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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Set the arts free and see what can happen

By Norman Lebrecht / March 21, 2001

How a forgotten, industrial corner of Germany gained a visionary, ambitious arts festival.

IT may not be rocket science, but the burn-up rate is intolerably high. Ten years on top of an international arts festival or opera house - and not many last half as long - is enough to reduce visionary administrators to gibbering wrecks. Drained of physical, emotional and creative fire, they have nowhere much to go except down, or out. These are grim realities of an unsung occupation, so it is heartwarming to find gleaming exceptions.

When Gerard Mortier decided to quit Salzburg at the end of a decade in which he buried the stupefying legacy of Herbert von Karajan, the slamming of doors could be heard on two continents. The Paris Opera and Berlin Festival turned the other way; Carnegie Hall let it be known that it was not looking for another European after being dumped by Franz-Xaver Ohnesorg, who is heading back to Berlin after just 15 months.

Covent Garden was vacant, of course; it usually is. But no experienced manager would knowingly enter a frame that had lopped off five heads in as many years.

Time was running out for Mortier. This summer is his last in Salzburg. The black crows cawed that he had nowhere to go. One opera boss on the verge of retirement swore that he would stay on until the age of 90, if necessary, to keep the Belgian out. Mortier has drawn mixed reviews.

While the vultures circled and hyenas howled, the arch-stylist was constructing a future in a corner of Germany that does not know the meaning of chic. The state of North Rhine-Westphalia (pop. 7 million), where the rivers Rhine and Ruhr meet, used to be the nation's industrial engine, choking out steel and coal. No longer. As heavy industry winds down and jobs evanesce, the area is suffering a crisis of purpose and identity.

How to reposition the region? Someone must have mentioned Rhine-gold, because the politicians suddenly remembered that the great river was the source of German myth and legend, culture and wealth. Enter Mortier with a bold plan for a triennial arts festival, ranged across 14 towns from Duisburg to Dortmund, and costing 120 million Deutschmarks (£38 million) in public subsidy, which was instantly forthcoming.

A world apart from the elite refinement of Salzburg, the Ruhr Festival will reflect the proletarian ecology in dance, rock and sports-related events alongside opera and classical music. "I have to consider," says Mortier, "how to make the culture belong to the people." Although his plans for 2003 are still sketchy, it sounds like one of the brightest arts ideas for years, and one that will assuredly shed glamour on the grimy region.

Across the ocean, meanwhile, it has taken Michael Kaiser less than three months since leaving Covent Garden to transform the fortunes of the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Anyone familiar with the seat of Western power knows that Washington turns into a ghost town after 6 pm as public officials evacuate en masse.

Its lively arts are entombed in a marbled arts complex that is cut off from the city by a river on one side and a freeway on the other. Kaiser promptly announced plans to erect a building over the freeway, attaching Kennedy to the rest of the planet and adding rehearsal space for Placido Domingo's opera company.

He is also planning to build a National Museum of Performing Arts and to limelight next season with a cycle of eight Stephen Sondheim musicals, more familiar to UK theatregoers than to Americans. "There is a myth that needs to be dispelled about Stephen," says Kaiser, "that his works are all alike. Seeing them together, people will see how original he is." To help fund the innovations, Kaiser has landed a $50 million gift from Alberto Vilar, the ROH Floral Hall benefactor.

It is warming to hear how revived Kaiser and Mortier sound in their new roles. Both have been set free: Mortier of Salzburg's three-director set-up and Kaiser of his shackles to the chaotic ROH board. But their greatest freedom is to have shaken off the pesky national bureaucracies that chain the arts to inchoate agendas - in Kaiser's case, the interfering Arts Council - liberating them to fulfil a definable local need.

With these gains in mind, the Arts Council's decision last week to scrap the regional arts boards and recentralise funding decisions in London is a retrogade and dispiriting move. Left to their own devices, Liverpool or Sheffield might - just might - have endorsed a Mortier-style Ruhr plan or a Kaiser-led renewal. Crushed beneath the heel of an unloved and unaccountable ACE, they cannot hope ever to express local aspirations and regenerate local culture.

22 November 2000: The job that can't be done [Covent Garden]
4 February 1999: Could globetrotter culture ruin our concert halls?

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999