Back in September 2011 I spoke to Noel Staunton, Director of the Brisbane Festival for ArtsHub.com.au
Not only is the Queensland capital enjoying a resurgence in optimism after January’s floods, the city is also surfacing culturally with a little help from performing arts veteran and Brisbane Festival Artistic Director, Noel Staunton.
The Irishman’s enthusiasm for the performing arts is infectious. Even speaking with Staunton over the phone, you begin to relate to his passion, which seems to stand for the entire city. When discussing Brisbane and the events staged at this year’s festival, everything is ‘fascinating’, ‘exciting’ or ‘extraordinary’.
And the man would know.
After seeing Don Giovanni on television as a kid, the interest that would grow into a lifelong devotion to the arts was instilled. ‘The music, the theatre and the scenery attracted me,’ he recalls, adding that seeing the show ‘began [his] love for opera.’
Growing up, Staunton was always interested in the stage, creating puppet theatre and attending as many shows as possible. But while in school he had figured on a very different career path. ‘I thought I was going to be an electrical engineer,’ he says, ‘and then I changed my mind.’
The idea to undertake a career in the arts wasn’t easily ignored, and Staunton went on to train at England’s world-famous Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA). However, ‘I knew I didn’t want to be a performer,’ he confesses. ‘But I knew I wanted to work in the arts.’ So while at RADA, he studied their technical course, gaining expertise in stage production.
‘By accident I spent most of my life in opera,’ he says. His first stage management role was with the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, where he gained experience before moving on to Kent Opera, with which he toured extensively throughout Europe. At the age of 27 Staunton became the youngest and eventually the longest serving Technical Director of the English National Opera. ‘Before I knew it, Australia Opera invited me out to work with them in ’87… so I worked for them for twelve years’ and before he knew it, Staunton had worked ‘a good 25 years in opera before I left it.’
And when he finally bade farewell to the first major love of his artistic career, Staunton took a decidedly different turn and became the executive producer of Baz Luhrman’s Bazmark Productions.
‘It was quite fun, it was a nice change,’ he tells when asked how the change from opera to executive producer was. ‘The opera world is quite regimented and strict, so it was nice to live in Sydney and… do the shows around the world, which I enjoyed enormously.’
One of the highlights of his period in Staunton’s life was staging Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème on Broadway. ‘It was lovely to do… an opera in a commercial setting,’ he explains. It was another fascinating moment for Staunton, ‘because the perception of opera is not commercial… it was nice to see it taken away from the palaces… taken off the pedestal and put back on the street where people [could] enjoy it.’
And people did enjoy it. Staunton’s production of La Boheme, a somewhat risky endeavour, achieved critical acclaim and went for over nine months with eight performances a week. It was so successful that it won a Tony award, toured to sell-out shows in San Francisco and then sold out in Los Angeles. ‘That was a surprise for me,’ he admits when asked if one would expect LA to appreciate an opera. ‘People came and they just loved it… they enjoyed it enormously,’ he adds.
If it seems as if Staunton had fallen back into the arms of opera, it was a short-lived fling with an old flame. Following the success of La Boheme Staunton organised another sell-out production, this time of Wagner’s Ring Cycle for Adelaide Festival.
‘It was great fun,’ he says of Ring Cycle. ‘[It] was a massive project, [but] it was very successful and people came from all over the world to see it.’
After spending eighteen months working with ‘a great creative team’, Staunton then produced the Sydney Harbour Bridge 75th birthday celebrations. ‘To go from one end of high art to having a bridge to celebrate was great and so different and quite extraordinary,’ he says, which is probably indicative of Staunton’s approach to designing the program for Brisbane Festival.
After singing on as Artistic Director last year, in which Staunton had four months to put together the program, he’s had ‘a little more time [to] plan the next three years in a considered way’. One of those considerations is to ‘achieve a sense of popular culture but high end culture’, which harks back to bringing opera back to the street.
Ways that he’s tried to implement this plan is by increasing theatre productions, while still offering popular music acts, comedy and orchestral offerings. However, it’s hard not to remember that in January this year Brisbane was devastated by floods.
‘Two major things we have this year are… responses to the floods,’ he explains. One is Australia’s first major laser light show, a ten minute ‘art and light installation which takes place twice nightly every night’ on Brisbane’s riverbanks, which Staunton hopes ‘will show the city off in the most extraordinary way.’
The second event to address the Brisbane’s optimism is Symphonia Eluvium (Symphony of the Floods), a commissioned symphony by celebrated composer Elena Kats-Chernin. ‘She’s captured the moments of the floods in music,’ he details, ‘but [has] also captured the optimism and the spirit of everybody during that terrible time.’
The spirit of Brisbane is something that Staunton touches on frequently. When asked about the mood of the city he says, ‘f you’re walking around Brisbane now it’s very hard to see that at the beginning of the year everything was covered in water. The spirit is fantastic… there’s been an enormous sense of getting on with things and moving on.’
To celebrate the fortitude of the city, Staunton explains that ‘a lot of the festival is around the river this year, in reflection and light and colour, to say Brisbane is back, Brisbane is here, Brisbane is optimistic and there’s a bright future.’
Yet Queensland’s capital isn’t just emerging from the effects of a natural disaster, it’s also coming into its own as a cultural destination, something Staunton is keen to point out and support. ‘Of all the states that talk about a cultural precinct, Brisbane is the only city that has actually built one,’ he explains, referring to the Queensland Cultural Centre at South Bank in Brisbane.
The multi-venue area, which consists of the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC), the Queensland Museum, the State Library of Queensland (SLQ), the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) and the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), is something to be celebrated.
‘Imagine on one patch of land a contemporary art gallery, a performing arts centre the conservatorium, the orchestral building, and a museum!’ Staunton says. ‘You can walk all along the bank of the river and find these amazing cultural venues and they’re all full of people all the time. You go to the art gallery and its full… you to go the library and its full from morning, noon to night. It’s exciting!’
One need only look at the Brisbane Festival program to understand that in September, the city will be hosting a plethora of exciting cultural events. ‘This year we’ve got four commissioned pieces,’ Staunton explains, ‘four world premieres and five Australian premieres.’ In addition, Brisbane Festival has also built a six hundred seat ampitheatre down a the Powerhouse, the Courier-Mail Spiegeltent in King George Square, and the first piano recital by Russian prodigy turned world’s most acclaimed pianist, Evgeny Kissin. All this, Staunton reasons, ‘creates a sense that we’re doing new things.’
And Brisbane Festival certainly is. When asked about the highlights of this year, the ever dedicated Staunton reels off almost every event to be staged across September, proving his intimate knowledge, intricate planning and boundless love for the performing arts on offer this year. So while Melbourne is wrapped up in footy finals, and Sydney is sweeping up after spring fashion, it’s Brisbane that’ll be burning the artistic flame as we enter the end of the year, something Staunton relishes.
‘[Brisbane’s] very different from Melbourne and Sydney,’ he concludes. ‘People… are very positive and have a very can do attitude, which is fantastic, so [the city and the festival] are about that sense of optimism, they’re happy to try anything.
‘As a festival director, that’s a great place to be because they’ll go with you on the journey.’