Big names to take stage at revamped S'pore arts fest

Scott Shepherd and Ari Fliakos starring in a production by New York experimental theatre company The Wooster Group.

Celebrated British composer Michael Nyman and renowned New York experimental theatre company The Wooster Group will bookend the Singapore International Festival of Arts when it launches next year from Aug 12 to Sept 21.

This is a rebooted, edgier version of what was previously known as the Singapore Arts Festival, a three-week event pegged to the May and June school holidays that went on hiatus this year.

Next year's opening and closing acts were revealed by Ms Lee Chor Lin, the chief executive of Arts Festival Limited, and festival director Ong Keng Sen, in their first joint interview since taking the reins of the newly formed independent company behind the festival in July.

The $6.5 million festival has been renamed to signal that it is "both Singaporean and international", said Ong, 49.

Its budget has been allocated by the National Arts Council, and is slightly lower than the $7 million to $8 million budget of previous arts festivals run by the council. The company is expected to raise additional funds. The smaller budget must accommodate set- up costs like rental - an office has not yet been found - and salaries.

Next year's festival will consist of some 12 to 15 international productions with the theme of "legacy and the expanded classic", Ong said. As for Singapore productions, they are now being commissioned for the 2015 festival, "60 per cent of which will probably be local".

The opening production next year is Facing Goya, a new version of Nyman's contemporary opera first staged in 2000. To be directed by Ong, it features five international opera soloists, the Michael Nyman Band and Singapore Symphony Orchestra, and is a co-commission of the festival and the prestigious Spoleto Festival of Charleston in the United States.

Closing the festival is The Wooster Group's new postmodern take on Shakespeare's Troilus And Cressida; it will be the first time the group is performing here. The Michael Nyman Band last played here at the 2002 Singapore Arts Festival.

Most of the other acts are not yet confirmed, but Ong revealed one other name: famed French choreographer Jerome Bel, who will present his 2012 production Disabled Theatre, a collaboration with disabled professional actors from Zurich's Theater Hora.

Held after National Day and running alongside high-voltage, downtown events like the Formula One Grand Prix and Night Festival, the festival's timing is "quite strategic", Ms Lee, 50, explained.

"We see ourselves as co-existing in the landscape with the Night Festival and F1. We don't want to crowd out smaller players either, let's just all create art round the clock," she said.

For that reason, Ong said the festival has been spread out over six weeks. "We'll do only two to three shows a week to avoid festival fatigue and make it like a regular cultural season."

As for moving the festival out of the mid-year school holiday period, Ong said that many families travel during that time, and they are not necessarily the target audience of the revamped festival with its adult themes. "We'll think of children's work in subsequent years, but we can't be a festival for everyone," he said.

The annual festival, run by the National Arts Council up until last year, took a break this year to review its direction in a crowded arts landscape. During the break, an independent company was set up headed by Ms Lee, formerly the director of the National Museum. Ong, artistic director of homegrown theatre company TheatreWorks, was appointed festival director for a four-year term.

Another break with tradition next year is the dropping of a community festival of free performances running alongside the main programme. Instead, there will be an outreach event called The O.P.E.N. held ahead of the festival from June 26 to July 12. It will feature talks, demonstrations and film screenings connected to the festival's themes and shows.

Ms Lee said The O.P.E.N. will be affordably priced; entry could be via a single pass giving access to all events. "We are bringing in these festival programmes that we think are of exceptionally good quality and we want to help people understand them, give them issues to think about," she added.

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