He’s been named the “most influential figure in Scottish cultural life”, the creative maestro who transformed the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF). But when asked how it feels to direct such a mammoth event, Fergus Linehan’s response is modest, and very much to the point: “It’s terrifying,” he says, laughing. “Bloody terrifying.”
I caught up with Linehan prior to the launch of the festival, just as the city was being swathed in canary yellow banners emblazoned with the message ‘Welcome, world’.
This year marked Linehan’s second EIF since he was appointed as its artistic director three years ago. He earned widespread plaudits for his debut festival in 2015, especially for incorporating contemporary music acts in his line-up and introducing a visual element to the festival. The spectacular Harmonium Project curtain-raiser saw 19,000 people converge outside the Usher Hall for a sumptuous sound and light show. Yet despite last year’s success, the 46-year-old Irishman described the task of pulling off a dazzling repeat performance as “nerve-wracking”.
“It’s what’s known in music industry parlance as the difficult second album,” he explained. “The feedback from last year’s festival was amazing – and I was more relieved than anything. But now the pressure is on to match last year’s festival, and that’s a terrifying thought.
“I get really nervous, of course I do. And you have to watch you don’t burn yourself out. On the one hand it’s like a huge party and there are people to host. But you have to be careful not to push it too hard because it’s a long month to get through. It’s nuts; all your friends and colleagues are urging you to go out to the pub. I learned last year that it’s probably best to have the occasional early night…because I went out on the town a bit too much and, ooft, I was tired.”
As it turned out Linehan needn’t have worried; post-festival figures revealed a record-breaking year for the event, generating £4 million in ticket sales. The line-up featured star turns from Hollywood actor Alan Cumming, Australian entertainer Barry Humphries, world music star Youssou N’Dour, Scots Mercury Prize winners Young Fathers and French circus performer James Thierre – Charlie Chaplin’s grandson. And a 27,000-strong crowd attended the opening event, Deep Time, which saw Edinburgh Castle lit up in a 3D light show to a soundtrack by Glasgow rock band Mogwai.
While Linehan dismisses the idea that he has transformed the Edinburgh International Festival, he does concede that by introducing a broader variety of acts, the event has attracted a wider audience.
“I wouldn’t say we’ve transformed the festival,” he said. “We have broadened it, perhaps. But at its core is the highest level of quality – that’s what it is all about. We’re always conscious of where we sit in terms of the whole ecosystem of the festival – and part of the attraction of Edinburgh is that you have everything from high school kids performing a musical to a recital by the greatest pianist in the world. We want to keep that scope and level of quality, but at the same time we’re conscious of broadening what we do while speaking to a larger audience.
“Classical music is what we do at EIF and it’s important in the overall offering that you have the most virtuosic performances in the world. Throughout history classical music has been at the core of EIF, but people’s tastes have become really diverse. Just because someone likes a Mozart symphony, it doesn’t mean that’s all they like. Because of Spotify and the like people listen to music differently nowadays – it’s more immediate, so it’s important to reflect that.”
Naturally, forward planning is essential in order to secure the best acts; even before this year’s extravaganza got underway Linehan was busy working on line-up schedules for as far ahead as 2019.
“In terms of when to approach performers it very much depends on which area of the programme you’re focusing on,” he said. “For example, opera planning has to be done way in advance. At the moment we’re in the process of approaching companies we’d like to book for as far ahead as our 2019 programme. At the same time, we’re also beginning to look for popular music acts for next year. And the very last thing we do is cast the theatre. We have to be ready to launch everything in March.”
He added: “How we go about finding performers is quite varied. We keep a longlist of people who we’d like to approach, and we keep in contact with a very long list of arts people, but sometimes we’ll spot something when we’re travelling around – something so amazing that we have to snap it up then and there. Other acts are dictated by the venue and this is something we have to bear in mind. The Playhouse, for instance, has 3,000 seats, so you need the kind of show that will work in a huge theatre. And sometimes it depends on money, or whether the act in question has a big following in Edinburgh…there are so many things to consider.”
When it comes to programming festivals Linehan has a wealth of experience. He was director of the Dublin theatre Festival at 29, before going to Australia to run the Sydney festival, then moving to the Sydney Opera House as head of music.
But Dublin-born Linehan’s love for EIF is palpable; he speaks passionately about the city that has now become his home.
“I love it,” he said. “Edinburgh is an amazing place to live – and a wonderful city for hosting an international festival – it’s small and beautiful. Conversely, if you look at Sydney – another great city but also a five -million-person city – it can be really hard to get a festival atmosphere going there. The biggest killer, the thing no festival organiser wants to hear, is when people living in the city say, ‘I didn’t know there was a festival going on’. Fortunately, this isn’t an issue in Edinburgh -you just concentrate on the work and the shows and the rest takes care of itself.
“I’ve done a lot of festivals but I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The Edinburgh International Festival is about going to shows, but it’s also about the entertainment industry. The entire entertainment industry comes into town – it’s like the industry’s annual convention, attracting people from all over the world: festival directors, ministers and people from art centres to name but a few.”
When asked to name his favourite festival, one that has inspired his own work, Linehan enthusiastically rattles off a list of worldwide cultural events. For classical music, the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland is “beautiful”, he said, then added: “For popular music it has to be Sonar in Barcelona. I also love all the big fiestas in Spain – they’re very inspirational. For dance I love Montpellier, for opera Provence and Avignon for theatre. If I could just sit down in the south of France for a while and work on those festivals…well, that would be nice.”
But for the moment, Linehan’s focussing on August 2017, which marks EIF’s 70th birthday. He said he wasn’t yet in a position to reveal the line-up, but he does have a wish-list.
“Ah, the list is long,” he said, “I would love to have an actor like Mark Rylance – and classical singers such as Joyce DiDonato and Jonus Kaufmann…oh, and Tom Waits, he’d be good.
“It’s not just about budget; it’s also about persuasion and none of this is impossible. It’s an attractive ask – people love coming to Edinburgh to perform.”
Well, if anyone can pull it off, it seems Fergus Linehan can.