Born in Ghent, the son of a baker, Mortier attended in youth the Jesuit private school Sint-Barbaracollege, following the death of his mother. He subsequently studied law and journalism at Ghent University.
Mortier pursued apprenticeships in opera administration under Christoph von Dohnányi in Frankfurt and Rolf Liebermann in Paris. He worked for the Flanders Festival from 1968 to 1972. His first major administrative post was as the general director of La Monnaie (De Munt) in Brussels from 1981 to 1991, where he was credited with artistically rejuvenating the company. He subsequently held the general directorship of the Salzburg Festival from 1991 to 2001.
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."
Mortier served as general director of the Opéra National de Paris from 2004 to 2009.
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. In addition, 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.
Also in November 2008, 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 on which it is based. This was one of the projects Mortier took with him to the Teatro Real, and it was completed in 2012.
In September 2013, Mortier disclosed publicly his condition of cancer. During the search for his successor, he made controversial comments that he did not know of a fully qualified Spanish candidate to succeed him, and mentioned concerns about the expressed government interference in the choice of successor and their wish to have only a Spanish candidate succeed him. Later that month, following the appointment of Joan Matabosch as the company next's artistic director, Mortier was named artistic advisor of the company. 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."
Mortier died of pancreatic cancer in Brussels on 8 March 2014, aged 70. Survivors include his sister Rita and his longtime companion, conductor Sylvain Cambreling. In April 2014, Mortier was posthumously awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award in the International Opera Awards 2014.
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
- Created a Baron by the King Albert II of the Belgians 30 May 2007.
- Dramaturgie d'une passion, 2009.
- 2014, the Gerard Mortier Award was established in his name, to be given biannually, by Opernwelt magazine and the Ring Award, for music theatre. He himself was the first recipient, named just before his death.
- 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
- Ben Lawrence (2014-03-09). "Opera director Gerard Mortier dies aged 70". Telegraph. Retrieved 2015-01-15.
- Fred Cohn (9 March 2014). "Gerard Mortier, 70, Intendant Who Courted Innovation and Controversy in the Opera House, Has Died". Opera News.
- Andrew Clark (2014-03-21). "Obituary: Gerard Mortier, arts administrator, 1943-2014". Financial Times. Retrieved 2015-01-15.
- Rupert Christiansen (2014-03-09). "Gerard Mortier's devotion to opera was intense and unswerving". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2015-01-15.
- Christian Merlin (2014-03-09). "Gerard Mortier, requiem pour un moderne". Le Figaro (in French). Retrieved 2015-01-15.
- 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.
- Barry Millington (2014-03-14). "Gerard Mortier obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 2015-01-15.
- 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.
- Daniel Verdú (2013-09-03). "Mortier: 'Si el Gobierno impone a mi sucesor, no esperaré a 2016: me voy'". El País. Retrieved 2015-01-15.
- Paul Hamilos (2013-09-10). "Madrid's Teatro Real boss sparks row by saying no Spaniard can succeed him". The Guardian. Retrieved 2015-01-15.
- "Gerard Mortier, Artistic Advisor for Teatro Real" (Press release). Teatro Real. 2013-09-26. Retrieved 2014-03-13.
- Zachary Woolfe (2014-01-24). "Love That Dare Not Sing Its Name". The New York Times. Retrieved 2014-08-12.
- Zachary Woolfe (2014-03-10). "Gerard Mortier, Opera Visionary and Patron of New Work, Dies at 70". The New York Times. Retrieved 2014-08-12.
- "Opera Awards 2014". The International Opera Awards. Archived from the original on 12 April 2014. Retrieved 11 April 2014.
- "Opernwelt y El Concurso Ring Award Reconocen La Labor de Gerard Mortier" (Press release). Teatro Real. 2013-09-26. Retrieved 2015-01-15.
- "Award ceremony, Goethe Medal 2014, Nike Wagner: Laudatory speech for Gerard Mortier" (PDF) (Press release). Goethe Institut. 2014. Retrieved 2015-01-15.