A Cosmopolitan between Earth and Heaven
Pierre Audi at the Netherlands Opera and the Holland Festival
1 - A Cosmopolitan in Amsterdam
The unlikely appointment of Pierre Audi
Looking like an exotic wild creature with his large, dark eyes darting apprehensively around, Pierre Audi arrived to take up his appointment as artistic director of the Netherlands Opera on 17 June 1988. As he entered a small room in the basement of Amsterdam’s Muziektheater, the windowless space suddenly seemed to become a cage, imprisoning him.
Audi had travelled from London that day. He had seen nothing of Amsterdam, apart from the Muziektheater. One of the world’s greatest music stages, it frightened him. He had never directed a real opera, only contemporary music theatre. He thought: “How on earth am I ever going to direct in this huge black hole?”
Audi’s small stature in an oversized black suit made him look even younger than his 31 years. He made the round of introductions to all the strangers present in the room, shaking hands with each. He answered some questions, promised to deliver an ambitious artistic package within budget, and said that he wanted to direct operas himself when the occasion allowed. He then posed for a few photos, and after 15 minutes Pierre Audi was gone again, on his way back to London. He had escaped Amsterdam already. With his free, independent spirit, he seemed not the type to form any bonds. “A real cosmopolitan,” sighed Bernard Sarphati, the chairman of the Netherlands Opera. And then, as a validation of Audi’s appointment, he added: “But then, Amsterdam is a cosmopolitan city.”
The appointment of Pierre Audi as the successor to previous director Jan van Vlijmen was a total surprise. Van Vlijmen was an idiosyncratic conceptual composer, not looking for commercial success. After barely a year in the new and (it turned out) too expensive Muziektheater, Van Vlijmen was forcibly removed by Minister of Culture Elco Brinkman, on account of his budgetary excesses and an open quarrel with staff.
Van Vlijmen had regarded the barebones staging of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, directed by Jürgen Gosch, as his best production. “All opera should be like this Tristan,” he announced. The fact that the public rebelled en masse against it, as if to send Jürgen Gosch scurrying back to Germany pursued by a barrage of boos, didn’t seem to bother him in the slightest.
Van Vlijmen seemed boring, but actually he was anything but. He was also responsible for the future Nobel laureate Dario Fo’s brilliant staging of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia. The production was performed globally, becoming the biggest public success in the history of the Netherlands Opera. The final performance of the production was only in 2006 - some 15 years later.
Van Vlijmen’s painful departure led to serious fears for the artistic future of the Netherlands Opera, just when Amsterdam had finally built a new, contemporary opera and ballet theatre after six decades of discussion. The appointment of Pierre Audi was a coup de théâtre by the board. It would avert parochialism, and also prevent the Muziektheater from becoming doomed to failure as a mere satellite of La Scala - for the Milanese artistic director, Cesare Mazzonis, had also applied for the job.
Audi was an international mystery man who, in some untraceable way, had ended up at the Amstel. Only later was it revealed that Peter Diamand, the former director of the Holland Festival and the Edinburgh Festival, had brought Audi to the opera company’s attention. Pierre Audi had been born in Lebanon, the son of a banker, into a French oriented family. After a stay in Paris he’d gone to Oxford to study and then started his own music festival in London’s 300-seat Almeida Theatre. Meanwhile, he’d acquired a British passport.
There wasn’t much more to tell about Pierre Audi. Only that he had taken the Schönberg Ensemble, the technological avant-garde musician Michel Waisvisz, and the Maarten Altena Octet from the Netherlands to London, where he’d also given the music of Louis Andriessen a hearing.
Shortly after his appointment, Audi said in an interview that no one could tell him why Amsterdam had needed to build a new opera house. “So I’m going to show them why!” he said. For this, however, he would need time: the next season was already decided, and the season after that was mostly finalised too. In 1990, he practised in Leeds with his first staging of a real opera, Jérusalem by Giuseppe Verdi.
Pierre Audi largely kept the promise he made in 1988, as we can now attest. The most adventurous appointment ever in opera history, he even talks of a magical connection with the Netherlands. Audi came to the 1990-91 season with his own ambitious artistic policy. He was in Amsterdam, personally directing opera: the first one was Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria by Claudio Monteverdi. He made an unforgettable impression, demonstrating a natural talent. Audi always keeps within budget, thanks partly to the staunch support of a solid financial director, Truze Lodder, who became the other cornerstone of the success of the Netherlands Opera.
Thirteen years after his appointment, in 2001, Pierre Audi was awarded the Prince Bernhard Culture Fund Theatre Prize. In a television programme covering the award, Ivo van Hove, the artistic director of Toneelgroep Amsterdam, called Pierre Audi’s productions, “self-portraits of the director, a cosmopolitan person without roots. Audi’s characters often find themselves alone in an empty space.”
On this occasion, Audi himself confirmed that his vague, international past means that he belongs nowhere. He can therefore remain a stranger, unaffected by established Dutch theatrical traditions. He still represents a different order, “lost in time and space”, as an outsider in the village that is Amsterdam, untouchable and uncontroversial above all else.
And however unlikely it might have seemed at first, the cosmopolitan Pierre Audi, who had arrived in the Netherlands almost by accident, was already engaged in a remarkable form of symbiosis with Dutch artistic life. The Netherlands Opera, the nation’s most expensive artistic institution, flourished as never before. In 2004, Audi was also appointed artistic director of the Holland Festival.
During his 21-year Dutch career, Audi has never really adapted. He goes his own way, making maximum use of the artistic freedom and generosity typical of the Dutch creative climate. He has probed and shifted its borders.
Pierre Audi seems at home and belongs here, exactly because of his cosmopolitan character. That’s the opinion of both the Dutch art world and the Dutch public. According to Audi, the Dutch public is “the best audience in the world,” because of its chronic lack of bias. Moreover, in contrast with the British public, it does not demand that everything is presented in a naturalistic way. The Dutch public is often willing to think, exercise its own imagination, and draw its own conclusions.
Pierre Audi is so at home in the Netherlands that the only alternative, as far as he’s concerned, is the Salzburg Festival. Earlier this year, he was one of the three candidates seeking to follow in the footsteps of artistic director Jürgen Flimm. But when I met him at a première, on the steps of the Amsterdam Muziektheater, Audi said, “I'm not leaving.”
He could not imagine that he would actually be appointed: “In Salzburg, there are so many different interests at work - political, economic and touristic - that artistic considerations do not prevail.”
Yet Audi knew what he would do, if by some chance he were to be appointed: “Then I’d go to Salzburg, of course. It is the only job that’s still possible after Amsterdam.” The next day, the job went to the Austrian Alexander Pereira.
Pierre Audi had anticipated how it would be, because he knows Salzburg. In 1996, he had been there with Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, the Netherlands Opera’s most prestigious show of all time. The stage design was by Karl Ernst Herrmann, the director was Peter Stein, and Pierre Boulez conducted the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. There too, in 2006, the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, he presented his Amsterdam production of Die Zauberflöte in sets by Karel Appel, accompanied by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Riccardo Muti.
With extensive credits as a director of opera productions and an artistic director of musical theatre pieces behind him, Audi has achieved enormous international recognition for his excellent record in the Netherlands Opera and, in more recent years, the Holland Festival.
Thanks to him, the Amsterdam Muziektheater is a worthy counterpart of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, which among other things is home of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, named “the best orchestra in the world” in 2008. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and its chief conductors also regularly contribute to the performances and successes of the Netherlands Opera. Internationally, the Netherlands Opera is generally regarded as one of the most interesting opera companies in Europe.
Audi has also directed drama in the Netherlands, with Toneelgroep Amsterdam and Het Zuidelijk Toneel. He has also directed a number of operas outside the Netherlands, and has functioned as a major exporter of Amsterdam productions. Pierre Audi has received several awards in the Netherlands. In 2009, he was the first to be awarded the Johannes Vermeer Prize, a new state award for the arts, established by the Minister of Culture, Ronald Plasterk.