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MARY MILLER'S OPERA BLOG by Mary Miller - Bergen National Opera - 5M ago

I´ve just been down in the rehearsal room where Massenet´s hero Werther has been dying since 10:00 this morning. The atmosphere is brisk and deeply practical. Tenor Edgaras Montvidas is worried about his neck – all that last-gasp craning upwards to kiss Charlotte before his final breath expires on a D natural. Charlotte, our mezzo-soprano, Catriona Morison, Scottish and no-nonsense, is concerned that her corset may get stuck while she is trying to support his head.

Have no doubt, when Bergen National Opera´s new production of Werther opens on March 16th, we will all be in tears at the extraordinary trauma of the last scenes, at Charlotte´s journey of emotional self-discovery and at Werther´s ultimate sacrifice. Truly theatrical depictions of misery are hard to sustain – especially over the four acts of an opera which starts with innocence and a troupe of jolly children and ends with suicide. Charlotte and Albert, dutifully engaged to be married, have barely exchanged a hug when Werther appears, all poetry and angst, and she is thrown into life-disrupting confusion, heartbreak and self-questioning. Two hours plus is a long time in which to look soulful and fascinating. And as most of us know, misery is unkind to its victims. We are not at our most appealing when red eyed, pink nosed and quivering with passive aggression.

And of course animated misery on stage is hard to achieve in an opera without sickly consumption or blazing rows, some spectacular if unlikely misunderstandings or at least a distracting trip to the underworld. There have been countless productions of Ariadne auf Naxos in the last seasons – not one of them has really defeated the monotony of the eponymous heroine´s moping amongst her Nymphs and dreaming of death. Mimi, in La Boheme keeps it fairly short, expiring with some elegantly timed wheezing, surrounded by her weeping Bohemian friends. Courtesan Violetta fades gracefully – more coughing – reunited at last with her distraught lover. Verdi´s Desdemona barely gets a word in edgeways as Otello vents his rage and grabs her throat.

But my favourite angst-occasion was when playing in the orchestra for a European company best left unnamed, when the baritone, rushing on stage to announce further disaster to two weeping sopranos, was subject to perhaps the worst directorial decision in decades. It involved a dog, a table insufficiently fixed to the floor and a stage hand who changed profession rapidly after the event. Matters were not helped by an assistant conductor who had no doubt intended to embrace his most shining hour but who left the orchestra pit red with shame as opposed to triumph. The dog it was that had its day.

The director had decided that the scene lacked drama. The sobbing ladies were tedious, and the baritone, on his solo entrance, lacked gravitas. What better than to give him, an older gentleman in a tweedy suit and cape, a canine companion? Auditions were held for a suitably un-stage struck mutt, and eventually a large basset hound turned up slobbering a little but totally uninterested in theatrical life. Rehearsals proceeded. Stage management looked nervous but the dog was so lethargic, so indifferent, so floppy that anxieties subsided. I remember that it had a sign round its neck saying “it is forbidden to feed this animal”.

At the appointed moment, the baritone had to run on to the stage dragging the dog on a lead. He had to console, briefly, the ladies who raised their heads mournfully to ask what has happened. The baritone then tied the dog to the table where it snuffled and looked hopefully at the sopranos as if to say ‘any chance of a biscuit?’.  The baritone then embarked on a long mopey aria about some depressing saga in a wood when he was hunting. Faintly energized, all four then left the stage.

All this went fine until the dog went sick and a substitute had to be found. Now it was clear, from moment one, that this animal had different aspirations. Its eyes sparkled and mouth hung open with that gummy doggy smile much loved by old ladies and photographers. There was little time for rehearsal and Casper (his name) seemed genuinely taken with the baritone.

So the ladies wept and sang and wiped their eyes for just long enough before the audience began peering at the programme from fatigue, when the baritone and Casper made their entrance. No dragging this dog. Casper frisked onto the set, tail upright and waving, as though about to audition for Dogs Got Talent. The baritone tied him to the table leg and began to sing. Casper cocked his head and looked attentive. 

The ensuing duet was extraordinary. The dog took the upper lines with a clear, vibrato-less mezzo-soprano. The baritone, to his credit, sang on, while desperately trying to untie the dog from the table-leg. Casper, meanwhile, was trying to drag the table front stage. The conductor, urging the strings to play louder with one hand, was frantically signaling to stage management to get the animal off. Eventually a stage hand, having donned a cape and waving a branch – forest scene, remember – came on to the stage a little as though assisting Birnam Wood on its way to Dunsinane. The dog put up a fair resistance and sang all the way to the wings.

In truth, I don´t remember what happened next. Any weeping came from the orchestra pit where the players had long since given up and had got to the stage of mirth where breathing had become difficult. Maybe there was an interval. Someone else conducted the second half.

Werther, be assured, features no animals, and our Werther, Charlotte and Albert have no need of stunts to make their performance astounding. And great music, like Massenet, sweeps into the corners of the soul.

Meanwhile, rehearsals for the day have finished, and discussion on necks and corsets have turned into cast party plans for the weekend and how Karl Lagerfeld´s enigmatic cat Choupette is dealing with her grief. Someone is recalling a feline duet from Rossini. I´d recommend singing along.

Mary Miller

25th February 2019

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Diversity, quality and leadership – Click here for English version

Jeg foreslår at vi tar et dypdykk i det norske oljefondet.

«Vi former våre bygninger, deretter former de oss», skal Winston Churchill ha sagt.

Hvem bygningene finnes til for og hvordan de skal administreres, er en aktuell og viktig diskusjon over hele Europa. Her i Norge, hvor vi forsøker å fordøye kulturministerens nylige kulturmelding, må diskusjonen om mangfold og kvalitet få like stor plass.

Nylig publiserte tidsskriftet The Stage sin liste over Storbritannias 100 beste teaterensembler og deres ledelse. På bunnen av listen dreide lovordene seg om oppfinnsomhet og blikk for mangfold. «Men makten og påvirkningskraften ligger likevel hos de ensemblene som har mest penger», sier Lyn Gardner (hovedanmelder for teater i The Stage): «Vi lever fremdeles i en verden der Royal Opera House (Londons hovedscene for opera og ballett, som får 24 millioner pund i statsstøtte) drives av fire hvite menn.»

Nytt mangfold og ny bevissthet

Tidligere har kulturscenene satset mye på å skape interesse hos og invitere med seg de marginaliserte – eller de som rett og slett ikke er opptatt av kunst – på forskjellige aktiviteter. Det er lagt mye arbeid i å skape programmer som engasjerer våre nye norske landsmenns hjerter og hoder. Vi mente selvfølgelige ikke å være ufølsomme, men bortsett fra Fargespill er det få av oss som virkelig har løftet frem de forskjellige kulturenes stolte ivaretagelse av egne strømninger og tradisjoner.

I dag oppmuntres vi til å flytte fokus – til å skape dynamisk programmering og arrangementer som bedre gjenspeiler virkeligheten i den komplekse, flerdimensjonale nye verdenen vi lever i. Nå har vi en mye mer sammensatt befolkningsgruppe og et drastisk endret perspektiv på fritidsaktiviteter, som både drives av den raske teknologiske utviklingen og det enorme utvalget vi har å velge fra. Vi har fått ny bevissthet om hvordan vi i vår tankeløshet skader kloden, og i prinsippet vet vi alle at de kommende generasjonene trenger å ha kunsten til stede i livet i en eller annen form, på tross av de brutale budsjettkuttene.

Skal være så inkluderende som mulig

Det kan være lurt å se litt nærmere på hva vi egentlig mener med mangfold og hvordan det er knyttet til kvalitet – som er enda et av kulturministerens prioriterte mantraer i den siste kulturmeldingen.

Poenget til Gardner er at det trengs fundamentale endringer for å kunne utfordre privilegiene og den institusjonaliserte rasismen og sexismen som finnes i så store deler av kulturindustrien. Hun mener at «de reelle endringene ikke bare oppstår når du begynner å invitere flere mennesker til festen, men når du begynner å tenke gjennom selve festens natur … det er ikke nok å ønske folk velkommen på dansegulvet. Du må skape forhold som de trives under.»

Det er selvsagt mange europeiske kulturarenaer som jobber mot å få et bredere publikum, som støtter fattige barn som har lyst til å spille teater, bygger nasjonale nettverk for unge produsenter og regissører med minoritetsbakgrunn, bidrar til å utvikle globale operaprogrammer som tar hensyn til foreldre med små barn, eller prosjekter som søker deltagelse fra folk med diverse former for nedsatt funksjonsevne.

Ved Bergen Nasjonale Opera er vi opptatt av at vår «fest» skal være så inkluderende som mulig. Vi skaper opera sammen med innsatte i fengsler, vi skriver opera i samarbeid med barn og ungdom i våre stadig mer mangfoldige skole, vi tar opera med ut til et publikum som ikke oppsøker oss av seg selv og arrangerer en ikke-kuratert operapub for alle former for sangere.

Tilgang alene er ikke nok

Men oppstår alt dette bare ved at man gir tilgang? For sant mangfold krever en bevissthet helt i toppen av den nasjonale kulturledelsen på at dette må være en dynamisk ingrediens i utdanningssystemet og gjennom hele samfunnsspekteret.

Vi trenger en omstrukturering – et nytt departement for kultur og utdanning som forkynner det påviste faktum at et vitalt kunstfelt driver frem kompetanse innen alle aspekter av læringen. Vi trenger en ledelse som forstår at det å ta del i kreativitet og kunst av høy kvalitet fremmer mental balanse og disiplin, dannelse og nyskaping. Vi trenger en ledelse som erkjenner at de kreative bransjene (film, mat, spill, litteratur og så videre) bygger på tidlig læring, og senere får enorm effekt for landets økonomi.

Vi trenger folk med en sunn blanding av rase, kjønn og bakgrunn som ledere for våre kulturarenaer og ensembler i fremtiden hvis vi ønsker endringer som understøtter mangfoldet og skaper et varig sosialt lim. Hvordan kan vi ellers forvente at nye ledere skal bli noe annet enn «fire privilegerte hvite menn»?

Det norske dilemmaet

I Norge vet vi at vi har et dilemma: Landets økonomi har blomstret med inntektene fra olje og gass. Nå er det unektelig nødvendig at vi reagerer på presserende miljøproblemer. Vi har et land som står for kvalitet i livsstil og produksjon – «Norwegian Wood, isn’t it good» sang The Beatles i 1960-årene. Satsingen på kvalitet har spredt seg til arkitekturen, til design, mote, mat og til dem som skaper kunst.

Jeg foreslår at vi tar et dypdykk i det norske oljefondet for å bygge kreativ kapasitet, og at det allerede begynner i barnehagen, gir næring til tenåringene våre, når ut i alle grener av samfunnet og sørger for trygg finansiering til de faginstitusjonene over hele landet som har bevist at de levere høy kvalitet, tilgang og inspirasjon.

Vi må forplikte oss til å bringe alt dette sammen: tilgang, mangfold og kvalitet. Uten hensyn til kulturarenaer må vi skape dynamiske læresentre i videste forstand, som er til for alle – fra dem som tror de ikke klarer å synge en eneste ren tone til ekspertene på norrønt språk, karibisk soca eller Stephen Sondheim.

La oss holde fast ved første del av Winstons setning og sørge for at vi som er ledere – både politiske og kreative – former bygningene våre med dørene til både scene og sal vid åpne for alle. Det krever penger, engasjement og sunn fornuft.

Mary Miller – Aftenposten 23. januar 2019

Oversatt av Inger Sverreson Holmes

Foto: Thor Brødreskift.
Bildet er fra Bergen Nasjonale Operas oppsetning «Candide». Her er Cunegonde (spilt av Vuvu Mpofu) omkranset av Candide (Anthony Gregory) og fortelleren (Kevin Whately).

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MARY MILLER'S OPERA BLOG by Mary Miller - Bergen National Opera - 8M ago

Some years back, when Stavanger2008, European Capital of Culture was still glowing from its appraisal as ‘best artistic programme ever’ I gave a speech at one of Edinburgh´s universities, where a bunch of exceedingly sparky students bombarded me with alarmingly smart questions. Some days later, a very fine certificate arrived, a masterpiece of exotic fonts and enthusiasm, rewarding my ability to survive the experience. I never forgot it, and suitably framed, this art work still rests splendidly in the Edinburgh family home. The original invitation had come from an American academic, Professor Joe Goldblatt, who leads various remarkable international initiatives in cultural event management, was then tenured at Queen Margaret College, Edinburgh. A great liberal, Joe proved to be a new and passionate convert to Scottish Nationalism and a powerhouse of cultural diplomacy, event creation, and policy. Then time passed, and we lost touch.

Then suddenly this summer, the ‘phone rang. It was Joe, sparky as ever, inviting me to China. I was to talk about the ECOC process, but also how arts organisations like Bergen National Opera can empower cities in surprising ways. And I was charged with taking about culture buildings: how they can be ‘living spaces’ and function well beyond being mere venues.

Chengdu, he told me, had set itself the target of becoming China´s ‘culture city’. Fascinated by Edinburgh´s status as a ‘festival city’ Joe had been charged to assemble a team to advise the city. We turned out to be a mixed and international bunch – a university boss, a council chief who happens to be an excellent musician, a leading Hollywood scriptwriter and director, the UK-based creator of Olympic and Commonwealth Games ceremonies, and the boss of an opera company with a small budget and fiercely international aspirations – i.e. yours truly. I googled Chengdu – a ‘small’ population around 20 million, an extraordinary history, a fabulous mix of ancient culture and futuristic technology. Great food. And pandas.

The occasion was to be the 2018 Chengdu Global Events Summit, themed grandly Cultural Creativity and the Rise of World Cities, and sponsored splendidly by NBD, the National Business Daily, a kind of Chinese FT with, in its media group, an astounding 50 million readers. In charge of our visit is the hyper-energetic, super-organised Dr Chris Wang, a Goldblatt pupil and now the new managing director of Joe-initiated The American Event Management Institute.

Sir Timothy O´Shea, ex-principal of Edinburgh University and current Chair of Edinburgh Fringe Festival and I arrive blinking from London into a murky Chinese pre-dawn. Chris is there, beaming and spry with Li Yijia from NBD. She and I bond immediately over a loathing of early mornings and a love of shopping. We arrive at the Shangri-La Hotel, where the lobby is the size of a respectable football pitch, sumptuous flowers are everywhere and a bunch of Texans are roaring at the deeply embarrassed front desk team. Sleep perhaps? No chance. We will breakfast with Chris and Yijia in a dining room with twelve international food stations ranging from porridge and coco-pops to spicy noodles. I have an odd mix of cucumber juice, pancakes and dimsum.

After an uneasy nap, we walk miles along the river, find one of Chengdu´s fourteen universities, then a park full of beautiful planting, pilates classes, teahouses, outdoor hairdressers and some rather doubtful temples.

Next day, there is a strict plan. We climb onto a small bus with dainty lace curtains and cross the city to the new Buddhist Creative Art Park, a marvel of studios for contemporary ceramics, print, fabulous furniture and vast oil-painted canvases layered with knotted rope. We lose Joe briefly, to recover him from a vast sculptural woven cane sofa where he is faking a blissful coma. On to the elegant Museum of Contemporary Art, then to Chengdu´s great pride and joy: the Giant Panda Park. And there they are, natural clowns, huge and bumbling, lolling on branches, munching bamboo, batting their cubs. They are enormous, slightly grubby, extremely woolly and absolutely charming.

After this, pandas are inescapable. They appear on headbands and nail art, billboards, car stickers, elevator signs, high-fashion T-shirts and cakes. At the Kuan and Zhai Alleys where we dine, we count seventeen panda merchandise stores in one block. Next morning one of our party, a little perturbed, says that he dreamed that he was conversing with a panda about the costs of child care.

Next day we are to meet the Chengdu Government Leaders to learn about their plans, and to exchange questions. They are serious, articulate and able. And all but one – who more than holds her own – are male. The interpreters, Chengdu natives but graduates of the UK´s Bristol University, are challenged as the conversation swerves around ‘profit’ as in financial terms and ‘achievement’ as in growing self-esteem and softer benefits. Then, off to Marquise Zhuge Liang temple full of gloriously dressed statues commemorating great generals. There is much discussion about their girth. “Ah” says our guide “they have generous tummy”. We nod happily. Yijia whispers in my ear: ‘generals´ tummy is an important status symbol. We nod gravely. On to the new Hibiscus Park near the airport where vast glass hangars are soon to open to new technology start-ups and creative industries. Dinner, where Sir Timothy cheerfully refers to one of us as a ‘party animal’ – a late-night bar session is mentioned. He is corrected politely – a small but significant cultural difference in the land of less liberal speech…

The Summit opens the following morning, just as Norovirus chooses its victims. It strikes me around 01.30 with the force of a large panda paw. Yijia appears early with sinister files of Chinese medicine from her mother; these taste like bitter liquorice. She comes back with a doctor who applies a stethoscope to my stomach, shakes her head, says ‘frantic intestine’ and prescribes a bouquet of pills and powders. Down the corridor my US colleague Tak is in a worse state. An ambulance is called.

At 14:00 I apply more make-up than I´ve worn since the age of 16 and make my way queasily down to the Summit with a still-white face, clutching my speech in very large print. The previous evening, Chris has requested a re-write – I cannot talk about Bergen National Opera working with the prison inmates on Ulvsnesøy, the island which bridges full incarceration with a return to normal life. Chinese prisons are different, he says darkly. I re-frame, to talk about ‘behavioral difficulties’ although it´s not confirmed that these are acceptable either. Then there are the pictures I am showing of a land sculpture project with farmers in Jæren: huge haybales arranged as a verse of great Norwegian Arne Garborg´s poem Mot Soleglad. “What is this text? Is it a message?” asks Chris, alarmed. No, it´s a meditation on the land´s relationship with the sea and sky. This makes its way past the authorities.

The Summit venue is Shangri-La´s fabulous ballroom, all gold, chandeliers and plush white chairs with the inevitable toy panda nestled in their folds. I rise to speak and find that few things focus one´s attention away from nerves more than trying to remain upright with a swimming head. Speech over, I listen to David Zolkwer´s brilliant inspiring presentation about Olympic scale events. I´m not prone to tears, but his ability to make work that is both global in scale yet brings to the audience a deeply personal experience is a rare and precious thing. Lei Ping, President and Chief Editor of NBD gives a formidable summary of the media group´s activity, as does the charming Wu Jiaming, responsible for Chine Culture Group´s corporate communications. Richard Lewis, another staunch proponent of Scottish independence and ex leader of Edinburgh city culture talks with sterling clarity about funding and political engagement. Sadly, thanks to Noro, I´ve missed Joe´s wisdom and eloquence, Sir Tim´s witty description of Edinburgh´s great Fringe Festival and Humanitas prizewinner Mark Zaslove talking about the evolution of animation, one of Hollywood´s fantastical contribution to film overall.

Later, we sit on a panel with major Chengdu impressarios. Huang Yong talks about China and jazz, Ye Dan talks passionately about celebrity, and Zhongjun Ma, a massive figure in Chinese TV (and also described wonderfully as Best President of Companies with Good Word of Mouth 2018) tries to moderate an unruly discussion. I say forget celebrities and concentrate on grass roots talent development. Ye Dan is bemused: ‘grass roots’ most probably does not translate kindly into Chinese. Joe Goldblatt, ever the consummate cultural diplomat, quotes poet Lao Tzu. David Zolkwer talks about the power of the community and we all agree about ‘living buildings’. Later I feel arrogant and ignorant – we visit a great ancient country, and after two days have the impudence to comment on its creativity… David and I discuss how panels breed inappropriate pontification.

24 hours later, I limp off the plane. The questioning (and questionable) art installation on the rock outside the airport: BERGEN? suddenly makes sense. My limbs are in Norway. My head is still in the Far East. Frantic intestine is somewhere in between.

Mary Miller

26 November 2008

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MARY MILLER'S OPERA BLOG by Mary Miller - Bergen National Opera - 10M ago

I was asked to speak at NORDIC EDGE : ‘The largest smart city arena in the Nordics’. The 2018 theme was Smart with a Heart. Here’s what I said….

I´d like really like to talk about eventful cities – and how you build one, where city ‘smart’ development and cultural events grow together to shape the city, its spaces and its image. And I´d like to talk particularly about smaller cities – and how they use culture to put themselves on the map.

The smart eventful city – what does that mean? It´s not just a city full of events, but a city that understands its past, its present and where it wants to be in the future and has put culture in the broadest sense at its beating heart.

It’s a city with nerve and attitude, that has an irresistible story that it wants to tell about itself. It´s not a question of imitating big cities. It´s about place-making and a sure sense that events are bringing energy, are bringing people together and helping to develop the opportunities offered by the broadest knowledge economy. It´s about turning the city into an event in itself.

It´s not about a ‘creative’ city in the Richard Florida sense – I´ve always thought that his books create a sort of Sex in the City world full of the creative classes, overrun with people who have done degrees in media studies and who are obsessed with predicting trends. No, I mean a city where there is a highly developed sense of place – where you sense a tangible buzz: something unique that you don´t feel elsewhere – a city prepared to take risks, which is excited by the unexpected.

An eventful city comes together to discuss and debate, to share space and ideas, to explore, to be curious, and to create. There are many cities renown for heritage or a beautiful environment or their wealth, or a voluble middle class. That doesn´t necessarily mean that they are eventful. The ‘heritage’ heavy city may be extremely staid and museum-like. Claustrophobic, even. I´m ashamed to say that I think of Salzburg or Bayreuth and I shudder. So, the smart, eventful city has attitude – it has a culture in the widest sense that puts culture in the specific sense at the heart of the community. It wears jeans and drinks mojitos; it dances to every culture´s tune. It feels wide open.

The cities I mean are where there is a constant sense of what I´d call cultural flow: Where the widest population is really engaged with that flow; where there is ongoing dialogue – the orchestra doesn´t just perform; it talks to its audience and the audience talks back. Its theatre company is unafraid to embrace social issues and builds productions not only with its ensemble but with kids´ participation. The opera company commissions new work and then builds it with young artists and the local prison. It is where experimental rock musicians design their own festivals, build their own instruments and collaborate across international boundaries. It´s where architects design living buildings for people, not to impress other architects; where the new and immigrant population knows that their particular cultures are respected and not diluted, and that they are integrated into city programming as much or as little as they would like them to be. I´m talking about places where no one would dream of using the words elite or integrated about art or culture because art, culture and diversity are the city´s social glue.

European Capitals of Culture were, of course, designed to offer this kind of opportunity – and in some cases they have done so with considerable success and terrific initiative. In others, matters disintegrated into dispute and chaos. Few have really managed the legacy created in a structured or honest way, principally because of lack of real leadership after the ECOC team has moved on. And sadly, few have really grasped the tremendous competence that their team accrued to build the city solidly – and adventurously – for the future.

Stavanger2008 – just to boast about ourselves – was described the following year by the evaluators appointed by the EU as ‘artistically the best ECOC ever’. We chose to focus strongly on pure culture, not on a wider urban development or capital projects. That´s not to say that there weren´t considerable issues. Inevitable, in any project with a big budget and as broad and undefined a set of criteria as that set out by the EU, there will be frictions. These tend to be predominately between the perfectly reasonable entitlement felt by local artists and the European or international element of the years´ programme.

We tried to address that by building Stavanger2008 around a broad programme based on participation, which included multi-year residencies with international companies especially chosen for their will to collaborate (theatre, dance, music theatre/opera and a radical inter-racial puppet company) who were challenged to build sustained partnerships within the community. We also had the privilege of working with the wider Rogaland region which also enabled us to work with whole rural communities on major events in landscape involving artists from all over the world, local artists, the community and its children.

Other ECOCs have concentrated on capital projects, or regeneration, or on developing tourism. I used to think that if I heard the term ‘bed nights’ once more at an ECOC related meeting that I might stand up and shout REMEMBER CULTURE? (Actually, I think I once did).

I would argue that a smart city must have a cultural habit of looking outwards, of being curious and of constantly looking at the outside world. It must search for ways to attract new cultural resources and practices to build on what it already has.  Every commune designs a cultural policy – and if I can risk being politically incorrect (nothing new), despite the usual wide consultations, they all stay resolutely safe. Compromise rarely results in long-term positive dynamic growth.

I´d really like to see clear policies that support entrepreneurism, that insist on collaboration both within the city and far beyond and that, particularly, propose a broad plan for talent development. I don´t mean competitions, or specific awards for those already identified as future stars. The commercial sector already has that covered – for instance, Equinor – ex-Statoil – has its Rising Stars awards for brilliant young musicians. I mean that built into every Kommune and Fylke´s funding for culture organisations there should be a ring-fenced amount for the structured development and participation of young artists and makers, including their development in the digital world. This policy would emphasise the need to develop fresh ideas and how to realise them. If we don´t identify and train our talents and nurture potential – not just performers, but producers, arts leaders and teachers and culture managers – we will not develop the beating heart of our cities or make them eventful.

So what are these events which underpin the vibrant smart city? What is the balance between festivals, parades, special events and the ‘normal’ August to June cultural season? For leaders and city-makers, there has to be a consensus about programming – that is, balancing what you know the audience wants with innovation and real adventure. For the city there must be a plan which nurtures venues and creates new spaces indoors and out for all kinds of expression, with a clear and sustainable strategy for digital resources.

First, there are the city´s standard existing organisations. It is not enough for the theatre company or orchestra or university arts department just to produce a user-friendly season and to sit in its venue expecting people to walk through the door. The city with nerve and attitude never patronises its people. It develops trust between its key culture institutions and their audiences – I say audiences plural, because no smart performing arts institution has just one audience. So those organisations must always lead by offering a truly visionary mix: classic work, established and emerging artists, performances – and online platforms – presented in way that dares to provoke real discussion, and lots of new, surprising work which will create its own momentum. There must be opportunities for participation, talent development and engagement with youth. Note that I say ‘with youth’ not just ‘for’.

It´s inevitable that I mention opera given my present position, but I do believe that opera companies have an amazing opportunity to engage with the city. At Bergen National Opera we´ve expanded way beyond the main stage where we have fiercely enlarged the theatricality and visual excitement of our repertoire and expanded its audience. We´re into all kinds of collaborations with communities, hotels, chefs, video-makers, craft-makers, prisons – where certain inmates became our interns. We´ve just commissioned a young composer whose day job is writing music for gaming. We´ve formed all kinds of international partnerships which keep us on our toes in terms of design, theatricality and the kind of artists who have astounding voices but also great communication skills.

Festivals: eventful cities thrive on festivals, especially if they are positioned strategically across the year. Festivals offer fantastic opportunities for both the large city audience – for world music and rock – but also for visitors (back to bed nights….) and for niche audiences: say, for street art, experimental music, slam poetry or art film. Smart festivals offer a particular opportunity for international guests to collaborate with locals, stimulating projects which could not happen without that synergy, driving cross-border dialogue bringing new ideas, energy and confidence. Festivals also can be important to city branding. Edinburgh named itself ‘the city of festivals’ and created an excellent and effective umbrella organisation, embracing the international, fringe, science, children’s and books festivals along with the New Year fest, Edinburgh´s Hogmanay – Edinburgh Festivals – which in effect sells the city as a multi-entertainment smart destination. This ‘festivalisation’ of a city can contribute enormously to the eventfulness of the city so long as it is well-managed and kept free of clashes of identities, dates and funding. More easily said than done, but in the case of Edinburgh, strong leadership from the resolute founding chief of the Festivals Association kept the peace in a city not known for its social harmony. In Austin, Texas, however, there has been considerable resistance to cultural life being elevated to the mainstream and as such professionalised. Their branding proclaimed Keep Austin Weird! If I´m honest, as a Scot, I sometimes wish that proud, polite Edinburgh could be just a little bit more weird too.

Well-planned one-off events are also special opportunities for the eventful city to experience something spectacular, and also to gain kudos and visibility. The city of ´s-Hertogenbosch – home to the great artist Hieronymus Bosch – put itself on the map by planning an amazing art restoration event around his anniversary, which then connected a little- known city to global networks.

Don´t forget the massive potential of cross-media events – food and opera; literature and visual art; jazz and fashion – combining differing tastes and publics, building creative clashes and subversive dialogue.

I´m not going to talk about the print or digital media, because that is a three-day subject in itself – but a city that has a media culture of knowledgable opinion and honest interest in the city´s position in relation to the nation and wider world has a huge advantage over one where attention is focused on mud-slinging and celebrities’ backsides. (Pace Kim Kardashian.)

In Bergen, we are much preoccupied with new culture buildings. In recent years, few things have caused more conflict – instead of bringing people together, the plans have driven organisations apart. The discussion right now is premised on bricks and windows and vehicle access.

But a smart, eventful city must have living buildings which help to bring together the diverse needs of those who make and consume culture in the city; buildings which bring civic pride and a genuine city-wide sense of ownership; buildings which gather citizens, making them know that they make an essential contribution to a vibrant spirit and sense of place.

A smart city building is not about any individual or company´s ego or an architect´s kudos, but about creating a living hub for the city. That hub needs community spaces, education resources, cafes, casual meeting spaces. It needs to welcome everyone from singing kids to sceptical politicians, from feisty grandmothers to introvert singles. It has to underpin the way we want to live in the future.

All this needs leadership: brave, long-sighted, honest, imaginative leadership that has both thick and thin skin. Thick skin to stick to the long game of being smart and eventful, with thin-skin enough always to listen and to react with sensitivity. And, smart cities need leadership that builds teams that trust each other, share passion, and believe in the place that they are helping to make.

They also need gatherings like this one, Nordic Edge: forums to share ideas, to talk shop and to dream. I´d say the last of those three is the most important one. Let´s all keep dreaming. It will keep us smart.

Mary Miller
19/09/2018

Photo: With co-speaker at Nordic Edge, Bent Sørensen, director for Aarhus 2017, European Capital of Culture

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