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Edinburgh International Festival 2010: Festival Director Jonathan Mills in conversation with Simon Thompson (SRT)

Jonathan Mills - Picture © Mark Hamilton

The Sunday Times recently described the Edinburgh International Festival as a “jewel in the nation’s artistic crown”. Who could disagree? Now well into its seventh decade the International Festival and its companions continue to grow and look to be in spectacular health. From the looks of the latest programme, released in March, the festival seems to be defying many of the economic trends that have bedevilled other major arts organisations. Much of the credit for that must go to EIF Director, Jonathan Mills. 2010 is the fourth festival that Mills has planned and he met me in his office, high above Edinburgh’s Old Town, to discuss some of the ideas and themes that have gone into it.

Mills’ appointment surprised many when it was announced in 2006 but the success of his recent festivals has silenced criticism. Last year’s EIF was not only delivered within budget but saw an increase of 7% in earned income and attracted £2.58 million in box office sales with nearly 400,000 tickets sold throughout the three weeks of events. When I began by asking Mills what role he felt the Edinburgh International Festival has to play in the cultural world of the 21st century, it was clear that he has a strong sense of fulfilling an important role that began long ago.

“The broad inspiration that I’m following is to have a public conversation with people as to what an international festival might mean in today’s world. When this festival came along in 1947 it fulfilled a very intense but very specific need. Europe was reeling from the after-effects of a shocking war, from the lunacy of atrocities like Leningrad and Auschwitz, and therefore it was very clear what a festival of the arts might do in terms of repairing our understanding of different cultures within Europe and connecting us to other parts of Europe, and appealing more generally to the better angels of our souls. But the world is very different today and we’re not fighting, at least in Europe, a devastating global war. It’s our privilege to live in a relatively peaceful and prosperous part of the world, and therefore I was wondering out loud what an international festival might mean to Europeans in today’s world as we confront so many challenges of identity, diversity, immigration – challenges of our place in the world in the very broadest sense. And I’m beginning to argue through these programmes that there is as much importance behind an international festival today as there was in 1947. Today we owe it to that legacy and its achievements not to take for granted what we have received from the past. In today’s world there is just as much for us to argue about as there might have been in 1947.”

One of the things that has made Mills’ tenure so distinctive from that of his predecessor Brian McMaster is his determination to organise his festivals around themes: past themes include Words and Music (2007), Artists Without Borders (2008) and Enlightenments (2009). I asked him why the use of themes was so important to him. “What I’m trying to do with the festivals I have done to date is to shift the centre of gravity away from an automatic assumption that they will be exclusively or predominantly European. That’s not to suggest that Edinburgh will ever, on one level, be other than a European festival, by virtue of the fact that it’s in Europe, but I’m suggesting that it can serve as an important component of cultural understanding and exchange within the UK and Europe more generally and can reach out to cultures that are far beyond the geography of Europe itself. So this year is part of a continuum or cycle of works that I am undertaking which very gradually shifts our centre of gravity away from an automatic reliance on Europe, and I hope that we will have alighted on cultures that are far beyond our European sensibility and philosophy in order to give us a broader understanding of the human condition. The challenges that we face here in the UK reverberate in other parts of the world too, just as the challenges and pressures that other parts of the world experience reverberate here.

“So I think that there is a really important role for this strange entity that we call in international festival because I think that it is both a convenient and intense way of people gaining a greater understanding of ideas, attitudes and philosophies that are remote from their own. To do this through the arts is a rare privilege.”

Big aims, then, but wouldn’t all of this apply just as well to the Melbourne Festival, which Mills used to direct, or is there something special about Edinburgh? “Edinburgh is a city that is very motivated by a sense of its own philosophy and role in the development of contemporary innovations, whether that is Charles Darwin, Adam Smith or David Hume. There is a very strong sense of intellectual and artistic traditions here which I’m seeking to tap into. I think a thematic approach is appropriate in terms of the intellectual, artistic, scientific and economic provenance of this city and its institutions, its galleries, its public spaces and so forth. But also I think it’s a very easy way of making it clear that what you’re doing is not a one-off series of events but is in fact an argument in favour of the Festival itself. I would argue that there is a difference between a theatre season or an orchestral subscription season and a Festival. In choosing a different journey to pursue every year I hope that we encourage people to think about that.”

Excitingly, Mills suggests that the Festivals he has programmed are part of a cycle which is building towards a culmination. He has recently extended his contract so that he will still be in the job for the 2012 Festival when the world’s biggest arts festival will run just up the road from the world’s biggest sports festival, the London Olympics. But he’s remaining tight-lipped about what that culmination might be. “Watch this space”, he tells me.

This year’s theme, New Worlds, takes us in perhaps the most obvious way so far away from a focus on Europe and towards the far off. What inspired him to put together the programme this year? “The very deepest motivation behind this programme is that it is part of a continuum whereby we are quite deliberately shifting our centre of gravity away from the idea that this festival is automatically a European festival. In doing that, particularly in the geographic focus of this year, we are putting a frame around a very different region of the world, places with very different histories from our own in Europe, places that share a very curious history with Europe, particularly in the colonial dimension. Examining these places through the arts can illuminate our view of this small planet.”

So how does this year’s theme of New Worlds play out in practice? “At the same time, while I have attempted to argue that this Festival need not be so Eurocentric, I haven’t attempted to do so in a nationalistic way by saying, for example, ‘This year we’re focusing on China, next year on or Iceland or Romania.’ Instead I’ve tried to construct a more multi-faceted approach to the theme underpinning each festival journey. This year I’ve said that I’m interested in looking at a particular region, not a single country, and an idea of how that relationship between worlds might express itself from both positions.”

This theme allows Mills to showcase a number of extraordinary talents from the New World, such as the Minnesota and Cleveland Orchestras from the US, or the Sydney Symphony Orchestra from Australia, not to mention some exciting dance groups from Brazil, San Francisco and Samoa/New Zealand. However it is in the works chosen that the theme becomes most interesting. The most benevolent look at the new world from the old is probably Puccini’s Faniculla del West, though the spectre of colonialism raises its head in works like Purcell’s Indian Queen. Hemmingway gives us the reverse perspective in Elevator Repair Service’s theatrical take on The Sun Also Rises, while a group of modern American musical legends give a new take on Sophocles in The Gospel at Colonus. Mills singles out Carl Heinrich Graun’s opera Montezuma as a good example: “It’s a very European treatment of an opera about a very challenging moment in European and Mexican history, that of the clash of civilizations between colonial Spain and vanquished Mexico, through the interpretation of an 18th Century German composer and his librettist, Frederick the Great of Prussia, who clearly had his own motivation in thinking about the context in which his libretto would be written and understood. In inviting Claudio Valdés Kuri, a very distinguished young Mexican director, to engage with this project, I was very conscious that he would bring an entirely different set of attributes and attitudes to bear on this production. You have a cast that is half European and half Mexican, and an ensemble of European instruments performed under the direction of an Argentinean Baroque specialist, Gabriele Garrido. Embedded in the circumstances of the performance is a whole history of individual ideas, attitudes and histories that can amplify and challenge the story itself. So I’m actively looking for various illustrations and reverberations about the theme without setting it in stone too quickly too soon.

“Another example of that is the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Caledonia, a new work by Alistair Beaton, which explores a very particular period of Scottish History, the Darien Scheme. A buccaneer, charlatan investor who would have made Bernie Madoff look tame, raised an extraordinary amount of money to establish a Scottish colony near present-day Panama. It was a disaster, falling victim to lack of resources, appalling personal tragedy and terrible bad luck, and it ended in disease, famine and grotesque underestimation of the needs for establishing the colony. Everyone lost their money and, perhaps in the ultimate twist of irony, it was a contributing factor to the establishment of the Royal Bank of Scotland.”

A further distinctive aspect of Mills’ festivals is that under his tenure Edinburgh is seeing a lot more new work, either new commissions or work that has been planned in conjunction with overseas organisations. Caledonia is one example, as is Brett Dean’s new opera Bliss which opened last month in Sydney. However, when I ask him about the risks involved in bringing unseen work to Edinburgh, he turns the question around: “What risks are there when you take no risks? If everything is all the same all the time then that in itself becomes a risk. Festivals ought not so much to be preoccupied with the risk of one show and the safety of another, but in a very coherent, consistent way to develop a compelling narrative for why they are taking a particular course of action. If you do that then the question of an individual risk here or there is a secondary concern to how a particular project is contributing to a public conversation.”

Under Mills’ tenure the festival has continued to bring world class musicians and ensembles to Edinburgh. Guest orchestras this year include the Russian National, Finnish Radio Symphony and Royal Concertgebouw orchestras, while soloists like Simon Keenlyside and Steven Osborne and groups like the Pavel Haas Quartet play in the smaller venue of the Queen’s Hall. I ask Mills how he manages to bring such stellar line-ups year after year: “It’s always challenging, but artists across the world have a strong ambition to participate in the Edinburgh Festival and that helps a lot. That’s more than half the battle won in terms of winning people’s emotional connection. It’s the same for every artist in every genre in the festival. People want to be part of this festival because they’ve heard about it, they’ve experienced it, it’s of a scale that makes people excited. Also because of the audiences that it draws from across the world and the attention it is given by various media. But I would also like to think that it’s the legacy of the past: the fact that during the hardships of 1947 people still found their way to this festival and they recognised that something very vital and essential was going on, something that stood in stark contrast to the experiences of the previous five or six years. This festival was a beacon of optimism at a time when our world seemed sorely lacking in any optimism for its future.”

Ambitions of this scale clearly cost money, and Mills has said plainly that this year’s festival is on a secure financial footing, so I asked him how the recent credit crunch and recession have affected the institution. “That’s not a question that’s easy to answer. We’re on the verge of knowing a lot more about precisely those issues, but at the moment that is territory we are just entering into. Many mainstream economic and political commentators talked about the financial challenges coming in waves: the first wave affected the financial services sector exclusively, then that has washed over into other parts of the economy. The full force of that tsunami hasn’t yet been felt in the arts: the robust nature of our ticket sales is evidence of that, and sponsorship and donations, albeit in different proportions, are nevertheless holding up well. What we will be facing into the future is anyone’s guess. Into that future the arguments I need to be using are more about the economic and social benefits, the financial returns that not only this festival but the whole portfolio of Edinburgh’s festivals can provide to the economy and social life of the UK. It’s a false economy to suggest that taking money away from the festival will solve the fundamental challenges facing the economy today: giving a pound to me means I turn it into five or six! Reducing that by a pound means that that multiplying effect will itself be reduced. The arts are never a massive part of any kind of economic rectification because we don’t cost a lot in comparison to, say, education, health or defence. We represent extremely good value, yet there are some people who certainly think that the arts are an optional extra. In pure economic terms we can demonstrate how we return a direct and indirect benefit to the societies and communities in which we operate.”

Mills is optimistic about the general cultural health of the UK, but remains critical of the way the media tell that story. “In cultural terms there is nothing wrong with what is happening on the ground in the UK: it’s inspiring, diverse, it’s fantastic! But the stories we choose to tell about each other are very selective, very distorted and, I believe, tell a much less rich and more selfish story than the one that could and should be told. I’m not going to sit back and suggest that I should buy into that same argument. I’m suggesting that the media should stop and pause for a moment and think about what is valuable rather than simply glibly filling a column inch here or there in a facile or simplistic way.”

At the end of our discussion, however, he was keen to stress that “a festival is not a place just for over-intellectual discourse: it’s a place for a great deal of fun, of spontaneity and exuberance. You should bring your sun-tan lotion to the Edinburgh Festival this year because there’s going to be a lot of heat generated, even indoors in our theatres. There’s going to be a lot of creativity and a lot of inspiration to be gathered from the cultures we have brought together in this very diverse, appealing, differently textured and coloured festival: a festival that explores a remarkable journey from rainforests to coastline, from vast oceans to intimate imaginative territories. We have an extraordinary array of creative ideas on display in Edinburgh this year, so come and experience for yourself all of the visceral, physical raw energy: the dancers from Brazil, the choreographers and Shaman from New Zealand, the musicians and novelists from Australia, the theatre-makers and writers from the US, the musicians from Mexico... There is an incredibly rich, sexy story to be told, one which is very immediately vibrant, and I can’t wait for August to come so the Festival can begin.”

The Edinburgh International Festival 2010 runs from Friday 13th August to Sunday 5th September. Full details of the programme can be found at Public booking is now open. For our preview of the Festival see here.

Simon Thompson

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