier had a "current of spirituality meant to infuse these cathedrals of industry", and emphasized a French subtext in 2003, compared to a German one the year before. He had "faith that audiences will eventually respond to the experimentation by him and his successors."
In February 2007, the New York City Opera (NYCO) named him their next general director, effective as of the 2009/2010 season. Mortier assisted with company operations from Paris during the interim period after his appointment was announced. Problems with fund-raising and a smaller-than-expected budget began to develop during the interim period after his appointment. At one point, there was controversy and speculation that Mortier was campaigning for a position as co-artistic director of the Bayreuth Festival. In November 2008, by mutual agreement, Mortier and the NYCO agreed to terminate their contract.
Later that month, Mortier accepted the position of Artistic Director of the Teatro Real in Madrid. While in New York, he had already commissioned a new opera, Brokeback Mountain, with the American composer Charles Wuorinen and a libretto by Annie Proulx, who wrote the original short story it is based on. This was one of the projects Mortier took with him to the Teatro Real, and it was completed in 2012.
In September 2013, Mortier announced he was battling cancer. After arguing with the government over appointment of his successor, Mortier was fired. Joan Matabosch, of the Liceu in Barcelona, was appointed as director of Teatro Real.
On 26 September 2013, Mortier was named Artistic Advisor of the Teatro Real. On January 28, 2014, Brokeback Mountain premiered in Madrid. The production had been highly anticipated in the international season, and it was considered also a tribute to Mortier, "and a testament to his tireless support of the artists who work with him."
In April 2014, Mortier was awarded the "Lifetime Achievement Award" in the International Opera Awards 2014. He has been described as "one of Europe's most influential opera and festival directors."
In the 1980s, the Flemish press reported that he was homosexual. Mortier preferred to keep a low profile on his private life. His longtime companion and confidante has been conductor Sylvain Cambreling.
Legacy and honors
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- Honorary doctorate University of Antwerp, Belgium
- Honorary doctorate University of Salzburg, Austria
- National medal of honor from Belgium
- Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (1991)
- French Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres
- Member of the Academy of Arts of Berlin
- Golden medal of the Círculo de Bellas Artes of Madrid
- 2014, the Gerard Mortier Award was established in his name, to be given biannually. It was established this year by Opernwelt magazine and the Ring Award, for music theatre. The first award was made to the late opera director. His companion Sylvain Cambreling accepted the award sculpture in his name; it was designed by sculptor and set designer Alexander Polzin of Berlin.
- 2014, Diaghilev Prize, "for his [Mortier's] enormous contribution to the arts and for his outstanding role in the development of musical theatre. The prize money will fund the Russian publication of his book, Dramaturgie einer Leidenschaft, a manifesto-cum-memoir."
- 2014, Goethe Medal
- Fred Cohn (9 March 2014). "Gerard Mortier, 70, Intendant Who Courted Innovation and Controversy in the Opera House, Has Died". Opera News.
- "And the winner of the first Gerard Mortier Award is… Gerard Mortier", Norman Lebrecht, Slipped Disc, 1 June 2014, accessed 12 August 2014
- John Rockwell (15 May 2003). "Tempting Audiences To German Rust Belt; Ruhr Triennale Flouts Tradition". The New York Times. Retrieved 29 November 2008.
- Daniel J. Wakin (28 February 2007). "City Opera Lures Director From Paris". The New York Times. Retrieved 29 November 2008.
- Daniel J. Wakin (7 November 2008). "Bold Impresario and City Opera Part Ways". The New York Times. Retrieved 29 November 2008.
- "El Teatro Real ficha a Gérard Mortier". El País. 26 November 2008. Retrieved 29 November 2008.
- Cancer-ridden Mortier announces his successor, artsjournal.com; accessed 9 March 2014.
- Mortier fired, artsjournal.com; accessed 9 March 2014.
- Gerard Mortier, Artistic Advisor for Teatro Real, Teatro Real, accessed 13 March 2014.
- Zachary Woolfe, "Love That Dare Not Sing Its Name", The New York Times, 24 January 2014, accessed 12 August 2014
- "Opera Awards 2014". The International Opera Awards. Retrieved 2014-04-11.
- Lucas Vanclooster. "Requiem voor een operarebel" at deredactie.be (09 March 2014)
- Obituary - Zachary Woolfe, "Gerard Mortier, Opera Visionary and Patron of New Work, Dies at 70", New York Times, 10 March 2014, accessed 12 August 2014
- "More praise dead than alive, Gerard Mortier wins the Diaghilev Prize", Norman Lebrecht, Slipped Disc, 23 June 2014, accessed 12 August 2014
- "A Goethe Medal for Gerard Mortier and Robert Wilson", Norman Lebrecht, Slipped Disc, 25 June 2014