Pierre Audi
© Sarah Wong

Dressed in his trademark black, Pierre Audi projects a distant and enigmatic public image. You won’t find him on social media discussing casting or choice of repertoire with the public, but in person, he is engaging and forthcoming about his work. As an opera director his repertoire is astonishing both in quantity and variety; it includes his much-admired Monteverdi cycle and the first complete staging of Wagner’s Ring tetralogy in the Netherlands.

Audi has been Artistic Director at Dutch National Opera for a mind-boggling thirty years, a tenure which put the company on the global opera map and earned it a reputation for innovative productions and new commissions. At the time of our meeting he was rehearsing Stefano Landi’s La morte d’Orfeo, an early opera from 1619. This will be the last production he directs for DNO while he is still Artistic Director: in September he leaves to take up the directorship of the Aix-en-Provence Festival.

Why have you chosen this particular opera, La morte d’Orfeo?

This opera has been on my mind for twenty years. When I directed Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo in 1995 I was very troubled by its ending. There is a scene between Orpheus and his father, the god Apollo, and then a happy conclusion. But the myth continues and is much more cruel. La morte d’Orfeo deals with these events. The bitterness of Orpheus against women after he loses his wife Eurydice, whom he fails to retrieve from Hades, mounts into anger. This personality flaw sets him up against Bacchus, who sends the Maenads to dismember him. While trying to reunite with Eurydice in the underworld, he discovers that she has forgotten him. In the end the Apollonian gods turn him into a star in the firmament. While studying the Orphic myth I also became intrigued by Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus, but a project incorporating both operas proved too ambitious. At the end of my time here I wanted to work again with the conductor Christophe Rousset, with whom I did L’incoronazione di Poppea in 1994. So this production is an echo of my early days in Amsterdam.

DNO's Monteverdi Vespers at the Gashouder, June 2017
© Ruth Walz

 There are close to twenty characters in La morte d’Orfeo

 It's a difficult piece to stage because of the numerous characters and scene changes. You actually have to ignore a large part of it and focus on what is essential in the simple story of Orpheus dying, living, and then dying again. It should be fascinating for those who know Monteverdi. One of the characters is Mercury, for example, who also appears in Poppea, and represents the Apollonian flank. Orpheus’ mother and brother also appear, which is unusual. So Landi gives you the backstory to Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, as well as its sequel.

 Our cast is a mixture of established performers and young singers. The casting was complicated, because, basically, it’s a lot of choruses and the voices have to work together in groups. They act as a Greek chorus that expresses the two polar opposites in all of us, the Apollonian and the Dionysian, rationality and instinct. In an ideal world we should behave and follow Apollo, but then we’d become very bland. Our nature is attracted to Bacchus (Dionysus), so we make mistakes. Like Orpheus, we turn around when we’re told not to look back.

 The character of Orfeo doesn’t have a lot to sing, but you need somebody with charisma, because the audience needs to understand why these women, who are his ex-girlfriends, want to rip him to shreds. Tenor Juan Francisco Gatell is our Orpheus. It’s a bit like the Me Too movement. Orpheus hates women, has abused them in the past, and now they’re exacting their vengeance. The production doesn’t refer to Me Too, but it's ironic that the murder of Orpheus is so relevant today, when movie stars publicly tear their abusers limb from limb in the newspapers. Of course, the suffering that these women went through is terrible.

There have also been public accusations of sexual abuse and abuse of power in the opera world…

Well, in the arts people work intimately together. How can you stop people being attracted to each other? This is a danger that goes back to the dawn of time. We’d have to take down most of the paintings in art galleries if we applied that moral judgement to everything. This movement is a very good thing, as long as it doesn't go too far. Because it is appalling when people abuse their position of power to profit sexually, or use violence, or are careless about the age of their victims. Every case is different.

Theatre of the World, DNO 2016: Steven Van Watermeulen (Janssonius)
© Ruth Walz

You’ve directed both Monteverdi and later Baroque works. Which is easer to direct, Monteverdi or Handel?

Monteverdi is much more fascinating because he's more modern. It's a through-recitative, so it's closer to mainstream theatre. There are da capo elements, as in Handel, but the texture is more open.

Many opera fans would gladly sit through four hours of Wagner, but balk at the formal conventions and repetitions in Baroque opera. How would you respond to such reservations?

It’s just a different idiom. What I like about Baroque opera is that the music is an indicator. It’s up to you how to colour it dramatically. Whereas Wagner’s music spells everything out. You need to make Wagner more enigmatic to get some poetry in the staging. Baroque opera is a riddle that needs to be deciphered.

This year you take over the leadership of the Aix-en-Provence Festival. What are your plans for the festival?

I can’t reveal any specific plans, or Aix will kill me. I will continue the work I’ve done in Amsterdam, and also build on the achievements of my predecessor Bernard Fouccroulle. I work organically, letting things grow. I never try to impose my ideas on artists. It’s my job to listen to their dreams and try to realise them, taking them along on a bigger journey.

At DNO you have programmed several successful co-productions with opera houses and festivals, including Aix. Are there any advantages to co-productions besides the obvious financial ones?

Co-productions are not only necessary financially, but, and perhaps even more so, artistically. Sometimes it takes an enormous effort to convince an artist to take on a particular project. It took me decades to convince Simon McBurney, a personal friend, to stage his first opera, Alexander Raskatov’s A Dog’s Heart. That led to him directing two other operas, The Magic Flute and The Rake’s Progress, both shared with Aix. It is also more gratifying for artists when more people around the world get to see their work.

Stephen Gould (Tristan), Ricarda Merbeth (Isolde), Günther Groissböck (König Marke)
© DNO 2018

You’ve seen a couple of opera-going generations coming of age here in Amsterdam. What is the most successful strategy for retaining and renewing opera audiences?

In the end, it’s the quality of the work you do.

Do you ever make concessions to your audience? Should a company put on, say, a traditional staging of Carmen for its more conventional public?

I’ve never made concessions. I take big risks in my programming, but they are always part of a bigger strategy, so I’m always thinking about the audience. But I don’t believe a lazy, traditional production of Carmen has anything to say about Carmen today. In Holland we’ve passed that stage and our audience expects something different. If a director chooses a classical form but does something contemporary with the material, I will go along with that. Subsidised institutions like DNO should innovate and continuously remind audiences that opera is an international art form. It’s very satisfying for me that our work here has woken up certain artistic ambitions. For the first time, we now have a generation of very talented Dutch opera directors.

You’ve directed several Wagner operas, including the Ring cycle, and you’re directing Parsifal again this year at the Munich Opera Festival. What is it like to revisit a work for the second time?

This is the first opera I’m directing twice, in collaboration with the painter and sculptor Georg Baselitz. Working with visual artists has played a big role in my life. For my DNO Parsifal I worked with Anish Kapoor. It’s not something most directors like, because you have to start with what the artist gives you instead of the other way round. To revisit a piece when you’re happy with your first staging is risky, but it also helps that I know it extremely well. And because I’ve already expressed many of my ideas about Parsifal, I don’t need to force them onto Baselitz’s initial concept. I can concentrate on how to bring his vision to life, with this cast (Jonas Kaufmann, René Pape and Nina Stemme, among others) and conductor (Kirill Petrenko). I’m less stressed about having to show my Parsifal.

Parsifal at DNO, December 2016
© Ruth Walz

Are you a prescriptive director, or you do ask singers to contribute ideas? 

I’m very good at observing what people can give and working with that. I don’t like to go against the natural flow of a singer in terms of movement and expression.

One thing that your productions seem to have in common is complete trust in the music and the singing. You don’t give singers a lot of distracting stage business.

I learned this from Klaus-Michael Grüber, when he directed his acclaimed Parsifal here thirty years ago, the first production I commissioned. His whole method was to trust in the music. It would be very easy for me to have the singers rolling on the floor the whole evening. By observing Grüber I learnt that what a director does is what he chooses not to do. Tonight is the last performance of Tristan here at DNO, and we've been really blessed to have eight performances without sickness. I attribute this to the singers feeling really comfortable with the production. They almost forget the stress that usually comes with performing these Wagnerian monsters.

Many singers and musicians have to conquer their nerves before a performance. Are you nervous when one of your productions opens?

Yes, I am. You see, I don’t have a style to fall back upon. Some directors always work with the same designer and you can tell: that is a production by X. I start from scratch every time, whether I’m working with a visual artist or with a designer. Maybe my handiwork is evident, but my productions are all different. In this métier you’re as good as your last premiere. I’ve produced 400 operas and ran major festivals, but every new challenge turns you into a fragile debutant. I wake up in the middle of the night with stage fright about this new job in Aix. I guess that means that I take my responsibilities very seriously.

Pierre Audi
© Sarah Wong

Your repertoire as a director is hugely varied. Is there a particular opera or a type of opera that you’d never want to direct?

I’m not interested in directing operetta or other purely comic genres. There are people who are much more talented at pulling that off. I’m more into pieces which have mythic mystery written all over them. Although I’ve directed Tosca for Paris, for example, it’s an isolated example of that kind of repertoire for me. It helps that I know the piece if I have to employ another director to do a Tosca in Aix, but I would be happiest if that vision of Tosca had absolutely nothing to do with mine.

And what’s still on your wish list?

As someone devoted to contemporary opera, my biggest wish is to direct a great new piece that wins a permanent place in the repertoire. Also, I’d like to discover another existing piece such as Schönberg’s cantata Gurre-Lieder. I was the first to maintain that Gurre-Lieder is an opera and prove it by staging it at DNO. It’s a thrilling privilege for a director to bring to life something that has existed for a hundred years, but which nobody had ever suspected was so intensely dramatic.


Pierre Audi was speaking to Jenny in Amsterdam on 14th February 2018.

La morte d'Orfeo runs from March 23 to March 26 (the full listing is here). It is part of the Opera Forward Festival, originated by Audi. Gurrelieder runs from April 18th (listing here).

You can read our preview of DNO's 2018-19 season here.