High hopes for Manchester

February 6, 2009 § Leave a comment

By Peter Aspden, Financial Times: January 30 2009 23:11 | Last updated: January 30 2009 23:11

For a fledgling cultural impresario who has already made waves on the global arts circuit, Alex Poots, the young director of the biennial Manchester International Festival, cuts an unassuming figure. I ask what lessons he has learnt from the first edition of the festival two years ago, and he takes an age, and several false starts, to begin to formulate his reply. “I have thought of nothing else for the past 18 months,” he explains as the thoughts palpably crowd his mind.

Here is one that might have sprung to attention: ambition pays off. He could not have dreamt, I suggest, that Monkey: Journey to the West, Damon Albarn’s thrilling collaboration with his Gorillaz co-star Jamie Hewlett and the Chinese film director Chen Shi-Zheng, would prove to be such a success, playing to full houses in Paris, in London at the Royal Opera House and at the O2 Arena, and providing the BBC with its theme for the Beijing Olympics.

It was a surprise, he says with the quiet satisfaction of a punter who has backed a hunch with his life savings. “But I did put on 12 nights of it. That’s 25,000 tickets for an opera in Mandarin. I knew it would be commercially successful. But we had some luck too. The artists just gelled and the subject inspired them.”

Poots is putting the finishing touches to the programme for the second festival, which runs for just over two weeks in July, and there is a similarly ambitious air about it. The full programme is yet to be announced but three of the main events already trailed can only whet the appetite of the arts-lover who feels jaded from the endless retreading of traditional forms.

There is a series of chamber concerts of music by Bach, performed in a new space designed by architect Zaha Hadid; Prima Donna, an opera composed by Canadian singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright; and Everybody Loves a Winner, Neil Bartlett’s interpretation of a night out at the bingo “in which the audience become cast members for a show that’s as engaging as it is unpredictable”.

It is part of the festival’s unique appeal, says Poots, that it deals only in world premieres of new work (the concept is stretched a little, to include the Bach performances in Hadid’s new space). That premise has conditioned Poots’s primary response to the success of the 2007 festival: not to try to make things bigger second time around.

“I find myself fascinated by this idea of continuing our journey but maybe doing fewer things in the best possible way, to go against the climate of adding even more events and more stages. That’s great, and there is a market for it, but the genesis of our festival is forcing us to do things very differently.”

The Bach/Hadid evenings, he says, are a case in point. “I have been to so many chamber concerts, and the bigger the names involved, the bigger the concert halls. But these were pieces of music designed to play to 150-200 people. And isn’t a festival an opportunity to do that, in the most sumptuous and perfect way?”

Poots uses an unfashionable word to explain his thinking: “I think a festival should be a rarefied experience – not elitist, but rarefied. These works are jewels in the history of music and we asked how we could honour them in a contemporary way. It is a single idea but will result in nine concerts and a work of art (the space will be built inside the Manchester Art Gallery, and there is already interest in purchasing it).

“We are going back to what Bach did but doing it for an era that is so very visually literate and demanding. A lot of people don’t find wonderment in orchestral and classical music because it is so visually boring. That’s why pop has so many visual hooks, to lead people through it.”

Another tangible legacy of the first festival is the boost it gave to the city of Manchester, famed for its importance in Britain’s industrial history but wanting to raise its cultural profile. But Poots, again, goes slightly against the grain. “I’m a little scared of this word, ‘regeneration’,” he says. “The most important thing is for the festival to be artist-led. Regeneration is great if it sits behind the art as a benefit. But if we ever start programming for regeneration, I am running away.”

It is unlikely that anyone will let him do that just yet. The city of Manchester has once again supported the festival to the tune of £2m and Poots hails the “extremely and bizarrely enlightened” city council with an almost incredulous gratitude. “All I asked for in my contract is that they did not interfere for a second with the artistic programme and they have honoured that completely.”

A potential test case came in 2007 with the unveiling of Steve McQueen’s “Queen and Country”, a devastating philatelic condemnation of the war in Iraq, that was due to take place shortly before the Labour party conference in Manchester. It could have been potentially embarrassing, says Poots. “But I was rung up by the city council and asked if it was important. I said, ‘Yes’, and they said, ‘Fine.’”

With further support from the Arts Council, the Northwest Regional Development Agency and a host of top tier sponsors – Bruntwood, City Inn, Manchester Airport Group, PZ Cussons, NCP – that have shown no sign of pulling out even in these straitened times, Manchester’s £9.7m budget places it among the most generously funded festivals in the world.

Poots is keen to strengthen links with the local community and attract ever-broader audiences. He deliberately omitted the word “arts” from the title of the festival, “because that puts people off. The ideal is that people come and find themselves in an arts festival without having realised that’s what they were coming to.” He points out, with as near as he gets to triumphalism, that 28 per cent of the Monkey audience had never been to the theatre or the opera before.

“Suddenly they will have realised – that’s what goes on in the theatre, It doesn’t have to be some second-rate cast touring with a bad musical, the McDonald’s version of culture. I find that so patronising. If you put on something of good quality, with enough hooks so that people feel a connection, of course they will come to an opera in Mandarin. Why not?”

Poots has similarly high hopes of Neil Bartlett’s bingo evening at the Royal Exchange, which he confesses “sounds a bit cute but has a real tenderness and sadness about it, a sense of an old cultural aspect of Britain’s history that is dying out.”

It is Wainwright’s opera that seems to be the event that most fires Poots’s imagination, however. Prima Donna is the story of a soprano reaching the end of her days, determined to prove her critics wrong. Poots says he is “beguiled and nervous” at the prospect.

“We are going to get something that is so different from the operatic canon,” he adds with relish. “Rufus started in the classical world and is influenced by the French and Italian 19th-century tradition but he is not from that world – he is a singer-songwriter. Whether it works, I don’t know yet. But I think he will make something new and interesting that will add to the world of opera.”

Will ambition pay off once more? Don’t bet against it.

Manchester International Festival, July 2-19 www.mif.co.uk

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