Festivals: Thinking out of the voice box

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Next month the land of song presents its global credentials in a new ten day spectacular arts festival with which Cardiff intends to rival Brighton, Edinburgh and Manchester. AI spoke to artistic director Graeme Farrow


Edinburgh, Brighton and Manchester have established international arts festivals, each one characteristic of its place and each one reaching across the globe. And now comes Cardiff.

When Graham Farrow arrived at Cardiff Bay’s Wales Millennium Centre (WMC 18 months ago as artistic director he came with a promise to “change the cultural landscape for Wales”, big words he said then. Next month we’ll see what he means when the country’s first international arts festival opens.

The Festival of Voice, running from June 3 to June 12, will feature Charlotte Church in her own musical theatre piece specially commissioned for the festival; Van Morrison will sing with Bryn Terfel; Welsh National Opera will present an opera in a Penarth flat, a single soprano singing to an audcience of 35; the Manic Street Preachers with a new song; Cerys Matthews organising a 24-hour city-wide choral spectacular involving 1,000 amateur singers; Rufus Wainwright; Ronnie Spector; and the whole programme will open with the rock legend John Cale, born in the Welsh mining village of Garnant, who will sing compositions never before performed in public, and Velvet Underground pieces augmented by a choir and a small orchestra. “The response from artists has been fantastic, it’s better than I’d hoped for, but this is the start of something permanent, Wales speaking to the world through something it knows better than anyone, the voice” Farrow says.

The festival is being produced by the WMC but in partnership with Welsh National Opera, Serious, National Theatre Wales and Artes Mundi in association with the 13 main venues Cardiff, with support from the Colwinston Trust, the Welsh Arts Council, Cardiff Council and the Welsh Assembly. But the biggest tranch of the £1.5m cost comes from the WMC itself, largely from box off ice profits with recent hits such as Mary Poppins, Mama Mia and Billy Elliott. The WMC’s practice is to invest all profits into programming, and from subsidy it is a business plan that has not only worked but is presenting something of world impact, Farrow believes.

His first year was the WMC’s tenth and was taken up with celebrations of its achievements. One of the 2015 hits was Matthew Bourne’s new ballet with New Adventures based on William Golding’s Lord of the Flies Lord of the Flies for which boys around the country were auditioned and trained to tour to more than 20 venues; those boys are now the troupe Boys 24 under the aegis of the Rubicon community dance organisation.

The Festival of Voice is also a celebration, of Wales’s “timeless connection with song”, but about the future too, Farrow says. The progamme has been curated by the artistic directors of all the partners with Farrow as festival director, and it moves the WMC out of being the receiving house it has been to a producer, with commissions and co-commissions. The voice is being encapsulated not just in sound but in visual art and dance to show the versatility of the subject which seems to be infinite. The festival is to be biennial, fixed in alternate years with the the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition. The next one in 2018 is likely to see an injection of debate and discussion of the healing properties of singing and its value to community well-being, and more performances beyond the walls of conventional venues.

Farrow’s style of directing the programme has been to invite artists to present ideas and commission accordingly. With no expectations he approached Charlotte Church, who had come to fame aged seven singing Ariel’s song from the Disney’s The Little Mermaid. A fortnight later she was back with her own treatment for a musical version of the Hans Christian Andersen story, complete with a song co-written with her writing partner Sion Trefor, and it was the first commission for the festival.

“This will be the year that people take her seriously as an artist” Farrow says. “She has quite a profile terms of political campaigning, and you may have forgotten that she’s an absolutely phenomenal singer and a huge student of the voice. She has YouTube clips of Georgian table singers, she’s a fan of Messaiaen, she’s got a voracious interest in music and in particular in voices with an astonishing range of influences.” 

In a co-production with WNO Claire Booth will sing Poulenc’s one act opera La Voix Humaine, based on Cocteau’s play, set in a modern apartment before audiences of 35. There’s a co-commission with the Yorkshire Festival and Warwick Arts Centre of a Opera For The Unknown Woman, created and directed by Melanie Wilson, which fuses choral singing, electronic and classical music, choreography and film. In a tribute to Roald Dahl, born in Cardiff 100 years ago, a Wales-wide schools project, Land of Song, in which primary school pupils across Wales have learned songs associated with Dahl’s stories and with the WMC’s own Only Kids Aloud choir to perform in the centre. The Shetland composer Inge Thomson has been commissioned to write a new work, Ffatri Vox, based on stories told by factory worked between 1945 and 1975 and collated by the Women’s Archive of Wales.
The Cardiff-based visual arts agency, Artes Mundi, has commissioned the Beirut-based artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan to create a sound work. And the finale will be the Choir Clock, 20 choirs in 20 locations in a grand scale project co-produced by Serious and the WMC and co-ordinated by Cerys Matthews, with a performance on the hour every hour, ending in the WMC itself.

His only sadness is that Juliet Greco, the 89-year-old chanson singer who was to perform the songs of Jacques Brel, has had to withdraw through ill-health. There will, however, be an interpretation of Brel songs by the singer Nikolai Galen (formerly Nick Hobb of The Shrubs), performing a capella.

Farrow came from programming Derry~Londonderry’s year as City of Culture in 2013, and before that had run the Belfast Festival at Queen’s. “I’ve run one of the big post-war international festivals, but there was a formula there that was very difficult to break” he says. “Much more energising to think of something that you think might be right for a place, and we’ve been able to create a model now with our partners that is about Cardiff and was Wales. So it's a multi-genre international festival that is all about Wales”.

And standing in front of the Wales Millennium Centre he looks up at the inscription closed by the former national poet of Wales, Gwyneth Lewis, which says:  “In These Stones Horizons Sing”.




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