Breaking Ice and Epic Operas: Brett Sheehy on the Melbourne Festival 2012

Over the past week or so, we’ve been celebrating Melbourne’s arts festivals at the Wheeler Centre Dailies.

Today, we interview Brett Sheehy, artistic director of the Melbourne International Arts Festival, finding out from the source what it’s like to put the programme together, what the highlights are – and what we can expect from literary highlights like a maverick interpretation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and a dance performance inspired by The Slap.

Brett Sheehy: 'Every festival director will agree that you view each event as a part of you.'

Brett Sheehy: 'Every festival director will agree that you view each event as a part of you.'

What’s your favourite thing about programming the Melbourne Festival?

The opportunity to contribute to the artistic fabric of the city which is acknowledged as the pre-eminent cultural landscape in Australia. To be able to do this with the best local, national and international artists, across every artform, is a gift of a job.

What’s your biggest challenge in programming the festival?

Ensuring the nearly four million citizens of Melbourne – who own this festival – are given access to the best possible artistic experiences, with risk, challenge and entertainment, in a welcoming way, and on the resources available to us.

We know this is a bit like asking you to choose your favourite child, but … what are some of the events at this year’s festival that you’re most looking forward to?

Yes – it’s hard – every festival director will agree that you view each event as a part of you. But the things by which I have tried to distinguish my work around Australia from my colleagues’ have been fourfold:

My determination to break the ice in this nation for previously unseen artists and companies by presenting their Australia debuts. I’ve done this over nine previous festivals and this year, for my tenth and final festival for Australia, I decided to celebrate the ‘best of the best’ from those nine years, so we have The Forsythe Company (I Don’t Believe In Outer Space), the Schaubühne (An Enemy of the People), Antony of Antony and the Johnsons (Swanlights) to name but a few – who have come back to celebrate this swansong, by presenting their latest works.

*An Enemy of the People*

An Enemy of the People

My determination to have a full and rich visual arts program for all the festivals I’ve directed, and this year I think reflects that.

My determination to commission and nurture the creation of brand new artworks for the future and Fault Lines, Weather and *Never Did Me Any Harm* (created with our friends at Sydney Festival) are just a few examples this year.

My determination to continue to present a raft of epic contemporary operas across all my festivals (and we are perhaps alone in the country in the depth of our commitment to this artform), and After Life – our opening event – is the crowning glory to ten years of that devotion.

*Never Did Me Any Harm*

Never Did Me Any Harm

One event Wheeler Centre audiences will be particularly interested in is Never Did Me Any Harm, a performance that combines dance and theatre, inspired by Christos Tsiolkas’s novel The Slap. Can you tell us a bit about what to expect from this production?

The Slap was the springboard for this work, but from there, Kate Champion and her collaborators extended the themes out, and the production is actually a celebration of parenting and raising children in a difficult and sometimes hostile world. It is not nearly as dark as The Slap and is funny, moving and utterly life-enhancing. It is also a brilliant example of multiple artforms cohering for a single artistic purpose, with actors, dancers and visual artists all contributing to a marvelous theatrical experience.



Another fascinating-looking literary event is Orlando, presented by theatre mavericks The Rabble, who have transformed Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece into ‘a strange and provocative visual feast’. What’s special about this production?

The Rabble are mavericks of the Melbourne theatre scene – one of our terrific independent companies – and I love that they have taken a classic work of literature and exploded it out of its literary confines into a visual, aural and theatrical artwork which is almost unclassifiable, but gives a dazzling impressionistic view of the issues tackled by Woolf in her work.



Your musical event Swanlights, featuring Antony, of Antony and the Johnsons, backed by a 44-piece orchestra against a visually spectacular set, looks like an amazing one-off experience. Can you tell us a bit about it, and how you managed to attract it to Melbourne as a part of the festival?

I was fortunate to present Antony on stage for the first time ever in Australia – in Sydney in 2005. When he opened his voice that night he lifted the roof off the Opera House Concert Hall and a collective thrill and awe ran through the auditorium like no other I’ve shared with a music audience – ever.

When we heard he had been commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York to create, for one night only, a part-concert/part-performance artwork/part-visual art installation for Radio City Music Hall, the concept was irresistible. The performance instantly became the stuff of legend and we immediately invited him to repeat it once more for us, exclusively for Melbourne. He said yes and the rest is, as they say, history.

What’s the last great performance you saw – and what made it so great?

I get to see so much work, and so much of it has elements of greatness. But true greatness is a perfect coming together of every element of a production, where every language on stage – the visual language, the aural/sonic language, the text language (if the work contains text) and the physical/performative language – are in perfect sync, and combine to form something utterly original, the likes of which you’ve not experienced before.

That ‘gesamtkunstwerk’ (as Wagner said), happened for me in the Schaubuehne’s Hedda Gabler in last year’s festival. Just flawless in my view, and this year’s An Enemy of the People and After Life promise to do the same.

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