Aix marks the spot where Pierre Audi is planting his next flag in a lifelong crusade for innovation and diversity in the performing arts, passions that trace back to his boyhood in Lebanon.
The celebrated opera director and arts programmer, wrapping up a 30-year tenure at the Dutch National Opera, is taking charge of the monthlong Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, one of Europe’s oldest and most respected summer music festivals.
What’s more, he’s also keeping his job as artistic director of New York’s Park Avenue Armory and also undertaking some high-profile directing assignments, starting with Wagner’s “Parsifal” to open this year’s Munich Opera Festival.
Some might think this demanding schedule would pull him in conflicting directions, but Audi doesn’t see it that way.
“I know my journey must sound bizarre to people. They think I’m either a lunatic or a charlatan,” Audi said in an interview at his third-floor office in the Armory recently. “But for me, I don’t regard it as many things. It’s all one stream.”
That “stream” is a dedication to the performing arts, with an emphasis on risk-taking and combining diverse forms and cultural influences to attract new audiences.
He began doing that in 1980 when — fresh from studying history at Oxford — he founded the Almeida Theatre in London in a decaying Victorian-era library and lecture hall. Audi staged festivals of avant-garde plays and music, transforming the space into one of the city’s most respected venues — and in the process helping turn the rundown Islington neighbourhood into one of London’s priciest.
“The only mistake I made was I never bought a flat near the theatre, which I now regret,” Audi said.
The idea of working in an unconventional space came naturally to Audi because growing up in Lebanon, where he lived until his family moved to Paris and then London, “there was no theatre, no place to do anything.
“So I saw a lot of things in Roman ruins, open-air antiquities,” he said. “They framed the performance, they were the decor. So for me that is sufficient. If you have a slice of history the audience can dream in that framework.”
That’s one reason he took the job at the Armory, where the 55,000-square-foot drill hall can be reconfigured to fit just about any presentation. “Again, it’s a salvage space,” he said, “which in its nakedness can frame a play, a dance, an opera, a concert without additions but by managing the space.”
The “Parsifal” production, starring tenor Jonas Kaufmann in the title role and soprano Nina Stemme as Kundry, will be in a more conventional venue at the National Theater, home of the Bavarian State Opera. This marks the second time Audi has directed Wagner’s last work, and he came to the project in a roundabout way.
The company’s intendant, Nikolaus Bachler, had commissioned artist Georg Baselitz to design the sets, “and it was almost impossible to find a director willing to take on someone else’s idea,” Audi said. He agreed because of his friendship with Baselitz.
“I don’t need to do ‘my’ ‘Parsifal.’ I need to serve Georg’s vision,” he said. He declined to discuss in detail what that vision is other than to say it’s “quite a minimalistic production with abstract sets. He wants it to be very mysterious … but exactly how it will be articulated in terms of light and action is something we will find out at the end of June,” when it opens.
Audi’s first “Parsifal” offered a bleak ending, but he won’t be repeating himself. “I think in this version I won’t make the chorus die,” he said with a smile.
He’ll also direct an opera by Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag based on Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame” for Milan’s La Scala in November. And he’ll return to his old company in Amsterdam for a production in June 2019 of parts of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s seven-opera cycle “Licht.” That staging, spread over three evenings, will take place not in the opera house but in a circular industrial building.
Audi said he has no plans to direct operas at Aix, but he will be “commissioning a lot of new works, fostering new talent and transmitting a love of the arts to a new generation,” things his predecessor, Bernard Foccroulle, has made a priority during his 20 years in charge. Foccroulle remains in place through the 2018 season, and Audi will announce plans for the future on July 6.
One project especially dear to his heart is the festival’s Mediterranean Youth Orchestra, which brings together promising musicians from countries in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, including his native Lebanon.
“We can’t just sit back and continue to make Western opera as if the rest of the society hasn’t moved,” he said. “A lot of these countries need to express sometimes very painful messages. Music and poetry can be a powerful vehicle.”
Audi, 60, will continue to make his home in Amsterdam, where his two young children are in school. But he said he decided to accept the Aix assignment because “I’ve always been fascinated by festivals,” where “there is no routine, instead there are surprises.”
“The great thing about Aix is that it’s a risk-taking festival,” he said, “and there is no such thing as a festival without risks.”