The sacking of Gerard Mortier as director of the Teatro Real is one of the uglier episodes in modern opera.
Mortier, never an easy character, made enemies by the shipload wherever he went (Brussels, Salzburg, New York, Paris) and there will be plenty who rejoice at his fall – those he offended by high-handed conduct and many more who loathed his post-modern production style. Enemies may even share a secret grin of satisfaction at the manner of his dismissal: it was left to journalists to tell the director that he had been thrown out, because the Real could not be bothered to inform him in a proper and dignified way. Mortier has always been good at using media to get his own way. Some might say he has been shafted on his own weapon.
However, two aspects of the sacking will disgust all who have the best interests of opera, and Madrid, at heart. First, the human aspect. Mortier announced last week that he is receiving treatment for cancer in Germany. He had expected to continue in the job until 2016 and was assured that his survival prospects are good. To sack a man when he is fighting for his life is undignified, unChristian and unworthy of an organisation that claims to represent the spiritual side of a city and nation. The Teatro Real has covered itself and the city of Madrid in shame and disgrace.
When Mortier’s lawyers make their case for unfair dismissal, there will not be an honest judge in the whole of Europe who will refuse their claim of aggravated damages. This will cost the Real dear.
But money is the least of the damage. In the last three years, Gerard Mortier has given opera in Spain a higher profile than it attained in three centuries. New productions, co-productions, world premieres – the forthcoming Brokeback Mountain announced on the every day he was sacked – have put the Teatro Real where it wants to belong: beside Real Madrid, at the very top of the game.
Sacking Mortier condemns the Real to instant relegation. His successor, Joan Matabosch, from Barcelona, is a capable administrator, but the bed he enters is still warm from its previous occupant. Matabosch will struggle to live down the shabby circumstances of his appointment. And even if he were Max Reinhardt or Luis Bunuel he will never rekindle the flame of renewal that Mortier brought to the Real. Madrid has scored a shocking own goal, one that will return to haunt it for many years to come.