The arts festival season is here with the Brighton programme the traditional curtain-raiser for the 50 or so top line events this summer which the Edinburgh and Manchester editions dominate. But there is a new one next month to join them, in a place that has been an unproclaimed capital of culture since long before it became a national capital 60 years ago.
Yes Cardiff, with an extraordinary melange devised by a young man born in Sunderland who made his name first in Belfast and then in Derry. When he was appointed, all but 18 months ago, it was to a new post of artistic director at an institution that had had a rather chaotic management start in 2005, the Wales Millennium Centre, with a brief to “change the cultural landscape of Wales”. Graeme Farrow, for it is he, didn’t blanch but already had an idea on the back of an envelope, and idea which didn’t change, just grew into the Festival of Voice, stashed with commissions, co-pros and premieres.
It might seem obvious to make a theme of the one thing apart from coal and seaweed Wales is known for, but in collusion with the likes of David Pountney at the WNO and at first John McGrath (now running the Manchester Festival) and since January Kully Thiarai (who ran Doncaster’s Cast theatre) at National Theatre Wales he has devised a bill that is anything but predictable. It brings John Cale back to his native Wales from rock superstardom, rehabilitates Charlotte Church as an “astounding talent” with her own piece of musical theatre, presents Ronnie Spector whose Welshness is remote but whose iconic status undoubted, the Manic Street Preachers from Caerphilly, ahem Roald Dahl (born in Cardiff 100 years ago) Canadian Rufus Wainwright whose Celtic antecedents are rather more Irish, Van Morrison, Hugh Masakela… and of course the indelibly Welsh Bryn, whose own attempts to establish a Welsh cultural festival to the north was a dismal failure. Juliet Greco was even booked to do Brel but at 89 has had to drop out.
Farrow’s mission has been complex: to transpose the WMC from a large receiving house and comfy home for the WNO to a commissioning powerhouse sprouting new work and venturesome audiences; a national totem that all Wales could be proud of; a place that makes money to put back into its community and production programmes; and with an international flavour and reputation. This is his first real response.
It’s a biennial, interleaving with the other major biennial event there, the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, and Farrow is already talking about what he wants to do in 2018. It probably won’t include Tom Jones or Shirley Bassey, but look for Charlotte Church’s and James Dean Bradfield’s corroborative take on Charlie and the Mabinogion, with the Berlin Philharmonic.