Lieven Bertels: reflections on festivals, opera and orchestras

Graham Strahle
| April 27, 2015

Lieven Bertels, Sydney Festival artistic director

It is not often that one catches a festival director talking candidly and freely about what it’s like to run a festival. Lieven Bertels, artistic director now of three Sydney Festivals, was in casual observer mode when he flew into Adelaide to catch a few shows at the festival underway there, after having just seen Brett Bailey’s much talked about African-themed version of Verdi’s Macbeth at the Auckland Arts Festival.

Enthused about that, and own his forthcoming plans to direct the Leeuwarden Fryslân 2018 – Cultural Capital of Europe, he has much to say on the subject of festivals. “Every festival responds to its own city, which makes them hard to compare in Australia, and as artistic directors we always get measured up and compared,” he says. “But my view is that any festival should aim to incorporate itself into and be part of the local landscape.”

His philosophy, he explains, is to challenge audiences’ perceptions. “I particularly try to do this by upping the level of working collaborations or co-productions between local and visiting artists.” He mentions the example of Kate Mulvany’s new play Masquerade” with music by Pip Branson and Mikelangelo. Co-presented by the Griffin Theatre Company and the State Theatre Company of SA, it played at this year’s Sydney Festival in January and runs again at the Melbourne Festival in October. “I think festivals should be incentivised by the Australia Council to enable more touring productions like these to travel between states,” he says.

Orchestras should do more touring too, Bertels believes. “The QSO has never toured to Sydney for instance. That sort of thing would be unfathomable in Europe, where orchestras tour regularly. In Australia orchestras should also be evolving their own specialities, whether that is crossover projects or historically informed practice. Otherwise they are just sitting there content in their own patch.”

Bertels agrees that opera is often a poor cousin in festival programming, but says the reason for that can be because as an artform it needs to think more outside its own square. “Opera remains a different artform that obviously requires a certain critical mass to make it happen,” he says. “But this comes down to thinking too. The New Zealand Macbeth was an amazing production, set in the twenty first-century Black Africa. It shows the answer does not have to be newly created work but can include a very new production of an existing opera.”

And he rejects the idea that new operas should chase audience friendly formulas just in order to succeed at the box office:

Chasing appeal can lead to a halfway house that is sometimes to be avoided. Composers need to be free of having to do that. But it can be a spiral: if you only do a few new works, you take on fewer risks.

Bertels praises The Rabbits as an audacious inclusion in the 2015 Perth Festival: “As a European I wouldn’t call it an opera, and I’d ask do we need to call it an opera – it is really a music theatre production. But the situation is that it should not be every four years that a big new work like this happens.”

He says contemporary and rock are more difficult to program creatively in festivals “because one has to challenge the industry”, which can be “quite concentrative” and locked in its ways. “That is just the way it is.”

“There are so many things people expect from festivals,” he says. “There’s a long list of boxes to tick. This includes working with the local scene, local venues and Indigenous communities, providing accessibility, encouraging young artist development, having a sustainability plan, and supporting tourism. Giving a chance to young composers or a string quartet is just another one. There’s a huge social obligation to deliver all those things, but one cannot deliver festivals by ticking boxes.”

Bertels freely offers advice for musicians who might be looking to be included in arts festivals: “We as festival directors can be an important gateway for local artists. But my tip for groups starting out would be to really get a grip on production skills and get organised. A young string quartet might come to us and ask, ‘Can you program us?’ I get emails like that every day, but festivals are not there to solve people’s problems. If on the other hand you as a string quartet say you are doing XYZ with this puppeteer, or that it’s a children’s production and would never happen otherwise, that would be interesting.”

The answer, he says, is to make it a really special project. “You need to ask: What are we adding to the market? Don’t wish for money to fall from heaven. Rarely is it that an artist who just puts in a project description gets accepted. Instead make a clear offer, make it a very compelling win-win situation for all.”

Bertels mentions as an example his first experience in concert entrepreneurship when, as a second-year musicology student, he brought the crossover phenomenon of Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble to Belgium for the first time. “It was completely hands-on,” he says. “I booked a hall, designed my own posters, and got a little grant from my university. But I didn’t know if I would lose all my money.” As it turned out, the concert was a sell-out.

“The point is that if you are just sitting by the side of the road looking at the highway of the arts go by, you won’t get noticed,” he says. “It is not just about hoping to have talent. It is about being business minded. If you aren’t business minded, get a friend who is. Neither is it about supplying a “slick” demo recording. I’d prefer every time to hear something raw, genuine and possessing energy.”


  1. Joyce

    I agree that it is important to integrate the local community when running a music festival in their area, as it will get the residents more engaged in the events. Furthermore, it can encourge individuals to be more innovative with their music as they are being presented to a wider range of musical genres through such festivals.

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