Breaking the boundaries
As a firm fixture on the European performing arts calendar, you would think that Bergen International Festival’s programme of world-class entertainers would attract foreign visitors in droves.
This year’s programme, for instance, opened with a revival of opera Marco Polo by Tan Dun, directed by British live-video artist Netia Jones, with musical direction from Swiss conductor Baldur Bronnimann.
Among other artists programmed was acclaimed Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes performing Beethoven’s piano concertos with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, while a whole host of other concerts took place at idyllic locations across the city, including the homes of famed Norwegian composers Edvard Grieg and Ole Bull.
Yet despite its impressive line-up of classical music – alongside theatre and dance pieces – the festival has an audience that largely hails from Norway, with only 4% on average coming from abroad.
This is a quirk that’s set to change, though, thanks to the master plan of its new artistic director and chief executive Anders Beyer, who has just seen his first programme materialise at this year’s festival, which ended earlier this month.
Beyer says the 15-day event, best known for its classical music offering, is not “middle-of-the-road”, but inventive and ambitious, and should attract more UK and other European visitors.
“The BIF has been running for 61 years now, so for that reason we have a very loyal, core audience for classical music and they expect that we present concerts and events on a world-class level,” says Beyer.
That core audience is mostly local – the festival reports that around 60% of the 50,000 attendees to its 230 events are from Bergen and the immediate surrounding area.
With that in mind, Beyer’s first task upon taking up his new role last year was to give the festival something of a facelift, by insisting on a rebrand to reflect his mission to make it more playful so as to lure more people in.
“My predecessor has done great work in putting the festival on the international map,” he says. “Now we are here at a high level, I can work on widening out and opening up the windows.”
The new visual identity he has decided upon is striking. A black and white digital-esque pattern, reminiscent of nightclub advertising, now adorns the programme of events, with flashes of colour strips underlining information.
Meanwhile, three layered, horizontal black bars symbolising a brass instrument make up the logo, replacing the more traditional Nordic Impulses branding that had been used for the previous seven years.
Beyer explains this was a decision he made after some consideration, as many felt the old symbol, which featured the letter ‘N’ in a gold circle, stood for a festival that was intrinsically Scandinavian, showcasing the best work that its people could produce.
“The festival will be a Nordic or Scandinavian thing, no matter what, because it is produced here and we have a certain kind of mentality and common understanding of our identity,” he says. “It will be always be Nordic – you don’t need that logo, so I removed it and have made it more accessible, open and inviting.”
Now the aesthetics are in place, Beyer says the next step in his five-year strategy is to focus on the programming, making the productions more accessible and increasing audience participation.
“I would like to make this 15 days where you meet out on the streets and you really feel there is a festival happening,” says Beyer. “It’s very important to me that the city takes ownership, and the people feel proud. So it’s a little bit like the Salzburg Festival.”
While being aware of the limitations to staging an annual international event in a city with a population of just 300,000, the artistic director’s previous experience of working in his native Denmark – where he founded the Copenhagen Opera and Athelas New Music festivals – means he can recognise the opportunities laid before him.
“You would say from the start that it is not possible to create such a great event in a small city, but you can do it if you have the right support from the people – the politicians [in Bergen] make it different to Copenhagen. Here, I can call the mayor and I will have a meeting with her in five minutes or so. If you have a good idea you just call the people and they say, ‘We will do it’.”
[pullquote]I would like to make this 15 days where you meet out on the streets and really feel there is a festival happening. It’s very important to me that the city takes ownership, and the people feel proud[/pullquote]
He says it is more acceptable to be creatively irreverent in Bergen because there aren’t the same problems associated with large, expensive buildings and heritage concerns that can arise in capital cities.
“If you have an opera house like in Oslo or Copenhagen, you must use it,” he explains. “But here I can make site-specific productions because we don’t have an opera house. Which is of course bad, but it gives you a freedom to explore venues, so instead of asking people to come in and feel a bit uncomfortable – wondering whether to applaud, that kind of thing – we can go where the people are. We do things in the street, and suddenly pop up in the city’s bars and restaurants.”
Beyer adds: “I think we have a freedom to create, and that is more stimulating than with an opera house, where you just pay all the money for the bricks in the building and almost don’t have money to pay for art.”
Financing the festival, which costs around £5.5 million (50 million Norwegian krone), is only made possible through local and national public funding, which accounts for 50% of its finances, says Beyer. Yet despite this backing, making the “really expensive” work necessitates a dependency on collaborations, he adds.
At the moment, Beyer has more than 40 partners in the region, but this is not enough for him. It would be “wonderful”, he says, to bridge the gap with audiences in London, and his plans for the future involve more co-productions with British organisations.
Considering he is old friends with Royal Opera director Kasper Holten, has “good communication” with Sadler’s Wells artistic director Alistair Spalding and strong connections with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and London Sinfonietta, this is likely to be sooner rather than later.
Another aim is to launch the programme several months earlier so as to attract the growing numbers of cruise visitors.
“We have lots of cruises coming here – thousands of boats – so it would be interesting to offer a combination with perhaps the Hurtigruten boat that goes up and down the coast,” says Beyer. “There are a lot of new possibilities of meeting new audiences if you work with the travel industry.”
While BIF 2014 is almost a full year away, for the festival team it’s already all hands on deck to ensure as many new audiences as possible are making their way to the fjords of Bergen. And with Beyer at the helm, you can be sure the festival’s date will be saved in many a British diary from now on.