What Lindy did next
By Ashley Hay
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When Lindy Hume revealed the first program of her four-year tenure at the Perth International Arts Festival back in 2003, she was already thinking about her last, from 9 February to 4 March this year. Travelling through the themes of "Journey" (2004), "Transcendence and Transformation" (2005) and "Earthly Pleasure" (2006) to arrive at "The Human Family" (2007), she imagined the full stop of a huge gathering and celebration out in the Western Australian desert somewhere. Precisely what she had in mind she didn't say, but it was going to be on a very large scale, it was going to involve a very large number of people and it was going to take place a very long way from Perth.
What it became in the meantime, she explains when she sits down to reveal that last, 2007 program, is a classic mountain-to-Mohammed solution: she's bringing the desert to Perth with music from Africa, photography from the disparate deserts of northern Mexico and Antarctica, and a whole range of images, stories and dances from Australia's own vast spaces. The festival will open with a thousand-voice community choir performing the premiere of Iain Grandage's Noongar-language Human Family Overture alongside photographs from the BLINK project that sent four photographers out to WA's regional communities. The Kayili canvas from Patjarr, halfway between Kalgoorlie and Alice Springs, will illuminate the foyer of His Majesty's Theatre.
The desert will weave through performances of BighART's extraordinary Pitjantjatjara-language theatre piece Ngapartji Ngapartji, which not only describes the Cold War's impact on the Western Desert but also encourages audiences to learn Pitjantjatjara online beforehand. And it will close the festival with a troupe of 30 singers and dancers - traditional custodians of the Ngaanyatjarra Lands, at the meeting point of the borders of Western Australia, the Northern Territory and South Australia - performing their Tjurkurpa, or dreamtime stories, while world musicians Etran Finatawa (from Niger) and Habib Koité and his Malian supergroup, Bamada, invite audiences to Fôly, to play, to dance, to party.
Lindy Hume is going out with a bang: "In terms of expanse and reach of ambition," she says, "this is probably the biggest festival we've done." And it's one that relishes interactions and intersections, embodying her suspicion that "the festival is all about relationships; it's about meeting places and relationships." Her red hair is bright in a dim Sydney café, and there's an extra glow in her voice, too, as it sparkles above the knives, the forks, the lunchtime bustle.
She's excited about the Shakespeare that's coming ("Perth loves Shakespeare, so I thought, Let's have Shakespeare"), which juxtaposes the Korean Yohangza Company's take on A Midsummer Night's Dream ("in Korean with subtitles, lots of music, lots of tumbling, lots of beautiful make-up") against Propeller, an all-male British ensemble who'll mount both The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night ("I'm just really happy to have a Taming of the Shrew where you hear Katharina's final speech given by a man"). She's excited by other juxtapositions: Les Murray reading his poetry amid the Royal String Quartet's performance of Mahler's Rückert-Lieder; rival interpretations of Bach's Goldberg Variations by the classical pianist Konstantin Lifschitz and the jazz pianist Iiro Rantala; and the Gotan Project, which gives traditional Argentinean tango a particularly Parisian electronic twist. She's excited about the Australian premieres of Wild Cursive, the new work by the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan ("our big international centrepiece"), and a Polish stop-frame animation of Peter and the Wolf, which will screen in conjunction with a performance of Prokofiev's score by the Australian Youth Orchestra ("there won't be a dry eye in the house when the duck goes down the gizzard"). And she's particularly excited about the world premiere of Richard Mills's new chamber opera, The Love of the Nightingale, a West Australian Opera co-production whose libretto by Timberlake Wertenbaker retells Sophocles' tale of two Athenian sisters abducted by the King of Thrace. Its Perth performances will feature the Australian sopranos Emma Matthews and Sara Macliver, and the Irish lyric soprano Orla Boylan.
Not only continuing the operatic collaboration between Mills as composer and Hume as director that began with Mills's Batavia, Nightingale also realises another of the major commissions funded by Wesfarmers that Hume announced in 2003. (The first three - a collaboration between the Finnish choreographer Jorma Uotinen and the West Australian Ballet, Michael Kantor's Odyssey, and Brett Dean's orchestral composition Vexations and Devotions - featured in the 2005 and 2006 programs.) In addition to which, there are smaller commissions and co-commissions, like Alan John's and John Clarke's Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, directed by Neil Armfield, and the Last Seen Imagining group's Home. "When we gave this show development money in 2003-04, it was called The Refugee Project, and it was huge. Now, it's a very small piece for an audience of 20 people, and six actors. You buy the whole thing for your lounge room: they bring in the table and the food and wine and the lights, and you have an evening at home while the actors tell you the stories."
In one way, she says, commissions have been "my great pleasure of the festival. To be able to go out and grab the [big international shows]: you chase them, and that's part of the sport. But growing things from scratch" - she smiles - "it's nice. We've created an amazing link between Perth and the rest of the world through both international artists and a lot of significant Australian artists; we've had co-productions involving other festivals and other companies. Nightingale is going to Brisbane and Melbourne later this year; Brett Dean's Vexations and Devotions is going to the BBC Proms, and to the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra - it's great, there's a life for these works. So yes, over the four years, when I look at what I said we'd try to achieve, I think we've largely achieved it. And if I had another million bucks or so, I'd spend it all on desert."
That idea, the big piece in the big desert, still dances in her mind. Maybe someone will commission her to do it later, freelance, she says - not that she's trying to line too much up. But that's hard to believe of Lindy Hume. After all, even this trip to Sydney wasn't just to talk about the 2007 festival. She was directing Mozart's Idomeneo for the Pinchgut Opera at the same time, and thinking about how to stage key scenes of Nightingale.
She'll miss Perth, she says, "the people, and the festival, and walking through Kings Park and its trees. I get very excited about what's next, and then something sideswipes me and I get all teary." But she is looking forward to a break, and there's "an 80-acre piece of bush with a river running through it and a cottage" on the south coast of New South Wales that's she's looking forward to being in. And you almost believe it, the idea of her peace and quiet - until she mentions the degree she's about to enrol in, and the play she'll direct back in Perth later this year, her first. "Well," she says defensively, "compared to directing opera, it's going to be very quiet in that room. I'm sure I'll spend half my time wondering where the piano is, and when someone's going to start playing it."
Ashley Hay won last year’s Bragg UNSW Prize for Science Writing. Her last novel, The Railwayman’s Wife, won the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies’ Colin Roderick Award and the People’s Choice category in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Her new novel, A Hundred Small Lessons, will be published this April. She lives in Brisbane.