To become the recipient of the Johannes Vermeer Award is an immense honour in itself. To become the first laureate of the first State prize for the Arts is a responsibility that is as humbling as it is daunting. But then in many ways, those feelings connect with how I felt when I was chosen by the then-Board of DNO to become its artistic director back in 1988.
Luckily and wisely I was told then: “you have the right to fail”; what really mattered to me was more the need to risk and only then could I begin to understand the scope and challenges of the job at hand.
Together with and especially thanks to the exceptional support, skills and vision of my colleague Truze Lodder, I was privileged to play the role I played in building up the body of work that is being celebrated today through awarding me this prize.
The Performing Arts rarely feature internationally in the world of prizes and awards; I mean more specifically the contribution of stage directors and programmers-producers-artistic directors. Our Art is thankfully at its best when it thrives on its transience and actuality: heading for oblivion, living the moment and harbouring no regrets is the best way to approach our tasks.
The Performing Arts can’t live alone by Art for Art’s sake; their task is to fulfil a tricky balance between exciting the senses, the imagination, and the intellect of demanding audiences as well as justifying in the case of the larger subsidized organisations, important subsidies to produce work designed to grace the stages of costly theatres.
There are no acquired formulas about how to do this well.
When I started my work in the Netherlands I could count on my instinct, my cosmopolitan background and an unconditional passion for Opera. My large dose of inexperience - indeed my innocence - helped me make decisions as a stage director and as an artistic director that I am incapable of making today. And this, coupled by Luck and the exceptionally open cultural climate we can be grateful of enjoying in this country, all conspired to shaping the journey of the last twenty years.
As far as I am concerned I tried to fulfil to the best of my abilities what was expected of me. Very quickly, I realised in doing so, how extraordinarily lucky I was to be seconded by the most exceptional teams one could have hoped for. This made my work a source of deep pleasure in realising some of the most challenging projects an Opera company can hope to become involved in. A pleasure - amidst much stress admittedly - that has shown no signs of abetting, on the contrary.
The team work involved in realising season after season by the DNO and Holland Festival edition after Holland Festival edition is awesome. How is it possible today not to share this Prize with all those colleagues, ex-colleagues, professionals from all sectors of our organisations, as well as artists associated today and yesterday to the output of both companies?
This Prize is the result of their contributions for which I shall forever be thankful.
Why has Opera proved so essential to my destiny? Why is the celebration of the Performing Arts through the programming of a festival so important to me?
Answering those questions is something I can only partially understand today. This makes me even more grateful to the jury of the JVP for encouraging a quest that has been motored by more questions than answers. And a quest that is ongoing and vital.
Each production, each season and each Festival has been about needing to learn, to discover, to experience.
Most importantly, the work moves forward once the laurels have been burned and a new set of challenges is embarked upon that takes stock of one’s inevitable mistakes.
This is the credo by which anyone working in the Performing Arts lives by.
This is the cruel nature of our Art but it also in this very nature that lays the source of renewal and continuity.
My optimism for the Arts can be traced back to my origins, being born in a strange land - the Lebanon - a world of paradoxes, extreme inequality and precarious identities, a violent world which made me question my surroundings and my role therein and provoke me perhaps to address the challenges in front of me in ways that proved more effective and ultimately more successful that could be normally expected. The Arts were the only effective way to sublimate and deal with the cruelty and absurdity of life and ever present death.
Film seemed to me the direct and personal medium in which to express myself until I discovered that music drama offered a terrain for bridging the deepest emotions of the human spirit with the larger issues, unrivalled by any art form in scope and timelessness.
It reaches admittedly less people. However if it can be made to thrive as it does on a platform such as Amsterdam, free from the trappings of centuries of tradition, Opera-Musicdrama-Musictheatre can be hugely relevant and stimulate audiences emotionally and intellectually in such widely varied ways that its status as THE art form of the 21st century is in my view, assured.
What made this journey so exceptionally satisfying for all these years has been the high musical standards we are fortunate to be surrounded by in Dutch musical life. Standards which demanded that both the Netherlands Opera and the Holland Festival live up to and enhance, in ways that keeps a sophisticated audience in touch with the best, and use the potential of both organisations to the full.
What was built up may not rank amongst the most consistently radical, but I dreamed it as an approach that was cosmopolitan, and above all, fiercely devoted to staying connected with the living composer as the source of evolution and hope for the art form. I am grateful to our audiences for allowing me to stay consistently true to this vision because it is the luxury of staying true to what in most countries would have been deemed fanciful and irresponsible, that kept our standards as high for so long.
There will be a time to pass the torch. What this prize does today is to ensure that this torch is recognized and that its flame continues to burn as intensely and ambitiously as it has for the last two decades. Yes the Arts are essential to nurture responsibly and encourage in dark times such as those we live in. Innovation coupled with a necessary connection to the most timeless of Classical values - another way of referring to tradition, has been my way. I have thrived on supporting colleagues I admire who think differently. In that way, questions continue to be asked and stories can be told, retold and invented in an unbroken stream that rightly blurs dream and reality, and thus stimulates our curiosity.
I want to stay true to my ideals in choosing to attribute the funds attached to this Prize, to supporting the younger generation of Dutch composers, opera directors and designers.
It is a field that is hard to address and towards which I feel the need to devote more attention.
Together with colleagues from both DNO, the HF and a couple of independent advisers, I wish to commission a young composer to write a new chamber opera in collaboration with a production team that has hitherto not had the benefit of this kind of exposure and challenge. I would coach the project personally and convince both organisations to produce the work. The Prize money would be shared between commissioning fees and a part of the production costs.
Johannes Vermeer’s oeuvre stands for perfection, meditative stillness, and a sense of time and place. Opera can’t be said to aspire or adhere always to such principles, on the contrary. But where the two worlds do meet, is in their celebration of the ‘noblesse’ of human dignity. The greatest works, old and new, that have placed this notion at the heart of their message have survived the longest.
It is this dimension that has guided largely my steps as a stage director. The story teller in me has looked for a way to be accepted in a world where chaos and deconstruction are more the fashion and the norm. The producer in me has thrived on the interplay between those two approaches.
By choosing me, the distinguished jury of the JVP are also saying that Culture is a living activity that thrives on interaction between artists and the rest of Society. It’s an activity which revaluates and revalidates itself in my case, every time the Curtain rises.
This observation implies that the best way to receive this Prize today is to forget tomorrow morning that I ever received it.
October 23, 2009