As an opera nation, The Netherlands has finally come of age. It was 21 years ago when Pierre Audi arrived here. He was young, just 31 years old, and mainly experienced as a theatre director. Under his direction, and in less than a decade, the Almeida Theatre in London’s Islington, although small, had developed into an important stage for avant-garde theatre and music, including opera. As the new artistic director of the Netherlands Opera, a much larger organisation awaited him, in Amsterdam and on the national level - as well as the virtually empty stage of the brand new Muziektheater, which called for operatic ambitions previously not seen in the Netherlands.
In 1987, Truze Lodder, the opera company’s new business director, had already begun to play her part in the difficult task ahead. On 17 June 1988, she introduced Pierre Audi to the press and music critics: ‘proud’ and ‘beaming’, as Hans Heg wrote in De Volkskrant. Now, looking back with 21 years of hindsight, those words ‘proud’ and ‘beaming’ suggest a comfortable certainty of success. That wasn’t really so: the state and its resources had made it possible to make a new start in the Netherlands with a really big opera house, yet success was anything but guaranteed. But from the outset, there was a ‘Direktions-Ehe’, a ‘managerial marriage’ between the Dutch financial director and the Beirut-born, Paris-raised, Oxford-educated artistic director, as Germany’s Opernwelt magazine admiringly put it a few years later. While such a harmonious and inspiring collaboration in opera-world leadership has generally been the exception rather than the rule, it is even rarer for such a partnership to last so long, while still demonstrating a clear upward trend.
There is every reason to be proud and beaming when looking at the results. The solid, harmonious cooperation offers the artistic director the peace and security of an orderly business background. He can be confident that the company is always ready for him to raise the curtain. For the financial director, there is the ever-recurring pleasure of a full house at the best possible opera production, with rave reviews to proudly set before funding bodies and sponsors. For the staff, both behind the scenes and on stage, there’s also the growing pride of bearing the now internationally respected name of the Netherlands Opera. Although opera is by nature inevitably a Gesamtkunstwerk, a collective work of art, it is rare that an opera house itself can be considered as a gesämtliches Kunstwerk, an artwork in its entirety.
In Amsterdam, this is the case in every respect. Pierre Audi himself is the first to point out that a good atmosphere not only gives better results, but ultimately attracts the best soloists. Conductors, singers, musicians, directors and stage designers are happy to work in Amsterdam. Here, they not only find the “world’s best audience”, as Audi once described it to the NRC’s Kasper Jansen, but also a chorus capable of wonderful singing and acting, a superb orchestra and a spacious stage where, technically, almost anything is possible. The absence of its own opera culture with its own beloved national composers is what makes the Dutch public so open to the best, most interesting work in the opera world. It also leaves room for experimentation, scraping the moss off the cast-in-stone repertoire of tradition, and for innovation, for new operas. Any Muziektheater visitor who witnesses a performance in a great opera house in one of the major opera nations quickly rediscovers, again with pride, that Amsterdam takes for granted what everywhere else finds extraordinary.
That is the great merit of Pierre Audi. Personally and professionally, he unites a number of special qualities. He is a man of the ensemble who’s there on the stage floor, but who simultaneously takes an overview and sees the whole. He has a keen eye for what is visually exciting, but above all for what can be realised within the technical capabilities of the Amsterdam Muziektheater. For him, music is the link between the different art forms, and his theatre background helps him to find a solution to the biggest problem of almost every opera, the quality and credibility of the libretto, while expressing the essence of the music in a way that surprises the ear. This auditory surprise allows the audience to be engulfed in feeling, which is exactly what opera, with its combination of music, text and drama, ultimately wants to achieve. Opera is always superlative, but in its most convincing form it is also the art that transports the audience to its own level of passion. Love and hate, fear and joy are conveyed in a concentrated dose far above what people know, or could know, in their daily lives.
Under the direction of Pierre Audi, the Netherlands Opera is a place, perhaps now it is even the place internationally, where the richest and widest range of the repertoire can be found. There have been 20 world premières of very new operas, and very old ones. This has been possible partly thanks to collaborations with other companies both locally and abroad. Among these world premières, an important group has consisted of operas by modern Dutch composers, including, very recently, After Life by Michel van der Aa and Writing to Vermeer by Louis Andriessen. Besides the premières, of course, there have been all-new versions of the real crowd-pleasers, including Carmen and La Bohème, and impressive stagings of opera epics like the Ring, Les Troyens and, this season, La Juive. Also memorable were the festive productions of light comic operas by Mozart and Rossini, and the haunting performances of works by Janacek and Shostakovich. Opera composers like Tan Dun and Hans Werner Henze, Philip Glass and Theo Loevendie, are assured of an audience in Amsterdam, which of course also goes for Monteverdi, Verdi and Tchaikovsky, Schoenberg and Puccini, Wagner and Messiaen, and Britten and Handel. Over 20 years, the series has blossomed into a pantheon of the opera.
While Pierre Audi has often directed operas staged in Amsterdam himself, his selection of external directors is evidence of his taste and vision. Willy Decker, Peter Greenaway, Klaus Michael Grüber, Martin Kusej, Simon McBurney, Peter Sellars, Peter Stein, Deborah Warner, Jossi Wieler and Sergi Morabito have all become standards in Amsterdam. And we must not forget the outstanding musical directors Haenchen, De Waart, Metzmacher and Albrecht with whom Audi collaborates. The names of the operas in many cases recall memories of beautiful sets and the special role of artists like Karel Appel and Jannis Kounellis. With astonishing lighting effects and unprecedented colour schemes, powerfully symbolic forms and strong choreography, the Amsterdam opera productions have increased the intensity of the experience sought and achieved.
The Netherlands has matured as an opera nation. For this, we thank and honour Pierre Audi, but we know that his performance would not have been possible without the blessing of a committed management and organisation. Continuity and collegiality are the hallmarks of the Netherlands Opera: they have enabled its constant standard of excellence. ‘Excellent’ was indeed the verdict of 2008’s dance and opera commission, the Visitatiecommissie Dans- en Operagezelschappen. The Netherlands Opera’s mission, objectives, quality, productivity and public outreach were awarded the highest rating. In artistic terms, the company belongs to ‘the top’, states the commission’s report, and its productions have ‘international allure’. The reviews, in newspapers and magazines outside the Netherlands, “are highly consistent and almost unanimous in their praise.”
The grounds for allocating the Johannes Vermeer Award determine that the prize can be granted not for a specific artwork or artistic activity, but for a lifetime of achievement by an artist born or active in the Netherlands, who has shown ‘remarkable talent,’ and from whom a ‘broader and deeper’ development is expected. The Johannes Vermeer Award is intended to make that possible. The jury of the Johannes Vermeer Award, considering the special and very personal manner in which Pierre Audi has held the artistic directorship of the Netherlands Opera for the last 21 years, naturally looks to a large and impressive oeuvre, which incidentally is far from complete. Pierre Audi sees himself as ‘mid-career’, as still developing and always looking for new ways to reach and move people through the stage. Besides working for the Netherlands Opera, since 2004 he has also been artistic director of the Holland Festival. Internationally, he has also been kept busy, as a welcome guest director in Munich, Salzburg, Brussels, Stockholm, Paris and New York.
The Johannes Vermeer Award is being made for the first time in 2009. In the name of the award, it has been stated only that it is for artistic performance at the highest level. The prize can be awarded in any of the disciplines, from dance to design, from painting to writing, and from fashion to music. Proven quality and consistency are the main criteria for awarding the prize, which was established at the initiative of the Minister of Education, Culture and Science (OCW), who also grants and awards it. The jury of the prize this year included Victor Halberstadt (chair), Maarten Asscher, Judith Belinfante, Jos Pont and Paul Schnabel, supported by the Boekman Foundation as respresented by Suzanna de Sitter, Cas Smithuijsen and Marielle Hendriks. The decision of the jury to make Pierre Audi the first recipient of the Johannes Vermeer Award was unanimous and taken with both conviction and enthusiasm. With this nomination, the jury is expressing its great gratitude for what Pierre Audi has managed to accomplish in Dutch artistic and musical life. The Netherlands has become a mature opera nation!
The jury of the Johannes Vermeer Award 2009 consisted of Victor Halberstadt, chairman, Maarten Asscher, Judith Belinfante, Jos de Pont en Paul Schnabel.