Pierre Audi

on the past, present and future of music theatre and opera

Pierre Audi (Beirut 1957) founded the London Almeida Theatre in 1979. In 1988 he became director of the Dutch National Opera, where he directed numerous successful productions and initiated new work. From 2005 to 2014, Audi was the Artistic Director of the Holland Festival, and on the 50th anniversary of the Dutch National Opera in 2015 he founded the Opera Forward Festival. In September 2018 Audi will be leaving the Dutch National Opera after 30 years as director, but he remains involved as the director of two final productions, including the Stockhausen project aus LICHT (for the Holland Festival 2019). Audi is also Artistic Director of The Park Avenue Armory in New York and the Aix-en-Provence Festival.

Is it hectic at the Dutch National Opera, now that your farewell is approaching?

It’s not so hectic, but it is emotional – after 30 years. It will be strange to work for the Dutch National Opera without any longer being the director, but I will still direct two big projects this season. I just had György Kurtág on the phone. He is 92 and has spent the last eight years writing an opera, Fin de Partie, a co-production with La Scala, which premieres in Milan in November and can be seen in March at the Opera Forward Festival. I am also working on aus LICHT, the project around Stockhausen that will form part of the Holland Festival in 2019.

In your biography I read that you first became acquainted with the work of Stockhausen when you were just a boy, in Lebanon. What do you remember?

It was a concert in Jeita’s cave. The audience sat in a long line. The cave is many hundreds of metres long, and in the middle there was a platform on which Stockhausen sat with his instruments. The music could be heard throughout the cave. The combination of electronic music and nature was very special. The essence of his philosophy is to establish a spiritual connection, a connection between heaven and earth. He has developed a system in which the music has a clear role as a form of communication. That is unique. Not many composers are engaged in this way with their philosophy and with the audience. But Stockhausen is, like Wagner, a composer who uses the music to convey a message. It is a means of achieving something greater than itself.

Why is this the right time for ‘aus LICHT’, do you think?

It is difficult music, a composition with a specific atmosphere and it takes a lot of time to create that, musically. It is not a quartet from Schubert. We perform large fragments selected from throughout the entire opera cycle LICHT, spread over three days. That requires a lot of concentration and rehearsals. The plan has been developed together with the Holland Festival, which has a tradition in presenting work by Stockhausen, and the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. Students have already been rehearsing these pieces for three years. It therefore requires a great effort from all the institutes involved.

And what of the spiritual connection that Stockhausen sought, as you described it to us. Is this the right time?

It is an open message which can only be interpreted individually. Not something that can be determined by the director. It is not that we build a church to convey a religious message. The work is also not simply about good and evil. Stockhausen saw our world as a complex metaphor. I think he saw a role for art in the difficulties and continuous conflicts with which we are confronted. LICHT also brings poetry and reflection. I think that’s the idea. And his electronic music is of great importance. He remains a pioneer in that area.

Aus LICHT will not be a staging but a “mise-en-espace”. What should we expect?

A ‘mise-en-espace’ is a form of modernisation where the essence of Stockhausen’s intention is maintained. It will be a presentation with a theatrical power that isn’t performed by means of a single critical vision or method. It isn’t, therefore, an interpretation as you might have with a production of Wagner or Mozart. Stockhausen’s vision is complex, so we try to give a simple but beautiful form to his pieces. It is an interesting experiment that will be performed in the ‘Gashouder’ in Amsterdam. The acoustic space that this gives us fits very well with the music.

You mentioned the Opera Forward Festival, do you consider that as a laboratory for the opera?

The idea for the OFF came from my experience of the synergy between the Holland Festival and the Dutch National Opera. For me the word risk is important. People must take risks in order to create new work and the public must take the risk of going to see unfamiliar work. That is necessary. And a festival without risk is not a festival. It is also a platform that offers young singers, composers and directors the opportunity to perform experiments that are more difficult to realize within the regular opera season. But it fits within the framework of the activities of the national institute, which is National Opera & Ballet. It is a great way to share our expertise and knowledge with a younger generation. That is important to me.

Can you give an example of a project that would not have got off the ground so quickly had it not been for the festival?

The student operas being developed by Anthony Heidweiller. It is a unique project. I have seen many interesting little operas. It is fascinating how they think about form, I think that is of great importance. And a range of new possibilities is explored and assignments are given to international and Dutch composers. ‘Blank Out’ by Michel van der Aa is a fine example of a very successful opera that has travelled all over the world from Amsterdam. But also an experiment like ‘The Medusa of Henze’, an oratorio staged by Romeo Castellucci and conducted by Metzmacher is an interesting example of real up to date music theatre. The work is 50 years old but the problem is very relevant today. That works really well within a festival and is also the function of the OFF: the connection with current events and reality. The first years have been designed relatively instinctively, but the basis is there. Now the time has come for my successor to find a definitive form for it.

Do you recognise something of yourself, from your early years, in the new generation?

When I started at the Dutch National Opera I was 30. So I was younger than some of the “new talents” of today. But there was no mobile phone, no internet and nobody noticed that I was 30 years old. Now everyone would be shocked. That is another way of saying that times have changed. People now think that age is important. The new generation is more aware of the relevance of opera and current affairs. I was less focused on that. Relevance was important but the accent was somewhere else. The younger generation … it’s a mixture. Some want a career in opera, others have a vision and music theatre is the right medium to realise it.

When you started the Almeida in London were you a man with a mission?

Yes, it was a new theatre that aimed to give a fresh interpretation to the relatively conservative theatre and art scene in London. More internationalisation and diversity were important motives for Almeida. That was true in the 1980s, but it is even more important now. We didn’t have a lot of resources but we brought together dance and music without decor. Stockhausen is the only giant of modern music that did not come to Almeida, he was too expensive. But the philosophy survived and I also used it in my time in Amsterdam. I am someone who works by listening, feeling and using my instinct. I am interested in movement and change, not only in the quality of the ingredients. You can see that in my 30 years at the opera.

Theatre innovators such as Brook, Artaud and Grotowski have been important for your personal development. In the past you have also directed theatre. Do you have any plans in that direction?

I have staged pieces, scenes, with great pleasure and enthusiasm, but that was a specific period in my life which is now over. With a view to the future, opera and music theatre remain important to me. I do programme a lot of theatre at the Armory in New York, where I am artistic director. Although New York offers a relatively conservative context, it provides a platform to present cutting edge theatre. Because it is in English, the principal source for programming is England but I also look at the Netherlands and Japan. We have just done a large production of the Comédie Francaise, ‘Les Damnés’, directed by Ivo van Hove. My passion for theatre remains but is now indirect. I am going more in the direction of collaborations with the visual arts. For me that is also an important dimension, which can open new possibilities in the performance of music theatre. I have a long history in this. I think there is more to do with the performance of music theatre in spaces other than the theatre, in collaboration with visual artists. Perhaps that is a development for the future.

Speaking of the future, you are joining the festival of Aix-en-Provence. Can you tell us anything about that?

I try to find a new logic based on my instincts. That is practical work. It is a question of time, openness, listening. It is a little too early to say what is going to happen with the programming, except that I want to work both with artists I know and others I don’t, to preach the message that modern music is important, that there must be a component of education and that the connection with the Mediterranean is essential too. Development is important but also the preservation of the internationally prestigious reputation, by inviting established conductors and directors and initiating co-productions. My role is to take the festival one step further. It is an intense festival lasting three and a half weeks with five productions and concerts. Much more compact than an opera season. So it’s a new rhythm. We use two theatres and a concert hall in the summer in a beautiful historic city. Working in that atmosphere appeals to me. This is my fifth festival so I have experience of course. I have done so much in 30 years in the field of repertoire, experiments, assignments, building of the audience, use of the hall, synergy with other institutions, orchestras and halls and I have taken important steps when it comes to education and development and the search for a new audience. It was right for me to stop at the peak and that’s what happened. I’m not looking for another opera house. I had the best with Amsterdam.

Does the French public have a different relationship with music theatre than the Dutch?

I think the French are less musical than the Dutch and the British. Music has always been difficult in the history of France; composers have always had problems with the state, with society. So I have to find my own way. I can not do anything which is simply, or specifically ‘for the French’: I can only do something that fits my belief in artists and repertoire. That is the only way.

What do you want of us, the public and the makers, over the coming years? What do we have to conquer, defend or perhaps even lose?

In recent years it has become more difficult to connect audiences to our work in a regular way. That applies to opera, theatre, dance. I think this will be even more difficult in the future. The big danger is that people start thinking that this means the repertoire should be easier and that we therefore lose our unconventional, experimental, cutting edge power. I hope that a method will be found which still preserves this: one that is progressive and inclusive, and a magical formula to really find a large audience that can replace the current one and bring with it more continuity. Because that is a big challenge for the future, especially for the major institutions. And this is a global problem, not a Dutch problem. Education is a means, but it takes time. We need to be patient.

What do you think is the main cause of this problem?

The internet is the big reason. The concentration and interests of people are changing and changes occur quickly thanks to a small screen. This has reduced the attractiveness and the mystery of a performance. I think that’s a shame. I come from a generation that has fought to see great works. That makes it important, subscriptions to the opera were special. I was sometimes queuing for a whole night to see a sold out performance by a great director. That is over. The young generation does not do that anymore. They search for fragments on the internet and that is enough. But the unique component in our métier is the live component. We must fight for the quality and necessity of this experience and what it means. That is my concern for the future.

Photo’s: Florian Braakman