One of the most active and influential figures in the opera world, Belgian impresario Gerard Mortier, died Saturday at age 70 at his home in Brussels. His death was announced by Madrid's Teatro Real, which he had served as artistic director. The cause was pancreatic cancer.
Whether or not opera fans could identify this behind-the-scenes figure by name, Mortier was a tremendously important and influential administrator. In posts across Europe, he disrupted audience expectations in favor of productions that often took operas out of their historical settings and placed them squarely in the present. Mortier also championed the work of not just a host of vanguard composers, but talents like director Peter Sellars and choreographer Mark Morris as well.
Born Nov. 25, 1943 in Ghent to a family of bakers, Mortier fell in love with opera as a child. After earning graduate degrees in law and communications, he took a job at the Festival of Flanders as an assistant. There he met conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi, tho took him on as his own assistant in Germany. Mortier went on to the Paris Opera, where he first served as the assistant to the house's director, Rolf Liebermann — just as the tides rose in favor of Regietheater (director's theater), in which a director freely updates a work's geographical setting, time period or additional elements to reflect current concerns, in stagings popularly derided as "Eurotrash."
Mortier injected that kind of energy into all of his work from then on, starting with his own first major position as the director of Brussels' then-sleepy Théâtre de la Monnaie in 1981. There he premiered John Adams' Death of Klinghoffer and mounted operas by Janácek. In 1987 Mortier hired as the theater's dance director American choreographer Mark Morris, who staged Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and Handel's L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato:
Three years later, Mortier left Brussels for the equally — if not more — conservative stronghold of Austria's Salzburg Festival, where he succeeded the revered conductor Herbert von Karajan. There Mortier managed to overturn the proverbial apple cart not just by commissioning works like Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin and Sellars-directed productions of Messiaen's St. François d'Assise and Ligeti's Grand Macabre, but also with updated stagings of operas by the city's most beloved native son, Mozart.
In 2004, Mortier brought his ideas to the Paris Opera, where he remounted the Messiaen St. François and introduced several other now iconic projects to Europe, including Wagner's Tristan und Isolde as produced by Peter Sellars, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and video artist Bill Viola:
In 2007, Mortier was hired as general manager and artistic director of the New York City Opera. Instead of continuing his run as a polarizing figure based on his aesthetic ideas, he became a lightning rod for another kind of controversy altogether. The already financially faltering company approved Mortier's plan to close its former Lincoln Center home, the State Theater, for renovations during the 2008-09 season, with the expectation that the company's endowment would largely cover the resulting gap in income.
But when Mortier was presented with a $30 million budget for his first season in New York — about half of what he had previously agreed to — in the shadow of the country's financial crisis, he quit before coming to New York for the 2009-10 season. Whether or not the Mortier chapter foretold or contributed to City Opera's eventual demise, the company shut its doors in October.
Yet as the City Opera crisis was building to a boil, Madrid's Teatro Real signaled that they would be interested in bringing Mortier aboard. Three weeks after he officially stepped down from the City Opera post, he agreed to become artistic director in Madrid. In short order, the Spanish audience benefited from a number of provocative commissions and productions that Mortier had originally planned for New York. These included the world premieres of Philip Glass' rumination on the inner life of Walt Disney, The Perfect American, and Charles Wuorinen's Brokeback Mountain (which is still available for free streaming on Medici.tv). In typical fashion, Mortier got into a very public fight with the Spanish house this past fall, when he criticized management's search for his successor; they downgraded Mortier's title to "artistic adviser."
The new head of the Smithsonian Institution was announced Monday. David Skorton will leave his job as president of Cornell University to become the institution's 13th secretary since its founding in 1846.
Skorton becomes the first physician to lead the Smithsonian. He's a board-certified cardiologist and amateur jazz musician. Most importantly for the Smithsonian, he's a skilled fundraiser. Skorton led a team that raised $5 billion during his eight years at Cornell.
"Becoming a part of the Smithsonian is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lead an institution that is at the heart of the country's cultural, artistic, historical and scientific life," Skorton, 64, said in a statement. He added, I am eager to work with the leaders of Washington's art, science and cultural centers to emphasize the critical importance of these disciplines."
Skorton, who also is a past president of the University of Iowa, will take over as secretary in July 2015. He replaces Wayne Clough, who came to the Smithsonian from Georgia Tech where he'd been president. Clough plans to retire in October.
With 19 museums, the National Zoo and nine research facilities around the world, the Smithsonian is massive. Running it is a delicate balancing act between advancing the worlds of science, culture and the arts and pleasing Congress.
"David Skorton has demonstrated keen vision and skilled leadership as the president of two great American universities," said Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who is the Smithsonian's chancellor. "His character, experience and talents are an ideal match for the Smithsonian's broad and dynamic range of interests, endeavors and aspirations.
The federal government loses its control of land that's granted to railroad companies after the track has been abandoned, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday. The court sided with a private landowner in Wyoming who is fighting efforts to convert disused tracks into a bike path near his house.
The court's decision overturns decisions by district and appeals courts. The wider impact of the ruling is difficult to estimate, partly because the U.S. government doesn't have a central database of the land it owns under such circumstances, as SCOTUS Blog has reported.
The justices and attorneys acknowledged that uncertainty during oral arguments over the case in January.
"For all I know, there is some right-of-way that goes through people's houses, you know," Justice Stephen Breyer said, "and all of a sudden, they are going to be living in their house and suddenly a bicycle will run through it."
Today's ruling could have "implications for about 80 other cases involving some 8,000 claimants," according to USA Today. "Tens of thousands of other property owners also could emerge as victors."
The plaintiffs in the Wyoming case, Marvin Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States, are descendants of the owner of a sawmill that produced railroad ties. The family was granted dozens of acres of land in Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest; they are resisting attempts to use part of that land for a trail.
"We traded for the land with a right of way on it for railroad uses," Brandt said in December. "They want to bring a train through here, that's fine. We never expected and we never agreed to a bicycle trail."
That's a quote from a profile of the case in the journal Environment & Energy. Here's more from the article:
"The mill is long gone, and — to Brandt's eye — his view is ruined by a Forest Service bicycle trail that runs behind his property, then bisects his 83-acre tract, which is about 50 miles west of Laramie.
"Brandt, 69, has protested the trail since the Forest Service proposed converting the abandoned railway for recreational use nearly a decade ago. He claims that once the railroad abandoned the government-issued right of way in the mid-1990s, he gained ownership of that land."
The family was granted the land in 1976, in exchange for turning a larger acreage over to the government. The court's discussion of the case touched on decades of law, from the 1875 Railroad Right of Way Act to the 1942 Great Northern Railway case, which centered on oil and mineral rights.
When the Forest Service moved to convert a swath of former railroad track on the Brandts' land that is 200 feet wide and 10 acres long into bike trails, the family sued. After losing in two lower courts, they emerged from the Supreme Court with a victory today.
With 21 miles of gravel pathway passing through the forest, the Medicine Bow Rail Trail "has become one of the most popular rail-trails in America," according to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.
The organization, which filed papers with the court siding with the U.S. government, says the Brandt family's legal fight has been aided by groups such as the Mountain States Legal Foundation, the Cato Institute, and the Pacific Legal Foundation.
In the Supreme Court's opinion issued Monday, the majority noted that although the family's land grant came with restrictions that included the use of roads on the property, "if those roads cease to be used by the United States or its assigns for a period of five years, the patent provides that "the easement traversed thereby shall terminate."
The lone dissenting vote in the case came from Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who wrote that her colleagues erred in its interpretation of or reliance on a 1942 decision that involved oil and mineral rights on federal land that is tied to railroads' right of way.
The majority's opinion "does not meaningfully grapple with prior cases... that expressly concluded that the United States retained a reversionary interest in railroad rights of way," Sotomayor wrote.
Writing for the majority in the case, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the grant of land, or patent, "did not specify what would occur if the railroad abandoned this right of way."
During oral arguments earlier this year, discussion of the case also centered on the differences between an easement and a fee. Here's a relevant exchange from the court transcript:
JUSTICE KENNEDY: Is there any doctrine in property law that if a right of access is granted and its to the exclusion of all other uses, it's — it looks for all purposes like absolute control, that it ceases to be an easement and becomes a limited fee? I mean is there some magic that takes place in property law so that if there's a grant that conveys such total control, is it construed not to be an easement?
MR. LECHNER: I don't know of any.
JUSTICE KENNEDY: I've never seen it.
MR. LECHNER: Roads, highways are conveyed -
JUSTICE SCALIA: Have you even heard of the term "limited fee" until this case? I never heard it.
MR. LECHNER: Well, I read these -
JUSTICE SCALIA: James Casner didn't talk to me about limited fee.
MR. LECHNER: I read these cases in law school so I was aware of the term.
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Thank you, counsel.
The case is submitted.
In her dissent, Sotomayor wrote that the justices were shifting the court's position on rights of way that it established in 1903. The issue is broader than whether rights are termed "easements" or "fees," she said. She concluded:
"By changing course today, the Court undermines the legality of thousands of miles of former rights of way that the public now enjoys as means of transportation and recreation. And lawsuits challenging the conversion of former rails to recreational trails alone may well cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars."
The very first person we thought to for our Sense of Place series in Austin was longtime resident Alejandro Escovedo. Make no mistake: Escovedo was born and raised in San Antonio, but has called Austin home for years. Today he reminisces about coming to Austin as a kid and tells how it was a tour stop with Rank and File, his band with his brother Javier, that convinced him to move back to Austin. Alejandro is a connector and a bridge between eras of Austin music and recently hosted a show telling the city's music history.
Listen to the interview and three songs he recorded with World Cafe for the release of his 2010 album Street Songs of Love. While Alejandro has often been the subject of his albums, particularly in the wake of his battle with Hepatitis C, Street Songs was not an autobiographical album as in the past. Escovedo sets the scene for our Sense of Place week in Austin.
If there's anything most of us are tired of this winter, it's bone-chilling cold.
It's enough to drive you to drink.
Literally. Because frigid weather is just what some enterprising artisans need to make a dessert wine that has been showing up on trendy tables and menus. Ice cider was invented in Quebec in the 1990s. This time of year, it's fermenting on the other side of the border as well, as a few snowy states try to tap into the locavore market and turn perishables into profits.
The first American maker to have a federally approved label is Eden Ice Cider, which got its start about eight years ago in a rural corner of Vermont known as the Northeast Kingdom. That's when Eleanor Leger, a Vermonter, and her husband, Albert, a Canadian, were sipping apple liqueur in Montreal, and wondering, "Why doesn't anybody make this stuff on our side of the border?" Vermont usually has more than enough ice and apples of its own, plus long cold spells needed to concentrate flavor.
Eleanor says this has been the best winter ever. At the end of each fall, she and her husband press cider from their 1,000 apple trees (and from a few other orchards) and stick the plastic vats in cold storage. After the first frost, they drag them outdoors. This crazy year, the stuff has frozen, almost thawed, and frozen several times. That makes for a rich, concentrated apple elixir — and lots of it. Yield is important, because about 75 percent of the original cider is left behind in an icy block after the concentrate drizzles out, ready for fermentation.
Now the amber liquid is bubbling away in steel vats along the walls of a big cellar. Albert — sometimes with his Canadian enologist — tastes it just about every day to decide when to stop the fermentation. Ice cider makers aim for a subtle balance of apple, sugar, and acidity. Each variety of late-season apple creates a different flavor. Honey Crisp apples, for example, have a hint of honey, though no bees were involved.
A lot of people who don't love sweet dessert wines like ice cider. Apples are naturally more tart than grapes, so they leave a crisper, fresher aftertaste. And apples may be New England's true terroir. Though Calvinists might have frowned on turning a Northern Spy into a thimbleful of booze, hard apple cider was a popular alcoholic drink in Colonial America. Now that it's making a comeback with brands like Woodchuck, ice cider wine seems to be riding on its coattails.
Eden, Vermont's largest producer, is filling about 40,000 bottles a year, and it's available in at least 20 states. Vermont has sprouted at least five other ice cider makers, with more likely to venture into the orchard as the trend takes off.
So what else can you do with this alcoholic ambrosia, besides sip it? At 30 bucks a bottle, most thrifty New Englanders serve it in slender stemmed goblets on special occasions.
Martha Stewart gave it a thumbs up for Thanksgiving fare. You can also shake it up in cocktails. Eden has just come out with an aperitif cider infused with red currants and bitters, and they are now fermenting something like an apple champagne.
"We want Vermont to be known for ice cider," Eleanor Leger says. "This is apple country."
But Maine, New York, Michigan, and Washington are starting to ride the ice cider wave, too. The question is not whether they have enough apples. The real test will be whether they have enough ice.
There, at least this year, far northern Vermont may have them beat.