Interview: Fergus Linehan for Opera magazine

First published in Opera, April 2015

Back in 2013, when it was announced that Fergus Linehan would become the next director of the Edinburgh International Festival, there was a tellingly disparate series of reactions. The theatre world seemed genuinely pleased. Here is a man whose credentials in that field run back to birth; Linehan’s mother was the leading Irish actor Rosaleen Linehan and his father was arts editor of the Irish Times. At the tender age of 29, young Fergus himself became director of the Dublin International Theatre Festival after five years as its deputy director, and his era there was by all accounts a fresh and energetic one during which he commissioned new work from the likes of Seamus Heaney, Roddy Doyle and Brian Friel. Linehan is already well-kent and well-liked among Edinburgh’s theatre circles; he advised his predecessor, Jonathan Mills, on several EIF theatre programmes, and in recent years chaired the judging panel for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Awards.

But the International Festival is not primarily about theatre. While the Fringe has become a raucous carnival of plays, pints and stand-up comics, the vast majority of the International programme comprises classical music, if you simply tally up number of events. Although EIF’s remit is to provide world-class programming across dance, concerts, theatre, visual arts and opera, not since Frank Dunlop’s reign in the 1980s has an EIF director hailed from outside of classical music. Among many attenders of the venerable Usher Hall evening concerts and Queen’s Hall morning recitals, reaction to Linehan’s appointment tended to be guarded concern over whether a theatre man will be willing and able to do good things with EIF’s classical music and opera programme.

Linehan is no musical novice. His brother, Conor, is a composer and pianist. Prior to taking the reigns in Edinburgh he was head of contemporary music at the Sydney Opera House and director of Sydney’s popular music/digital arts festival Vivid LIVE, a job that involved programming major acts like Kraftwerk, Lou Reed and Björk. In his very first Edinburgh press conference early in 2014, Linehan indicated his intention to introduce non-classical artists “with provenance and seriousness” into the EIF music programme. What that translates to has yet to become clear; I suspect we’ll be seeing large-scale projects involving folk, rock, jazz and experimental artists. The prospect has already made more conservative factions of the Edinburgh audience balk over their salted porridge.

Linehan has never worked in opera before. The closest he came was back in Sydney, where his contemporary music programme operated as part of the broad cultural ecosystem that coexists at the Opera House. Now that he is tasked with presenting opera within EIF’s multi-arts portfolio — and limited funds — I get the sense he is knocked sideways by the logistics and sheer cost of the beast. But more on that in a moment.

Ambling around his swish new office in the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town, Linehan looks to be mainly enjoying himself so far. He is 45, clean-cut, extremely personable. He seems to have acquired the best stereotypes of the two countries where he’s lived longest: the easy eloquence of the Irish, the laid-back amiability of Australia. I can’t help wondering what the next five years in Scotland will do to him. The faint but persistent soundtrack of bagpipe drones wafting in from the Royal Mile would test the most patient of souls.

Linehan makes it clear that he appreciates the unique challenge and unique opportunity that is Edinburgh in August. The Fringe alone is officially the world’s biggest arts festival, and the sheer volume of performances happening in one city in one month is dizzying. Walk down the High Street and you’ll encounter literally hundreds of companies you’ve never heard of, all touting shows that might be brilliant or might be dire. It’s not uncommon to see bewildered festival-goers sprinting from one performance to the next. The madness doesn’t last for one week or even two: the festivals span three exhausting, exhilarating weeks, and it takes a bold impresario to cut through all the noise. Incidentally, one of Linehan’s first moves in the Edinburgh job was to shift the EIF dates to correspond directly with those of the Fringe (previously EIF had started and ended a week later). If a degree of animosity has existed between the traditionally edgier Fringe and the stuffier International festival, Linehan has made it one of his missions to bridge that gap.

We begin the interview proper by discussing Scottish Opera, whose recent management failings Andrew Clark has neatly detailed in these pages (February issue, pp xx). While Linehan is too much the diplomat to outwardly criticise a fellow Scottish institution with which he must endeavour to work for the foreseeable future, he can’t avoid the broader issues around opera provision in Scotland. I put to him the notion that, while we are well served by orchestras and theatre companies north of the border, the current lack of an artistically ambitious Scottish Opera makes that art form arguably the most important at EIF. Compare Glasgow and Edinburgh with any other major UK city and we are notably bereft of good opera. Does Linehan feel the responsibility to make up the shortfall?

Not really, is his frank answer. “And even if I did, I don’t have the money to. People look to the festival to be the panacea for all problems everywhere,” he says with a laugh. “People come to me and say, ‘what are you doing about Scots Gaelic poetry’? We can’t fix the structural problems that exist within any given art form for 49 weeks in the year. The provision of opera in Scotland? We can’t fill that gap. Besides, my concern is less to do with where opera sits in Scotland, more to do with making coherent statements within a festival programme.”

That last comment touches on a decades-old debate about whether EIF should showcase Scottish artists to the visiting world, or be a chance for Scottish audiences to see the best the world has to offer. When he founded the festival in 1947, Rudolf Bing unequivocally intended the latter, but unspoken rules have crept in and fudged the lines over the years. One such unspoken rule is the annual inclusion in the concert programme of Scotland’s three full-time orchestras (the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra). When it comes to opera, the relationship between Jonathan Mills and Alex Reedijk, general director of Scottish Opera, was known to be frosty and the company was notably absent from recent EIF editions. This year SO is back in the programme with a concert performance of HMS Pinafore conducted by Richard Egarr. It’s hardly a triumphal return; even Linehan concedes that “some people might read into that choice,” but insists he was unaware of Scottish Opera politics until after selecting the Gilbert and Sullivan piece. “When we thought about the light and shade of the programme, we simply thought that Pinafore would make a wonderful Sunday afternoon concert,” he says.

Despite the inclusion of SO and all three orchestras in the 2015 programme, Linehan is clear-cut about where he stands on the issue of localism versus internationalism. “This festival is international,” he says. “Some festivals were founded as a platform for local work. The raging debate around Avignon, for example — whether it should be all about French theatre — well, nobody’s saying to me, ‘hey, what about more Scottish work?’ Also, we need to pick Scottish work in a way that won’t do it a disservice. Doing new or routine work from Scotland alongside the best work from around the world does the home companies no favours. We need to be careful.” It’s a statement that makes that Pinafore look doubly bizarre.

Linehan says he knows what he wants in terms of a framework for opera at EIF — and says that, at the moment, he simply isn’t able to offer it. “I think audiences would like to see a staged opera every week of the festival; they would like two or three beautifully-cast concert operas, and they would like a new piece of opera. OK, not everyone might want a new opera, but I certainly do. Structurally, that is what would feel adequate and structurally that’s what we’re not able to deliver at the moment because of money. I’ve got five years to figure out how we can make it happen.”

It is still early days to know exactly what might emerge from Linehan’s figuring-out process. He has already made it clear that he won’t be importing mammoth productions like the Mariinsky’s Les Troyens, a flagship (and not especially good) feature of Mills’s final programme. “We can’t do that stuff, and maybe it’s more interesting not to do that stuff,” he says. “In the absence of big funding, we have to try to be nimble and clever. We can’t put Kaufmann into a production and charge £400 per ticket. Instead we need opera that will make people sit up and take notice. Edinburgh in August: it’s no time to speak softly. Even if people don’t come to our opera, they need to be aware of it. It needs to be in the public imagination, on billboards and the sides of buses. I have to figure out a narrative that will make opera really interesting. And I have to figure out ways that opera can be embraced as a relatively populist art form.”

By ‘populist’, he seems to mean both repertoire and how it is presented. At the time of writing, full details of this year’s festival are yet to be announced, but we do know that as well as concert performances of Pinafore (Scottish Opera) and The Rake’s Progress (Andrew Davis conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra) there will be two main-stage operas and one new chamber opera. Of the main-stage pieces, one is The Marriage of Figaro from Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra. “Fischer and a terrific cast doing Figaro in a completely different way? That will be really compelling,” says Linehan. “And I want opera to be a compelling, popular part of programme. That’s because if I’m going to spend all that money on a production, I cannot bear the thought of empty seats.”

Linehan insists that the pursuit of popularity won’t restrict him to box-office big hitters — “though to be honest with you,” he says, “Jonathan [Mills] has left the field clear on that front because he didn’t do many of the top-50 core operas during his time.” Yet judging by his inaugural classical programme (which has already been announced) his own musical tastes are notably safe. There are some fine artists appearing at the Usher and Queen’s halls this summer, but little in the programme stands out as radical, risky or particularly original. Hopefully Linehan will show more flair when it comes to theatre, dance, visual arts, contemporary music and, yes, opera. Because Scottish audiences don’t need more core operatic repertoire: that’s all we get from Scottish Opera. Over the past decade, EIF has provided our only opportunities to see the likes of Brett Dean’s Bliss or Charpentier’s David et Jonathas, even Die Frau Ohne Schatten or Bluebeard’s Castle, without travelling elsewhere.

Linehan says he is “drawn to people who are having interesting conversations about how classical music and opera can work in new ways,” and he mentions as examples the pianist Jeremy Denk, the soprano Barbara Hannigan, the conductors Esa-Pekka Salonen and Ivan Fischer and the director Barrie Kosky. In theatre, Linehan has the eye for spotting good writers and exciting directors and the charm to commission them without access to huge funds. Here’s hoping he applies the same skills to EIF’s opera programme. If he does, he might just be the man to seduce Edinburgh’s vast and hungry arts audiences into the opera house.

Edinburgh International Festival’s 2015 edition runs August 7-31. The full programme is announced March 18