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The cultural frolics of the summer are approaching us fast, and with some added spice: Glastonbury returns after a year’s absence, the Edinburgh International Festival has a new director at the helm. The BBC Proms and Glyndebourne are preparing their usual high-class programmes. These are as vital a part of the British summer as Wimbledon and Henley, and generally better for the mind. But can there really be room for a newcomer in their midst?
Alex Poots is the boyish, softly spoken director of the Manchester International Festival, and makes a well-practised joke about the timing of this year’s inaugural event. “We found a small window, after Glastonbury and before the Proms and Edinburgh.” But there is a point to the quip. Manchester, hopes Poots, will appeal equally to the ravers at Britain’s premier rock festival, and the hardcore traditionalists who turn the Royal Albert Hall into a summer haven for classical music lovers.
Manchester’s brief is unique among the world’s festivals: it is to be the only such event entirely devoted to original new work. Whether that work comes from high or popular culture is of secondary interest. The only criterion that matters, says Poots, is its novelty – and if it crashes down a few barriers in the meantime, then that’s no bad thing.
The politics of civic pride have played a key role in establishing the new festival. Poots cites the Commonwealth Games as an inspiring force. “It was such a great success in regenerating the city, they thought they could do something cultural too,” he says. It was Poots’s own idea to base the festival around entirely new work.
“The idea was very simple. Here was the first modern city, where the birth of the industrial revolution took place. If we could create a festival of innovations, that would resonate very well.”
Two further characteristics of the city came into play: its proud musical tradition, from the Hallé Orchestra to the Gallagher brothers, and a nurturing of what Poots calls Britain’s “social conscience”.
“The first free library was in Manchester. The idea that information should be free to everyone was born here. And then there were the Suffragettes, and Marx and Engels were here.” In consequence, a series of public debates will be a cornerstone of the festival, and a work commissioned from the artist Steve McQueen, a memorial to British soldiers killed in Iraq in the form of sheets of unofficial stamps, has already courted controversy.
The city of Manchester has backed its vision with an impressive £2m, and the festival has raised a further £4m from private and public sources. Add the £2m-£2.5m expected from the box office, and the budget is already similar to that of the best-established arts festival in the world, up across the Scottish border. Poots says the two events will complement each other, but one can’t help wondering if he has stolen some of the thunder of Edinburgh’s new director Jonathan Mills, who is also committed to supporting original work.
The Manchester festival will announce itself on June 28 with a spectacular opening: a “circus opera” called Monkey: Journey to the West, based on a Chinese legend and directed by the Chinese opera and film director Chen Shi-Zheng, with music by Damon Albarn and designs by his Gorillaz co-star Jamie Hewlett. Not to mention the 45 Chinese circus acrobats and vocalists, and Shaolin monks.
Albarn, the former Blur frontman, is a gifted writer of pop songs, but when I question the use of the word “opera” to describe Monkey, Poots defends his “dear colleague”.
“It was Damon who phoned me, and said: ‘This needs to be an opera.’ I asked what he meant by that, and he said it needed to be through-composed, with an overriding arch and its own syntax, not just a series of three-minute pop songs. At that point we thought – that’s opera.”
But Poots acknowledges – and admits enjoying – the risk involved in mounting the production (which is shared by the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, and the State Opera House, Berlin). It was he who, when he worked at English National Opera, brought the poorly received Gaddafi, featuring Asian Dub Foundation, to the house.
Poots is discreet on Gaddafi’s failings, having left before its completion (“I still think it was an excellent idea and a brave thing to do, but its execution wasn’t what it might have been”), but vigorously defends the principle of moving the art of opera in new directions: “The minute we put a glass case over it and never allow for failure, it’s a dying culture.”
He prefers to dwell on what he considers one of his bright moments at ENO, when he took the whole of the third act of The Valkyries to Glastonbury. “It was a great artistic moment. It was played with the highest quality, in front of 50,000 kids, who adored it. It got seven curtain calls. It was played with integrity and respect. That was the key.”
Poots promises more cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary work in the festival programme, details of which are announced today. A group show featuring 10 of the world’s leading visual artists will be another highlight. The show, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Philippe Parreno, will take place at Manchester’s Opera House, and will be split into 15-minute segments – Poots predicts no less than a “redefinition” of how visual arts can be created and
He says he was pleasantly surprised by the co-operative stance of the artists. “It was all about sharing. You can’t imagine that happening in the 1980s, say. It would all have been about me, me, me.”
Does he detect a new cultural zeitgeist? “When I was at university, I was beguiled by the start of the 20th century, that synthesis of all those styles and cultures. I don’t know, perhaps we are in a similar place at the start of the 21st century?” He leaves the question trailing, while the city of 24-hour party people girds itself to provide some answers.
Manchester International Festival runs from June 28 to July 15. Full details will be announced today at www.manchesterinternationalfestival.com