Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

A Great Operatunity

With the Wales Millennium Centre just months from opening, its chief executive Judith Isherwood tells Mario Basini why the venue is the envy of its ri

This item first appeared in the `Western Mail'

WHEN the history of the Wales Millennium Centre comes to be written, a short taxi ride in driving December rain could prove to have been a vital part of its journey to success. The trip along Lloyd George Avenue into the heart of Cardiff Bay culminated in a spectacular view of the unfinished building, as its bulk blocked out the horizon.

It was Judith Isherwood's first view of the centre she would soon be managing. Until that moment she had been distinctly unimpressed by the Welsh capital. Having left a blazing Sydney at the height of summer a day or two earlier, the Australian arts administrator had arrived in a rainswept Cardiff via a "not particularly welcoming railway station". She found herself thinking, "This is the end of the earth".

As she rode in the taxi taking her to her interview for the job of the centre's chief executive she expected the building to be "another small venue for a small country".

"But it was much bigger than I imagined. Then I was impressed by the centre's setting next to water. I learned about its part in the regeneration of the docklands and the proximity of the new Assembly building. And there was its juxtaposition with the Millennium Stadium which was already world-renowned. As I added it all up I thought, 'This is very interesting and I want to be a part of it.'"

Now after 14 months in the chief executive's chair the 43-year-old is preparing for the biggest challenge of a successful career which has included a key role in the administration of one of the world's best-known arts buildings, the Sydney Opera House.

She is counting down the days to the spectacular opening of the centre on November 26 - a weekend of musical events, personal appearances, a Royal Gala and appreciations of the Welsh culture she has come to know and admire in her brief time in Wales.

She has already put into place a first year programme which will include a mouth-watering season from the Welsh National Opera, an appearance by the world famous Kirov Ballet and a large-scale musical staged by the powerful West End impresario, Sir Cameron Macintosh.

The first production at the centre will be Cirque Eloize, a modern Canadian development of the traditional circus which is free of animals and emphasises a combination of dance and acrobatics. It draws heavily on the Chinese circus traditions. Canada has given it a home, opening schools to train performers.

Cirque Eloize has already proved its drawing power with seasons at venues such as the Sydney Opera House. In her previous job with the Sydney Opera House, Judith Isherwood booked it into a theatre which for 25 years had staged only ballet and opera. It not only "sold out in a second", but 52% of those who came to see it had not previously been to the Opera House.

Tickets for the first productions at the Wales Millennium Centre have already gone on sale to the public. But those who wish to attend that opening weekend with its 60 hours of entertainment will have to take part in a public ballot for the privilege.

Enthusiasts will have to wait until 2006 for what could prove to be the highlight of the centre's opening seasons, Bryn Terfel's first appearance in a WNO opera there. "That will be a highly symbolic moment," says Judith Isherwood. "People will want to travel from all over the world to watch him in his own country, on his own stage, singing with the WNO."

The famous bass-baritone has become the centre's best-known and most passionate supporter. He believes it will be fundamental in promoting Welsh musical talent and in boosting the careers of singers like himself, baritone Jason Howard and tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones, all of whom enjoy international reputations. Bryn Terfel will be singing and acting as the creative producer of the centre's opening weekend.

He has already described the centre's 1,900 seat Lyric Theatre as one of the most intimate theatres he has come across despite its size. "After he first stood on that stage he said he felt he could reach out and touch the farthest seat in the upper circle," explains Isherwood.

And he is playing a leading role in promoting the centre's merits to the world. In April, the great Welsh singer appeared in a recital at Carnegie Hall, New York designed to create links between the Cardiff venue, the music loving public of the United States and the North American impresarios in search of a working relationship with the centre.

Even before it has opened its doors, the centre has established itself as one of a handful of world venues able to attract the very best talents in musical genres as diverse as opera, ballet and popular musicals.

Isherwood believes that the Wales Millennium Centre has an advantage which makes it the envy of its rivals such as the Sydney Opera House. The Cardiff venue will be headquarters for a series of major Welsh organisations, ranging from the WNO and the Urdd Gobaith Cymru to Academi, which represents Welsh writers, and drama and dance companies.

That means the Welsh centre will have its roots firmly embedded in the surrounding community and culture. It is something other major venues around the world are desperate to emulate.

"Unless these big international centres are well-rooted in their local communities then there is nothing unique about them. That is why they strive for closer links with the society that surrounds them. I know the Sydney Opera House is constantly debating how it can relate to its local culture.

"The local culture has been built into the Wales Millennium Centre because of its residential companies. That is what I love about it. If the residential companies had not been there, if this had been just another big venue with a big theatre, restaurants and shops, I would probably not have been interested."

And there is another advantage the residential companies give the Cardiff venue. Among the most worrying concerns of the world's major arts centres is how to develop its audience and persuade the next generation of fans to come through their doors.

"Every major venue in the world bar none has the problem of audience development," says Isherwood. "How do you get the next generation to develop an interest in the performing arts?"

But making the Wales Millennium Centre the headquarters of the Urdd youth movement will mean that up to 10,000 young Welsh people will be based in the Centre during the year. And since one in four Urdd eisteddfods will be held in the centre, many of them will have had experience of appearing on its stage.

"They will have developed a relationship with the building and feel comfortable within its walls. That means the centre will have already jumped the biggest hurdle of persuading young people to come through its doors. It makes us the envy of the other centres."

Judith Isherwood was born in Melbourne. Her father was a civil servant who at 45 abandoned the security of his job, took his family into the bush and began what turned out to be a highly successful building business. Her mother came from Tasmania. There may well have been Welsh blood in her father's side of the family.

After university her first choice of career was journalism. She hated it. "I remember they sent me off to court to cover a case. I wrote what I thought was a fantastic piece because I really tried to be creative. They said, 'That's no good. You just don't do that. You have to stick to the facts.' It was not for me."

Instead she turned to her experience working backstage for her university dramatics society as the pointer to a career. She took a technical course at Australia's National Institute for Dramatic Arts. She was the general manager of the Melbourne Fringe Festival before becoming director of the performing arts and later acting chief executive of the Sydney Opera House.

She learned the value of good arts administration early in her career when she moved to Perth, the capital of Western Australia, to work for a company which ran opera and ballet. The provision of decent arts facilities was particularly important in a city she describes as "the world's most isolated capital".

The company soon went bankrupt because of the poor management. Twenty-five years later the city still lacks decent local arts companies.

Having worked in Wales for 14 months, she recognises that it is an "exceptionally cultural country, much more so than Australia. Australians love outdoor sports so much it is really hard to convince them to go into a theatre."

She envies those Welsh children used to performing at events such as the annual Urdd Eisteddfod. "They are so comfortable on stage. I wish I had had that when I was young."

The example of the Sydney Opera House shows how much a big arts centre can boost a nation's confidence and self-image. "Before the Sydney Opera House was built Australia had no big theatres. And the Australians did not value anything culturally. So anybody with a tad of talent had to go overseas. Building the opera house changed all that.

"It was as much about giving the Australians a symbolic message about themselves as it was about building a first class arts venue."

She estimates the Wales Millennium Centre will need to sell around 400,000 seats a year to make it work as a business. Filling those seats with audiences from outside Wales would, she says, not be a problem. "But our view is that it is very important to ensure a good proportion of our audiences come from within Wales, not just from South Wales but from the whole of Wales."

What makes that task several times more difficult is the problem of transport. Getting people from all over Wales into Cardiff, or even getting people from the rest of Cardiff down to the Bay is, she says, the problem most likely to keep her awake at nights.

Travelling by car or coach from North Wales takes a minimum of four hours if you keep within the speed limit, she says, twice as long as the journey from London to Cardiff. She has been talking to the National Assembly about improving the road and rail access to Cardiff. She has also been discussing promotional campaigns and packages with Arriva Trains.

There will be other ways for the Welsh public to prove their commitment to the centre apart from buying tickets for its performances. The centre still needs to raise 3m to pay for its imposing new building.

By contributing the money needed to wipe out that debt, the Welsh will be able to create a link of pride and commitment between themselves and the building that promises to be the glittering jewel in their cultural crown.

author:Mario Bassini

original source: The Western Mail
12 June 2004


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