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An interview with John Mordler

By Joel Kasow

MONTE-CARLO - 5 May 1997. While attending the enormously successful "Three Queens" weekend in Monte Carlo (over 1000 people had to be turned away), Operanet took the opportunity to speak with John Mordler, director of the Opera.

Operanet: The Opéra de Monte Carlo is perhaps one of the few houses that has taken the trouble to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Donizetti's birth, and rather than doing a single opera you are doing the three operas which have unfortunately acquired the nickname of the Tudor Trilogy in the space of a single weekend, three weekends in all. Why did you decide to celebrate the birthday in this way?

John Mordler: First, I believe that all opera houses owe Donizetti a huge debt of gratitude. There isn't a single opera house in the world that doesn't, at least once every three years, put on an opera by Donizetti. As I saw this 200th anniversary coming up, I thought, let's try an experiment. I thought the best thing to do was a trilogy over a weekend, and this seemed the moment. I decided to take the same production team to give it some sort of homogeneity and also the same conductor. Unfortunately, Gianfranco Masini who started off the cycle is no longer with us, but Evelino Pido took over. We planned them one a year over a three-year period, then a rest of one year and then bang with all three together. It hasn't been easy at all because this theater is not really made for this sort of alternating programme. It was built in 1898 as a concert hall and was later converted into an opera house, but they never provided any wing space - or very little wing space - so we've had to put up tents outside on the terraces of the casino in order to store the scenery. It's been quite a feat technically.

Operanet: Will you be doing anything like this in the future, not necessarily Donizetti...

Mordler: Having seen the success of this venture, i would very much like to do it, and I'm sure I'll be encouraged by the powers that be.

Operanet: What other operas or composer would you consider for such a weekend?

Mordler: The obvious ones are the Da Ponte trilogy, or Rossini perhaps, with a couple of comedies and one opera seria, like Italiana in Algeria, Mosé in Egitto and Turco in Italia, and in fact we've got a production of Italiana and we're doing Turco next year anyway, so we've just got to do Mosé and there we are. It's a formula that seems to work, or has this time, and I think we'll try it again.

Operanet: Would you consider - is it even feasible - doing the big Wagner and Strauss repertory here? I know they used to do it many years ago, but do you think it can be done?

Mordler: I don't think so. The main impediment there is actually the orchestra because we just don't have a pit large enough to take a proper orchestra for Wagner and Strauss. There are many works we can do: we've done Rosenkavalier, we've done Fliegende Holländer, and next year we're doing Tristan und Isolde. Tristan's already been done in this house, long ago and I thought it was high time we did another Wagner opera; the public seems to cry out for it, they always come and ask me for it so I thought, why not. We'll use the reduced orchestration, which you can get away with in some works whereas others you can't, Elektra, for instance. When I first came here to Monte Carlo, I invited Kleiber who wanted to do Elektra, and he said there was a reduced version which I investigated. The publisher came back to me with such details as the need for only ten trumpets instead of the 13 required in the full version. And for Elektra you do need a lot of noise to make an effect anyway. They are building a new concert/congress hall with a proper stage and proper backstage facilities which is scheduled to open in 1999 which we will be able to use for certain large-scale productions, Frau ohne Schatten, for instance. The other thing I have to bear in mind is that we'll have around 1900 seats whereas now we have 511. For some works it is very difficult to fill even the 500 seats now. I think back now to the Menotti we did, The Consul, which was a pretty good production I thought, one of the best we did in that particular season, and the houses were half empty.

Operanet: How much of your house is sold on subscription?

Mordler: About a third.

Operanet: And how large an audience do you drain from places like Nice? I know there's a large Italian segment of the audience because I can hear that at the intermissions.

Mordler: Yes, there are a lot of people who come from Italy, which is very close. And there are people who come from all over. Yesterday, we had a busload who came from Montpellier. The interest is in fact greater, I think, in the region than it is locally. Except, of course, for first nights. But if you think in terms of a solid opera-loving public, they come from all over.

Operanet: How do you go about planning your seasons, which let me add for the reader consist of four operas each given three times from January through April, with a fifth opera given in the fall for the Monégasque national holiday - usually something light so that the Prince will not be too bored.

Mordler: But not always. This year we are doing Simon Boccanegra by special request because it is the 700th anniversary of the Grimaldi dynasty. Because we have taken the trouble to put together a performance for the prince and his guests on the national holiday, we generally give another performance for the paying public. Because this year the cast will include Leo Nucci and Ruggiero Raimondi, there will be two additional performances.

Operanet: How do you go about choosing your repertoire in any given year?

Mordler: I don't know, it's a matter of what inspires me, I think. I have special requests from the Prince who, after all, is the person to whom I am ultimately responsible and to whom I have to submit my program. He's very generous and very kind in that he lets me get on with it. So I make my suggestions, and sometimes he questions them and we discuss them.

Operanet: There is always a persistent rumor that a large chunk of the opera's funding comes from the casino's profits. Is this true?

Mordler: The funding of the opera is a little bit complicated.The opera itself, together with the big hotels, the casino, the country club and the golf club, the restaurants like the Café de Paris all belong to a company called the SBN (Société de Bains de Mer) which is an independent company quoted on the Paris Stock Exchange. They have an agreement with the government that in exchange for, basically, the gambling monopoly, they have, amongst other things, to give the government a certain sum of money every year for cultural purposes which is then distributed by the government. Most of it comes to me and the rest goes to the orchestra and the ballet. I get this budget, called the enveloppe, and am told to do with it what I will. The orchestra and the ballet cost more than we do actually because they're here all year round, and they get the rest of their funding directly from the government, i.e. in two stages.

Operanet: And it must certainly be a generous enveloppe, considering some of the singers who appear.

Mordler: It isn't that generous [about 14 million French francs, editor's note]. A lot of the singers come here because they enjoy being here. A number of them live here as well and they are happy to perform when I ask them. After all, it's much nicer to perform in your home town.

Operanet: Do you find sometimes when you're putting productions together that you have to compromise?

Mordler: That unfortunately does happen, but every theater is a little bit to blame in that we don't do things quickly enough. There's such competition between opera houses that if you want the top singers you've got to book them four or five years in advance. Sometimes the planning stretches that far, sometimes it doesn't. In our case, we usually plan three years in advance. Even then, if you get the contract with the person you want, by the time you get there you may find that the voice has deteriorated, or they've changed repertoire.

Operanet: How do you become an opera house director?

Mordler: In my case, I don't know, it was a matter of luck. I worked as a recording producer, first for Decca and then for EMI, and I was beginning to get a little tired of sitting in studios day after day listening to tapes hour after hour, dealing with singers who said they didn't like a particular note of such a take and could it be spliced in from elsewhere. It was beginning to get on my nerves a bit. I enjoyed much of the work because I was involved in the actual process of creation. And all the singers and conductors I worked with always said to me that I should be running an opera company. I said, "Don't be silly. I'm doing this and I'm perfectly happy." It so happened that I was working with Riccardo Muti in Philadelphia, some symphonic work - in fact I did almost all his records from his start with EMI - and I had to go to Houston to see Placido Domingo about some recording dates. He was performing there with Renata Scotto in a gala evening, and after the performance I went backstage. I came across Lawrence Foster who I already knew, and who I hadn't seen for some time. After exchanging the usual pleasantries, I asked him what he was doing there and he told me he was chief conductor in Houston, and also in Monte Carlo. I remarked how wonderful Monte Carlo was and didn't he need an assistant. We left it at that more or less. And sometime later I got a call at home with the message to ring Maestro Foster immediately. I wondered if it was about some recording or other, so I rang and he said, "John, are you still interested?". I said, "I beg your pardon." "Are you still interested in running the Monte Carlo Opera?" I said, "What? Try me." It happened like that, out of the blue. It was a wonderful surprise.

Operanet: How long have you been here now?

Mordler: Thirteen years in June.

Operanet: Would you say that it's a full-time job, given the length of the season?

Mordler: I'm very busy outside the season. It's not only fixing future seasons, I'm also on the jury of quite a few singing competitions. And I have to go to festivals because that's also a part of my work. Working with the visual part of opera was something new to me, because I had only been involved with the aural previously. I could say to a singer who wasn't feeling well, don't worry, we'll put your voice in tomorrow, or even six months' time. Here you're up against deadlines, you've got a paying public and lots of adrenalin going. That's why life in the theater is so much more exciting. I found myself in charge of stage personnel, I had to find directors, lighting people, costume people, people who make scenery - all absolutely wonderful and I completely immersed myself with enormous enthusiasm. We have lots of auditions here and I also go and hear singers elsewhere whose careers are already well established. At the same time, it gives me an opportunity to see what stage directors are doing, see who does interesting productions and who might be suitable for here.

Operanet: Would we be likely to encounter Peter Sellars or Robert Carsen in this theater?

Mordler: Well, Robert Carsen already did the Cendrillon. Peter Sellars, I'm not sure I'm convinced myself. The other thing is, I have to think of the public as well. Not 100%, because the opera is not a museum, and mustn't be. But the audience can surprise me, because sometimes you find people who you think would be shocked with a sudden revival of interest in the art form because they've seen something they've never seen before. Something a bit more contemporary, if you like. I have to strike a happy medium, I can't go completely berserk, yet. But the public likes to come and follows with interest what we are doing and are even enthusiastic, but I don't want to abuse their passion.

Operanet: Did you study music before you went into the record industry?

Mordler: I got into record producing because I did some music at university - private lessons in composition, I played the piano, the trumpet in amateur orchestras. I was always very interested in music. In my last year at university, I was very busy producing a review, and suddenly I realized that all my friends had found jobs for the next year and I had no money and finals were coming up and I was in the middle of this review and I hadn't even thought about doing something afterwards. So I went to the University Appointments Officer and asked if they had anything in music. He more or less said, "Music, what's that?" So I asked about the BBC, television, and he said that they had been six months earlier and I would have to wait until next year for the next set of interviews. I said that I had no time, would he get me something in export, because I had studied languages. The next thing I knew, I found myself in a chemical company, selling chemicals from 9 to 5. They sent me to a factory in Birmingham for six weeks on a course to learn about the different products that came from phosphorus - they wanted me to take exams in chemistry. I said, "Look, I'm sorry, there is a limit." They put me in charge of the French and Spanish-speaking countries - why Spanish, I don't know as i didn't speak a word of Spanish. I was beginning to enjoy it a bit, but what I did...I was in an office with three others and we were all about the same age, and the "national sport" was to open up the papers in the morning to see what kinds of jobs were on offer. One day, I saw a small advertisement, "Well-known gramophone company is looking for an assistant, preferably interested in opera." I thought, this can only cost me a CV, which was nothing. I'd done a few university reviews, I played the trumpet and piano, and that was it. I vaguely knew how to read a score, and I found myself being interviewed by John Culshaw. He threw a score of Parsifal at me and said, "Can you read this?" I said, "Give me a bit of time, and yes, I can. The one thing that was very useful was playing the trumpet as you automatically learn how to transpose. I was taken on by John Culshaw, much to the anger of the chemical company who'd already spent I don't know how much on training me. John threw me into the studio as an assistant. The first thing I did was work on some tapes of the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante played by Hindemith and David Oistrakh, which was never issued because Hindemith was not up to it. Oistrakh wanted a tape as a souvenir, so I was given the tapes with the instructions to put a master tape together. I chose the best bits and it came out quite well, as I remember. That was the first thing I did, which was never issued because they redid it with the two Oistrakhs and Kondrashin. I was at the recording session, and we were sitting there with Menuhin who was also there, and we were all listening. There were one or two sort of funny notes that came from the viola. Oistrakh saw me raise my eyebrows and he looked at me and said, "Wer spielt nicht schlecht viola?" Before I knew what happened, Decca sent me to Geneva to assist on a recording of Mavra which was coupled with Renard (conducted by Ansermet), and that was the first contact I had with recording opera. Right after that we did the "Carmen" with Regina Resnik, Mario del Monaco and Joan Sutherland, conducted by Schippers. It was a wonderful time. It was also quite crazy because we recorded in the Grand Théâtre and we had to wait until a Polish ballet company got out every evening to put up our microphones so the recording was all done in the middle of the night. It was completely mad, but great fun and a wonderful experience for me. I had never dreamt that I would be able to use these languages that I had studied because all I wanted to do was work with musicians. I found myself going from Geneva to Florence to Rome to Vienna. I was living abroad most of the time, which is absolutely wonderful for a young man.

Operanet: How many years did you work in the recording industry,

Mordler: Ten years with Decca and another ten years with EMI. I was very lucky because I had the opportunity to work with the best: conductors, instrumentalists, singers. The one advantage this gave me - and frankly I think one of the reasons they contacted me - was that they knew I had all these international connections with many big names and they wanted Monte Carlo to be an international house again. It wasn't too difficult for me to ring some of these people and ask them to come sing or conduct for me.

Operanet: Let's talk about next season. You mentioned Turco in Italia - with whom?

Mordler: Pertusi, Norberg-Schulz, Antoniozzi, Gimenez, all in a Pizzi production. Tristan und Isolde with Karen Huffstodt and Heinz Kruse, with Lawrence Foster conducting, and the Brangaene is Susan von Reichenbach, an American who stopped singing for a while; Christian Steiner rang me and said I had to hear this woman, and the sounds were glorious. She sang Brangaene and then said, "I can also do Isolde if you want." And she did. But I said, "Let's just stick to Brangaene for the moment." And Hans Tschammer and Anthony Michaels-Moore for Marke and Kurvenal. There will also be Ballo in Maschera with Gegam Grigorian, Cynthia Lawrence, Larissa Diadkova. And then Andrea Chenier to close the season, with Lando Bartolini, Diana Soviero and Alain Fondary.

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