The Edinburgh International Festival has begun. The festival runs August 4–27, concurrently to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Both festivals are an annual tradition in Scotland—the International Festival was founded in 1947, and the Fringe was also founded in the same year as an offshoot to the International Festival. This year's International program includes a mix of classical music, opera, dance, and theatre.
This is also the first festival programmed by Nicola Benedetti, a famed violinist. Benedetti is breaking numerous grounds with her appointment: She is the first woman the lead the festival and she is also the first Scot to do so (the Festival itself, although based in Scotland, was actually founded by Austrian opera director Sir Rudolf Bing). Benedetti's first program encompasses 295 separate events featuring artists from across 48 nations.
When asked how she managed to program such a diverse array of artists, Benedetti responds, "I have to trust the people that I work with," saying there's an entire programming department at the festival, with different heads whose job it is to scope out work in their disciplines. Benedetti listens to their recommendations and to buzz she's hearing in the field, and she welcomes their input. "I'm a little bit skeptical of this absolute impresario sort of, 'my view of a particular thing is the view,'" she explains. "Unless you were to watch 400 performances a year, we're all in the position of recommendations of some degree."
Benedetti is not watching 400 performances a year because she is still a working violinist—she has received two British royal honors for her work in classical music and she is also a Grammy Award winner. And on August 6, Benedetti will play a special concert with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra to explore the future of classical music.
The team at the International Festival have programmed a diverse array of work. The highlights of this year's festival (in the theatre and opera categories) include:
- Two new dance pieces from New York's very own Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, including one piece featuring Scottish dancers alongside the American company.
- A production of The Threepenny Opera from Germany's The Berliner Ensemble, founded by Bertolt Brecht himself, with Australian director Barrie Kosky.
- The opera Dusk, from Brazilian film and theatre director Christiane Jatahy, based on Lars Von Trier’s Dogville.
- A new production of Pina Bausch’s acclaimed choreography of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, with a cast of over 30 dancers from 14 African countries.
- Two immersive experiences. The Lost Lending Library, an immersive show for young audiences ages 6 to 11, from Punchdrunk Enrichment. And Geoff Sobelle's Food, where audiences gather around for a dinner party (Sobelle was previously part of both the Fringe and then the International Festival).
- Thrown, a new play by Glasgow-based writer Nat McCleary, about the Highland Games, a Scottish tradition of backhold wrestling. It's being programmed at the Traverse, which is also a venue for the Fringe, showing the cross-pollination that happens between the two events.
- A version of Euripides’ Trojan Women from Korean director Ong Keng Sen and Parasite film score composer Jung Jae-il.
This diversity in terms of countries represented was particularly important to Benedetti, who chose the theme for this year's festival: Where Do We Go From Here? It was inspired by a speech, and subsequent book, by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Benedetti took three main threads from King's work as the tentpoles for this year's Festival: community over chaos, hope in the face of adversity, and a perspective that’s not one’s own.
Though King proposed legislative ideas to foster racial justice, such as a universal basic income, "the thing that interests me is what changes internally," Benedetti explains. "That entire book, being the last one that he ever wrote, dealt precisely with that. What actually is possible once you're told you're not allowed to do this? Or you are allowed to do that? What's inside you, in the parts that are almost impossible to legislate, what is possible to change in that regard?"
Benedetti explains that it's a theme chosen because of today's current climate, where: "Post COVID, mixed with Brexit, mixed with the Ukraine war, mixed with pressures on climate, mixed with rising inflation and cost of living....You compound all of these things together. And the place and necessity and worth of the arts—it has to question itself more seriously than ever."
The U.K. has started cutting funding from its arts institutions, while audience attendance to live arts in the U.K. have slowed down. Meanwhile, there have been criticisms about how the arts are now unaffordable—both from the audience perspective, and from the artists participating.
So in the face of that reality, Benedetti is hoping for a more inclusive International Festival that brings audiences in and fosters conversation. This year, the Festival's ticket rush program has been expanded: Every day, people can receive £10 tickets to that day's performance, provided it hasn't been sold out. The program is geared towards low-income benefit recipients, students, young people under 26, arts workers, and disabled people.
The International Festival is also hosting regular discussions with artists in the afternoon, and encouraging artist participation. Benedetti lays out her goals for this year's festival clearly: "To go deeper into communities, provide a platform of absolutely uncompromising aspiration for the young people of Scotland and showing a pathway to the greatest of what the world has to offer within the arts, to protect and celebrate the deepest experience that people can have—that they can have a life-changing moment, in a concert hall or a theatre. But always uncompromisingly reach as many people as we possibly can."
And as for the greater theme of change and how to create it, Benedetti doesn't have any answers—though she has been publicly vocal about the cut to arts funding and the need for the arts to be more accessible to young people. But there is a need for change, and that is a mandate that Benedetti isn't just giving to the institution she leads, but to all arts institutions: "We have to always look at ourselves and look at, what can we do that's different? And what can we do that makes a more positive impact?"
She then adds: "I think that if there is ever a place where change is possible, to inspire that in people, surely it should be an arts festival."