University axe spells end for Belfast Festival at Queen’s



Could this be the end of the road? Queen’s University calls time on the international arts festival that bears its name


It’s often said we live in a society that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Belfast Festival at Queen’s learned that lesson last week when its ‘parent’ pulled its funding.

It remains to be seen whether or not the other key partners – Arts Council, Belfast City Council, British Council, and Tourism Northern Ireland – will walk away too.

The festival can’t easily be kept going. It is not a separate entity; it is a university department.

Queen’s provided the staff, buildings, management systems, and it carried all the legal liabilities. The Festival director has gamely promised to fight on. But robbed of the protective mantle of Queen’s, the festival will die like an infant abandoned on a cold mountainside.

Like it or loathe it – and the festival has its critics – there can be little doubt that in its 50-plus years Belfast Festival at Queen’s has made a major contribution to the cultural life of Northern Ireland.

It has given audiences the chance to experience international artists at first hand. It helped Northern Ireland keep its dignity through the long years of the Troubles. And it changed people’s lives for the better – not only audiences, but the thousands of volunteers who made it work.

Festivals – particularly multi-disciplinary ones – are special because they are one-offs; bringing together a community of artists from different countries, genres and backgrounds to create something unique, never to be repeated.

That’s why audiences love them. They are events – special – and Belfast’s had its special moments.

The festival was important for Belfast, and it gave the university a point of difference. It was worth more to the Queen’s ‘brand’ than the university ever recognised. But Queen’s brought something to the festival too, credibility and a financial cushion other arts organisations would have died for. Whatever the size of the deficit – and the festival was rarely in surplus – there was never a cash flow issue.

In truth, Queen’s University’s direct financial contribution was never that large. The Arts Council, City Council, private sector businesses and box office provided income too. More recently the British Council and Tourism Northern Ireland have weighed in. But the university brought security. Even in today’s austere times, the university has deep pockets. The festival director always had the comfort of knowing that, if all else failed, the university would be the funder of last resort.

It was this factor that created the greatest anxiety in the university’s corridors of power – there was always the fear that the festival would go belly-up and Queen’s would be left to deal with the consequences. I understand that, with a six-figure hole in the budget for the 2015 event, and no one committing to help, Queen’s felt it had no alternative but to pull the plug.

It has long been the case that none of the other funders was prepared to share the risk – even though they shared the benefits.

Over the years there have been repeated attempts to establish the festival on a sustainable basis. None has succeeded. The most recent independent report, commissioned last year by the festival’s main funders, set out in stark terms the limitations of the current festival and proposed a five-year plan to get it back on its feet.

Critical was the need to shift the burden of funding from public sources to earned income – sponsorship, fundraising, box office, merchandising and so on. In the current climate, that would be a tall order.

It’s tempting to blame Queen’s for the festival’s demise. In a sense, with its decision last week, it’s been caught in the act. But in its defence, the university could justifiably claim the festival has been on life support for years. Turning off the power was more humane than letting it linger on.

In penning the festival’s obituary, it would only be fair to acknowledge that the university kept the festival alive during the years when it was most important to Northern Ireland: the lean years when the festival, the Ulster Orchestra (itself recently imperilled) and the Grand Opera House were the extent of Belfast’s grip of culture; the years when the Shadow of a Gunman was more often stalking the streets than playing in the Lyric.

It was an accident of history that the university ended up running a festival. Student Michael Emerson had an idea and ran with it, Michael Barnes (an old style academic) sustained the vision until he ran out of steam. Queen’s turned a benign eye on his regime. Universities embraced eccentricity in those days.

There have been a number of notable directors since. The mercurial Sean Doran rejuvenated it artistically, but at a price-tag that worried the university authorities. Robert Agnew brought a bit of stability. Stella Hall brought pageantry, street theatre and community engagement, but she wearied of the university (including me, I was her line manager). And Hall couldn’t comprehend why other funders did not buy into her vision. Graeme Farrow – now with millions to spend on culture at the Wales Millennium Centre – made silk purses out of sows’ ears; but he too was sapped by the bureaucracy that accompanies modern arts’ management.

Many universities are patrons of the arts. But today they are obsessed by pounds, shillings and pence. They have to be. We now expect them to operate like a poultry factory producing oven-ready chickens.

In a world of cutbacks, audits and accountability, there is no place any more in higher education for oddities like an international festival. That’s a sad fact of modern life.

When Sir George Bain was in charge at Queen’s, contribution to the community was one of the three key pillars of his strategy – education and research being the other two. The festival had its place and the subsidy could be justified.

Sir George was a renaissance vice-chancellor, and a patron of the arts. He knew the value of culture. But even during his time there were voices who believed the university had to get out of running an international festival. Those voices have now prevailed, the Northern Ireland Executive’s cuts in higher education funding have given them the reason they needed.

In recent years the festival had become a pale imitation of itself. Some of what it did is now done better by other festivals. It used to compare itself to Edinburgh – it doesn’t come near now, if it ever did. So what’s to be done?

While Queen’s operated as funder of last resort, there was no incentive for Belfast City Council or the Arts Council to do much. As a result Belfast has had an international festival on the cheap – but one insufficiently resourced to compete with city festivals like those in Manchester (with its £12 million budget), Brighton, Canterbury (led by Rosie Turner, formerly of Queen’s), and even Galway.

The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure – which has presided over the dismantling of the arts in Northern Ireland – says it is stony broke. Belfast City Council, in its current guise, is in its dying days. The Arts Council unleashed misery on countless organisations last week when they got notice of funding decisions.

None is in a strong position to breathe new life into a now dead festival. And they shouldn’t. To do so would be like nailing legs to a cadaver and telling it to walk.

The best course would be to give Belfast Festival at Queen’s a decent cremation – it deserves one. If a phoenix is to rise from its ashes, it will need commitment and a significant injection of money: millions, not thousands.

A genuinely international festival would help grow the economy and put Belfast firmly on the cultural tourism map. If that’s important enough, the money will be found. The fate of Belfast Festival suggests that the will just isn’t there.

  • This article first appeared in Scope NI on March 23 2015.

Now’s the time to start swearing at Westminster


Tony Benn: committed republican

Politics is a dirty business at the best of times, and it’s about to get dirtier. General elections bring out the worst in people and, in case you have missed the hoo-hah, there’s one in May.

For most of the past 100 years there has been a cosy compact between the left and the right, and Conservatives and Labour have carved power up between them.

The government governs and the ‘loyal’ opposition challenges. It has all the appearances of being an adversarial process – but like professional wrestling it’s a fix.

The British electoral system is designed to sustain the carve-up. It gives the illusion of democracy but, in reality, not all votes have the same currency, and the number of MPs in the Commons is not a fair reflection of the popular vote.

Governments elected by this ancient and corrupt system each claim a mandate for what they do in office. But the so-called mandate is a fiction.

No post-war British government has been elected with more than 50 per cent of the vote. The highest Maggie Thatcher achieved was 43.87per cent in 1979. Blair’s 1997 landslide was no revolution. He secured only 43.21 per cent of the popular vote.

Does the outcome matter? In look and feel yes, but in policy terms? The truth is it doesn’t matter who wins the election – the government always gets in.

The only real difference between the two main British parties is that Cameron scores more highly on the charisma stakes than Milliband.

If Labour were to be returned to power, it would follow Tory policies in much the same way the Tories followed Labour’s. The leaders hurl abuse at one another and they claim they offer different visions. But in reality, there is a free market, soft right consensus. They are opposite sides of the same coin.

That is how it has been for decades, and that is how they hope it will remain.

This time around the electorate may have other ideas. The fragmentation we have seen over recent years – the election of independents, the Greens and now UKIP – is gathering pace.

Labour is not yet electable, and won’t be until it jettisons Milliband. The cruel caricature of him as Mr Bean is grossly unfair (to Mr Bean). As a consequence, the result of this election is too close to call.

The Scottish Nationalists – and the Ulster Nationalists (aka the DUP, for that is what they are) have muscles to flex.

Last week Nigel Dodds set out some of the things on the DUP shopping list if it were to sustain one or other of the UK parties in power. As one would expect of a statesman of Mr Dodds’ calibre he reassured people that the DUP “would not seek to exploit for narrow and selfish reasons any leverage at Westminster over devolved matters”. (Give that man a knighthood.)

Of course it would – as indeed would the wizened remnants of the SDLP.

One party unable to trade its support – explicit or tacit – for political advantage is Sinn Fein. They have been refused entry to the Commons by the British insistence that they swear an oath to the Crown, and by their own unwillingness to see the oath for what it is – a meaningless irrelevance.

The United Kingdom’s claim to democratic credibility is undermined by this naked protectionism. Whatever one thinks of the party – those who have been elected should not be disbarred from representing their constituents because of an archaic tradition.

Tony Benn and Kevin McNamara each twice tried – and failed – to have the oath overturned. In 1997, Benn himself began his oath with the words: “As a committed republican, under protest, I take the oath required of me by law, under the Parliamentary Oaths Act of 1866, to allow me to represent my constituency…”

It’s time Sinn Fein called Westminster’s bluff and turned up. Some left wing MPs have slurred their words, others have crossed their fingers behind their backs, some – it is claimed – have resorted to jibberish. Gaelic is acceptable, apparently; that opens up a whole host of possibilities.

Working together – as they do so well now in Stormont – there’s no end to what Sinn Fein and the DUP might be able to extract from a government keen to stay in power.

And you never know – depending on the outcome of the next Irish election – we might have the tantalizing prospect of Sinn Fein in government in the Dail, the Northern Ireland Assembly and at Westminster. Somebody’s day will have come.

* A version of this article was published in The Irish News on Monday March 16 2015.

A night at the opera: songs of love and death



Kenneth Montgomery: master craftsman

I like opera. There. I’ve said it. For many people, it’s a closed world – but at the end of the day it’s music, and it is as accessible as any other form of music you might care to mention. You only need a pair of ears and an open mind.

Some see opera as an out-dated art form – dead from the neck up and the chin down. But in truth it has the capacity still to touch people’s lives. In the right hands, a production of an opera – even one written centuries ago – can be as explosive as the most expensive Hollywood blockbuster.

That was brought home to me at Scottish Opera’s current production, Orfeo ed Euridice. Gluck’s opera was revolutionary when it was first performed in Vienna in 1762, and it remains potent today.

It deals with issues that strike at the very essence of our common humanity: love and loss. Such is the stuff of opera. The operatic stage is littered with bodies – Butterfly stabs herself, Tosca flings herself from the battlements of the Castle Sant Angelo in Rome, Brunnhilde rides onto the funeral pyre of her slain lover.

In Orfeo ed Euridice Gluck gets the dying over early. It opens with Euridice’s funeral ceremony; and the story takes us through Orfeo’s courageous journey – braving the underworld to bring her back.

He succeeds, but only just – Euridice’s insecurity almost destroys their dream of a long and happy life and she dies again on her return from Hades.

For those of us conditioned by the grim realities of 19th century opera, Orfeo ed Euridice is one of those things to be treasured, it is an opera with a happy ending. Euridice is restored a second time and the celebratory final chorus is a delight and sends us out into the world happy.

There are no gimmicks in Scottish Opera’s beautiful and arresting production. The focus is on the singing and the dance – Gluck wrote two of opera’s finest ballet sequences in the Dance of the Furies and the Dance of the Blessed Spirits, and they are brilliantly realised. The blessed spirits are not saccharine by any stretch of the imagination though in less expert hands than those of director Ashley Page they might have been twee.

Caitlin Hulcup and Lucy Hall play the lovers. Ana Quintans is Amore, a god plucked from the era of La Dolce Vita. With only three principals and a chorus, it’s economical to put on, but no less powerful for that.

At the helm is Kenneth Montgomery, one of the surest hands in the opera world today.

Kenneth is one of the unsung heroes of British music. Quietly spoken and diffident, he is a master craftsman. Most of his career has been spent in Europe and the United States where he is a fixture in Santa Fe’s summer festival – and that is a loss to British audiences. It is more than 30 years since he was last at Scottish Opera.

An Ulsterman, he was the making of Opera Northern Ireland (now defunct), and some of the most dazzling operas I have seen were conducted by him there when he was its driving force. He is also a former Principal Conductor of the Ulster Orchestra – reinvigorating the repertoire, not least with approaches to the Romantic movement that reconnected it with its roots.

Throughout its life Ulster Orchestra has had a series of principal conductors – many of them outstanding. It is a great orchestra. But it would have benefitted from a long-term partnership with an individual capable of shaping its sound and giving it a greater sense of musical identity. Montgomery could have been that man.

In the concert hall or theatre, Montgomery brings something special to the music. He wants to understand the context in which the music was written, as well as knowing the music itself. As a result, his readings are authentic, but not puritanically so. They live and breath rather than being museum pieces.

That is very much the case with his spirited Gluck, which is full of life.

This production is evidence enough that opera as a medium is very much alive, and capable of touching people’s lives today in much the same way as Gluck’s music did when it first saw the light of day in the eighteenth century.