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Meet the visionary who is liberating (or ruining) opera

Opera revolutionary Gerard Mortier.

Gloria Nieto/The Globe and Mail

'When I have an opinion, I defend it very strongly. And when you stand for something, you have great enemies and great friends."

You might expect these words from a modern young Turk, arrogant and proud. Not necessarily from a charming, modest, soft-spoken man approaching his 70th birthday, just as ready to discuss the meaning of the kiss in Verdi, Wager and Shakespeare as the importance of the idea of Europe in our modern political discourse.

Welcome to the world of Gerard Mortier, in Toronto for the Luminato Festival, and one of the most influential minds in opera, theatre and art in the world today. For 20 years, Mortier has taken on the conventions of "high" culture, pushing boundaries, challenging assumptions, opening up the windows of the museum of art to let in the bracing winds of the real world.

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First at the Salzburg Festival, where he succeeded Herbert von Karajan, then at the Paris Opera, and today at Madrid's Teatro Real, the Belgian opera director has indeed created great friends and great enemies with his original, contemporary approach to art in the modern world. The Bill Viola/Peter Sellars Tristan last January at the COC was originally a Mortier production. The Life and Death of Maria Abramovic, on view at Luminato, was originally presented by him.

Over the past two decades, Mortier has presented opera in industrial facilities, in ultra-modern productions, commissioning new works as he went. Next year, Teatro Real is presenting composer Charles Wuorinen's version of Brokeback Mountain. For many in the world of "high" art, Mortier is either the great liberator, or the most evil diabolicus in musica since the Middle Ages.

He himself is unapologetic about his role and reputation. "People think that art is for the elite," he says. "It's not true at all. Art is for everyone. It's just that for many people, they need someone to introduce them to the true meaning of the work, to help them overcome their fear and find the real heart of the artistic experience." But to do this, Mortier feels, it's important to recover, in the contemporary world, the true spirit at the heart of the work. Sometimes, that means offending the people who love it best.

"I often say that we have to defend opera against the opera lovers. Because when you are a lover, you are blind. Opera is more than a beautiful melody, it is an expression of the soul, and of life. People want to reduce art to something for their comfort, for their well-being. But that is wrong. You need effort in everything. Without effort you can never come to great happiness. Life is not easy – we are always confronted with pain. And art should not be easy – it's not worth having if it comes with no effort."

Mortier is ready to admit that not all of his efforts have been successful. But for him, the effort is the key. He reminds me that in the Jesuitical education he received as a teenager, the texts he studied were by Sartre, Heidegger and Albert Camus. And he has taken to heart Camus's idea of the man in revolt – the man, who faced with an incomprehensible and troubling world, is forced to constantly question, to constantly test, to constantly challenge the received wisdom of tradition. Not necessarily to abandon it, but to continue to assure its contemporary relevance.

It's a heady intellectual world in which Gerard Mortier will involve you, even over a calming cup of English Breakfast tea in a downtown Toronto hotel. But interlaced with the ideas are charming anecdotes about the world of opera, beautiful reflections on art and performances he has witnessed (he told me that Tuesday's Luminato Joni Mitchell tribute was so moving that it was "better opera than many operas I've seen") and reflections on topics as disparate as the current corruption scandal in Montreal and the fascinating social scene in his new home of Madrid.

But, inevitably, through the charm comes the steely will of the truth-seeker who wrote a paper, as a teenager, on the collaboration of the Belgian people with the Nazis during the Second World War. There is a toughness about this man that has enraged some, but mightily influenced others. Alexander Neef, the COC's general director, is a Mortier disciple, who worked with him at Salzburg and in Paris. It's not hard to see how the older man could inspire an intense loyalty.

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But in the end, he goes back to his early education in Latin and Greek to describe himself, using the old myth of Sisyphus, the king doomed to roll that immense rock up a hill, only to see it roll down again, forcing a continual re-enactment of his great effort. "I was trained to see Sisyphus as a positive figure," Mortier tells me, "as someone who is capable of great effort, who never gives up. Because one day, that stone may stay at the top of that hill."

Mortier's disciples

As well as Alexander Neef, the general director of the COC, Mortier has mentored, and worked with:

Victor Schoner

Current artistic director of operations for the Bavarian State Opera, Schoner worked with Mortier (and Alexander Neef) at the Salzburg Festival, the Ruhr Trienniale, and the Paris National Opera. He's been in Munich since the 2008/9 season, joining that institution the same time as Neef came to Canada.

Serge Dorny

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Dorny is currently artistic director of the Opera de Lyon, where he has made that institution "France's most exciting opera house." Dorny, a Belgian national, worked with Mortier in Brussels in the 1980s when Mortier was in charge of La Monnaie, the National Opera of Belgium. He was the artistic director of the London Philharmonic before moving to Lyons.

Peter de Caluwe

Caluwe is also Belgian, and joined Mortier while still a student in the 1980s, as dramaturge for the theatre operations at La Monnaie. He moved to educational projects, then became director of communications and finally was elevated to the post of general director of La Monnaie in 2007. He is considered one of the most capable artistic administrators in Europe today.

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