A behind-the-scenes eminence shapes a festival's future

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A behind-the-scenes eminence shapes a festival's future
tic director of the Park Avenue Armory. Mohamed Sadek/The New York Times.

by Zachary Woolfe

AIX-EN-PROVENCE.- On a recent Monday afternoon, the Grand Théâtre de Provence here was almost empty, a few hours before a concert performance of Monteverdi’s opera “L’Orfeo.”

An organ was being tuned onstage, letting out a fluteish wheeze. In the wings, someone was warming up with the dashing brass fanfares at the start of the score.

And Pierre Audi, the general director of the Aix-en-Provence Festival, which runs this year through Saturday and presented the Monteverdi, was painstakingly adjusting the lighting.

“Warmer; it’s very dead,” he said to members of the festival’s technical staff as he stared at the glow on the back wall of the stage. The first act of “L’Orfeo” takes place in a meadow, which the performance would suggest with some treelike blurs of green behind the musicians. Audi wanted the color to be ever so slightly subtler, paler, more delicate.

As the ensemble started to rehearse, he stood and watched, hands intertwined across his belly. The playing was spirited, but some of the singers’ bits of acting felt a tad awkward.

“I haven’t done the staging,” Audi, 64, said under his breath in an accent not quite British and not quite French, with a sly smirk and an apologetic shrug. “I’m just doing the lights.”

Taking it upon himself to do the lights for a mere concert wasn’t out of character for Audi — also the artistic director of the Park Avenue Armory in New York, the founder of the Almeida Theater in London, for decades the head of the Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam, and altogether one of the most eminent behind-the-scenes figures on the global performing arts scene.

An experienced stage director as well as a renowned administrator, Audi doesn’t just work on grand strategy and schmooze with donors. He also gets into the details of craft, closely overseeing rehearsals. (The chatter this summer was that he particularly needed to help shape Satoshi Miyagi’s vaguely Kabuki production of Mozart’s “Idomeneo.”) Directors respect him because he’s one of them.

After succeeding Bernard Foccroulle, who stepped down after 11 successful years at Aix, Audi was able to present just one iteration of this annual festival before the pandemic hit. But last summer, and this one, he delivered tenure-defining coups.

In 2020, when all of Aix’s performances were canceled because of the pandemic, Audi managed to hold rehearsals for “Innocence,” a new work by Kaija Saariaho, with just a piano. And he was able to shift the premiere seamlessly to 2021, when it was acclaimed as one of the finest operas of the 21st century.

This year, he opened the season at a new venue, which was also an old one: the Stadium de Vitrolles, a massive black concrete box built in the 1990s that had been sitting abandoned on a hilltop in an Aix suburb for over two decades.

“When I arrived as director, I said to the technical people, ‘I want to see it,’” Audi recalled. “They kind of said it wasn’t possible — for a year and a half. And I had to be really tough: ‘If you don’t show it to me, I’ll stop being the director.’ It was the last day of my first festival, in 2019, and we went in with one lamp.”

The graffiti-strewn building was in sad shape, but Audi, who had transformed a former Salvation Army hall into the Almeida in 1980 and was used to programming a vast raw space in New York, realized its potential.

“I saw the height of it,” he said, “and I immediately looked at the real estate being very similar to the Armory.”

For two years, he courted the local government in Vitrolles, which would have to shoulder much of the cost of the refurbishment. Audi began to plan a daring premiere production for the stadium — “Resurrection,” Romeo Castellucci’s staging of Mahler’s Second Symphony as a 90-minute exhumation of a shallow mass grave — without knowing whether the renovation would be ready in time, and without doing an acoustic test in the space.

“He called me,” said conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, “and I think he thought he would have to make a case, to somehow justify it to me: ‘We have a sort of outré idea that Castellucci will stage Mahler 2 in a half-derelict old building.’ And I just said, ‘Yeah, I’m in.’ I think he was disappointed it was so easy.”

It wasn’t until last July that Vitrolles formally greenlighted the project. But Audi’s bet paid off: Work was completed on schedule, and while some debated Castellucci’s concept, “Resurrection” was generally applauded, a proof of concept at the start of a series of productions exploring the possibilities of the memorable, malleable space.

“The stadium is the signature of Pierre Audi’s term,” said Timothée Picard, the festival’s dramaturg. “And it’s absolutely connected to everything he’s done from the beginning of his career. To imagine new relationships between works, space, stage directing, audience. Projects we couldn’t do in traditional venues.”

Speaking to a small group of young artists during this year’s festival, Audi said, “I never looked at opera as something that had to deal with my trauma or my origins.” But he has linked his interest in repurposing unusual structures to growing up in Lebanon, a country that lacked theaters.

“Opening the stadium, for me, it felt natural,” he said. “You have to take any building and make it a space.”

Born into a wealthy family in Beirut, Audi was raised there and in Paris and was educated at Oxford University in Britain. He was in his early 20s when he founded the Almeida, turning it into a center of experimental theater and music. Starting in 1988, he served for 30 years as the leader of Dutch National Opera, a period during which he spent 10 years also in charge of the Holland Festival.

“The thing about Pierre was, it wasn’t going to be traditional old-fashioned opera,” said the administrator and coach Matthew Epstein, who advised Audi during that early period. “It was the expanding of the repertoire — both backward, toward Handel and Monteverdi, which he directed and became famous for, and forward, toward so much contemporary opera. He’s a real impresario.”

As the Foccroulle era moves further into the past, Audi’s Aix is coming into its own. He has added more productions to the three-week schedule and a denser lineup of concerts, expanding the budget to 27.5 million euros ($28.1 million) this year from 21.4 million euros in 2018, with plans for more, while maintaining the size of the staff; the increase is going into the art-making.

He is presenting more Italian opera than had been the case here — “Tosca” in 2019; Rossini’s “Moïse et Pharaon” and a concert “Norma” this year; “Madama Butterfly” to come — and also more French works, including Meyerbeer’s “Le Prophète” next year. Aix’s vibrant commissioning program will continue, setting it apart from the Salzburg Festival, the grandest of European summer opera events, which has focused recently on revivals of rarely seen 20th-century pieces rather than new ones.

A sustained relationship with Simon Rattle and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra will begin in a few summers. And Audi would like to convert the Château du Grand-Saint-Jean, just outside Aix, into a theater and a home for the festival’s young-artist program — but that project, unlike the Stadium de Vitrolles, would require an immense fundraising effort, especially as public subsidies are a gradually ebbing percentage of the budget.

As for the stadium, next summer it will be used for another ambitious project, but something completely different than “Resurrection”: a trio of films that will accompany Stravinsky’s epochal early ballets, played live by the Orchestre de Paris under Klaus Makela.

“The important thing,” Audi said, “is not to imitate what we did this year.”

This is in keeping with his general resistance to resting on his laurels, to doing what is expected of him. Nikolaus Bachler, another veteran artistic leader, said, “What I admire most about Pierre is he has a never-ending curiosity.” Rashaad Newsome’s “Assembly,” which Audi presented at the Armory earlier this year, was “completely different than what you might think would be interesting to him,” said Rebecca Robertson, the Armory’s president.

But along with the curiosity comes a pragmatic side, a commitment to seeing those visions through. “He’s always anchored in some kind of technical reality,” Salonen said, adding, of “Resurrection”: “If he thought it could be done, I immediately thought this was something interesting.”

“Honestly, this idea, coming from almost anyone, I would have said, ‘You’re out of your mind,’” Salonen said. “But when it came from him, I listened.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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