Smart with a Heart

Mary Nordic Edge

I was asked to speak at NORDIC EDGE : ‘The largest smart city arena in the Nordics’. The 2018 theme was Smart with a Heart. Here’s what I said….

I´d like really like to talk about eventful cities – and how you build one, where city ‘smart’ development and cultural events grow together to shape the city, its spaces and its image. And I´d like to talk particularly about smaller cities – and how they use culture to put themselves on the map.

The smart eventful city – what does that mean? It´s not just a city full of events, but a city that understands its past, its present and where it wants to be in the future and has put culture in the broadest sense at its beating heart.

It’s a city with nerve and attitude, that has an irresistible story that it wants to tell about itself. It´s not a question of imitating big cities. It´s about place-making and a sure sense that events are bringing energy, are bringing people together and helping to develop the opportunities offered by the broadest knowledge economy. It´s about turning the city into an event in itself.

It´s not about a ‘creative’ city in the Richard Florida sense – I´ve always thought that his books create a sort of Sex in the City world full of the creative classes, overrun with people who have done degrees in media studies and who are obsessed with predicting trends. No, I mean a city where there is a highly developed sense of place – where you sense a tangible buzz: something unique that you don´t feel elsewhere – a city prepared to take risks, which is excited by the unexpected.

An eventful city comes together to discuss and debate, to share space and ideas, to explore, to be curious, and to create. There are many cities renown for heritage or a beautiful environment or their wealth, or a voluble middle class. That doesn´t necessarily mean that they are eventful. The ‘heritage’ heavy city may be extremely staid and museum-like. Claustrophobic, even. I´m ashamed to say that I think of Salzburg or Bayreuth and I shudder. So, the smart, eventful city has attitude – it has a culture in the widest sense that puts culture in the specific sense at the heart of the community. It wears jeans and drinks mojitos; it dances to every culture´s tune. It feels wide open.

The cities I mean are where there is a constant sense of what I´d call cultural flow: Where the widest population is really engaged with that flow; where there is ongoing dialogue – the orchestra doesn´t just perform; it talks to its audience and the audience talks back. Its theatre company is unafraid to embrace social issues and builds productions not only with its ensemble but with kids´ participation. The opera company commissions new work and then builds it with young artists and the local prison. It is where experimental rock musicians design their own festivals, build their own instruments and collaborate across international boundaries. It´s where architects design living buildings for people, not to impress other architects; where the new and immigrant population knows that their particular cultures are respected and not diluted, and that they are integrated into city programming as much or as little as they would like them to be. I´m talking about places where no one would dream of using the words elite or integrated about art or culture because art, culture and diversity are the city´s social glue.

European Capitals of Culture were, of course, designed to offer this kind of opportunity – and in some cases they have done so with considerable success and terrific initiative. In others, matters disintegrated into dispute and chaos. Few have really managed the legacy created in a structured or honest way, principally because of lack of real leadership after the ECOC team has moved on. And sadly, few have really grasped the tremendous competence that their team accrued to build the city solidly – and adventurously – for the future.

Stavanger2008 – just to boast about ourselves – was described the following year by the evaluators appointed by the EU as ‘artistically the best ECOC ever’. We chose to focus strongly on pure culture, not on a wider urban development or capital projects. That´s not to say that there weren´t considerable issues. Inevitable, in any project with a big budget and as broad and undefined a set of criteria as that set out by the EU, there will be frictions. These tend to be predominately between the perfectly reasonable entitlement felt by local artists and the European or international element of the years´ programme.

We tried to address that by building Stavanger2008 around a broad programme based on participation, which included multi-year residencies with international companies especially chosen for their will to collaborate (theatre, dance, music theatre/opera and a radical inter-racial puppet company) who were challenged to build sustained partnerships within the community. We also had the privilege of working with the wider Rogaland region which also enabled us to work with whole rural communities on major events in landscape involving artists from all over the world, local artists, the community and its children.

Other ECOCs have concentrated on capital projects, or regeneration, or on developing tourism. I used to think that if I heard the term ‘bed nights’ once more at an ECOC related meeting that I might stand up and shout REMEMBER CULTURE? (Actually, I think I once did).

I would argue that a smart city must have a cultural habit of looking outwards, of being curious and of constantly looking at the outside world. It must search for ways to attract new cultural resources and practices to build on what it already has.  Every commune designs a cultural policy – and if I can risk being politically incorrect (nothing new), despite the usual wide consultations, they all stay resolutely safe. Compromise rarely results in long-term positive dynamic growth.

I´d really like to see clear policies that support entrepreneurism, that insist on collaboration both within the city and far beyond and that, particularly, propose a broad plan for talent development. I don´t mean competitions, or specific awards for those already identified as future stars. The commercial sector already has that covered – for instance, Equinor – ex-Statoil – has its Rising Stars awards for brilliant young musicians. I mean that built into every Kommune and Fylke´s funding for culture organisations there should be a ring-fenced amount for the structured development and participation of young artists and makers, including their development in the digital world. This policy would emphasise the need to develop fresh ideas and how to realise them. If we don´t identify and train our talents and nurture potential – not just performers, but producers, arts leaders and teachers and culture managers – we will not develop the beating heart of our cities or make them eventful.

So what are these events which underpin the vibrant smart city? What is the balance between festivals, parades, special events and the ‘normal’ August to June cultural season? For leaders and city-makers, there has to be a consensus about programming – that is, balancing what you know the audience wants with innovation and real adventure. For the city there must be a plan which nurtures venues and creates new spaces indoors and out for all kinds of expression, with a clear and sustainable strategy for digital resources.

First, there are the city´s standard existing organisations. It is not enough for the theatre company or orchestra or university arts department just to produce a user-friendly season and to sit in its venue expecting people to walk through the door. The city with nerve and attitude never patronises its people. It develops trust between its key culture institutions and their audiences – I say audiences plural, because no smart performing arts institution has just one audience. So those organisations must always lead by offering a truly visionary mix: classic work, established and emerging artists, performances – and online platforms – presented in way that dares to provoke real discussion, and lots of new, surprising work which will create its own momentum. There must be opportunities for participation, talent development and engagement with youth. Note that I say ‘with youth’ not just ‘for’.

It´s inevitable that I mention opera given my present position, but I do believe that opera companies have an amazing opportunity to engage with the city. At Bergen National Opera we´ve expanded way beyond the main stage where we have fiercely enlarged the theatricality and visual excitement of our repertoire and expanded its audience. We´re into all kinds of collaborations with communities, hotels, chefs, video-makers, craft-makers, prisons – where certain inmates became our interns. We´ve just commissioned a young composer whose day job is writing music for gaming. We´ve formed all kinds of international partnerships which keep us on our toes in terms of design, theatricality and the kind of artists who have astounding voices but also great communication skills.

Festivals: eventful cities thrive on festivals, especially if they are positioned strategically across the year. Festivals offer fantastic opportunities for both the large city audience – for world music and rock – but also for visitors (back to bed nights….) and for niche audiences: say, for street art, experimental music, slam poetry or art film. Smart festivals offer a particular opportunity for international guests to collaborate with locals, stimulating projects which could not happen without that synergy, driving cross-border dialogue bringing new ideas, energy and confidence. Festivals also can be important to city branding. Edinburgh named itself ‘the city of festivals’ and created an excellent and effective umbrella organisation, embracing the international, fringe, science, children’s and books festivals along with the New Year fest, Edinburgh´s Hogmanay – Edinburgh Festivals – which in effect sells the city as a multi-entertainment smart destination. This ‘festivalisation’ of a city can contribute enormously to the eventfulness of the city so long as it is well-managed and kept free of clashes of identities, dates and funding. More easily said than done, but in the case of Edinburgh, strong leadership from the resolute founding chief of the Festivals Association kept the peace in a city not known for its social harmony. In Austin, Texas, however, there has been considerable resistance to cultural life being elevated to the mainstream and as such professionalised. Their branding proclaimed Keep Austin Weird! If I´m honest, as a Scot, I sometimes wish that proud, polite Edinburgh could be just a little bit more weird too.

Well-planned one-off events are also special opportunities for the eventful city to experience something spectacular, and also to gain kudos and visibility. The city of ´s-Hertogenbosch – home to the great artist Hieronymus Bosch – put itself on the map by planning an amazing art restoration event around his anniversary, which then connected a little- known city to global networks.

Don´t forget the massive potential of cross-media events – food and opera; literature and visual art; jazz and fashion – combining differing tastes and publics, building creative clashes and subversive dialogue.

I´m not going to talk about the print or digital media, because that is a three-day subject in itself – but a city that has a media culture of knowledgable opinion and honest interest in the city´s position in relation to the nation and wider world has a huge advantage over one where attention is focused on mud-slinging and celebrities’ backsides. (Pace Kim Kardashian.)

In Bergen, we are much preoccupied with new culture buildings. In recent years, few things have caused more conflict – instead of bringing people together, the plans have driven organisations apart. The discussion right now is premised on bricks and windows and vehicle access.

But a smart, eventful city must have living buildings which help to bring together the diverse needs of those who make and consume culture in the city; buildings which bring civic pride and a genuine city-wide sense of ownership; buildings which gather citizens, making them know that they make an essential contribution to a vibrant spirit and sense of place.

A smart city building is not about any individual or company´s ego or an architect´s kudos, but about creating a living hub for the city. That hub needs community spaces, education resources, cafes, casual meeting spaces. It needs to welcome everyone from singing kids to sceptical politicians, from feisty grandmothers to introvert singles. It has to underpin the way we want to live in the future.

All this needs leadership: brave, long-sighted, honest, imaginative leadership that has both thick and thin skin. Thick skin to stick to the long game of being smart and eventful, with thin-skin enough always to listen and to react with sensitivity. And, smart cities need leadership that builds teams that trust each other, share passion, and believe in the place that they are helping to make.

They also need gatherings like this one, Nordic Edge: forums to share ideas, to talk shop and to dream. I´d say the last of those three is the most important one. Let´s all keep dreaming. It will keep us smart.

Mary Miller

Photo: With co-speaker at Nordic Edge, Bent Sørensen, director for Aarhus 2017, European Capital of Culture


Future sounds from Bergen

Oslo, minus several degrees, the landscape monochrome with luminous streaky skies. Bergen National Opera is in the capital at Operaen with a fine mix of nationalities and three Nordic composers to develop new operas for premiere in March.

This morning we slither over hard-packed ice to the rehearsal room to work on Øyvind Mæland´s new opera – one of three short works which Bergen National Opera has commissioned for Borealis Festival. The violinist is missing, the bass player is deep in discussion with conductor Steffen Kammler, and the singers are practising small swooping sounds and spitting consonants. Øyvind´s little opera is about tiny emotions – twitchy moments of apprehension, compassion, embarrassment – and the music is lucid, varied, and wonderfully eccentric.

Yesterday, Rebecka Sofia Ahvenniemi´s opera – a ‘trailer’ involving Beyoncé and female power – provoked fierce conversation. Ahvenniemi herself, an animated elf of fizzing energy, has a way with words: “Guitar” she says “you have an important role in creating confusion at this point.” The guitarist plucks with enthusiasm. Rebecka´s music here is full of collisions. Baroque vocal lines underline splintering string sounds, and Beyoncé song quotes croon over Straussian harmony. “Let´s go into this late-Romantic porridge a little earlier” she says briskly, adjusting her score.

In the canteen, singers from Operaen´s in-process production of Bellini´s Norma – the director is upcoming young Norwegian star – are noisily at lunch. A large baritone in fur, cape, Tolkien-like garb, is munching salad and barking on his phone. Long straggly hair, large boots and facial hair abound, along with Hollywood blondes and some startling make-up. Meanwhile the ballet corps are fiddling with their feet and giggling – other than a tiny ballerina who is crying quietly in the corner. Our guest BNO director, Sjaron Minailo, is wrangling cheerfully with dramaturg Gaea Schoeters. “How can you ask the composers about their ‘point of urgency’” says Gaea, rolling her eyes “it´s such a nineties question”. Sjaron mimes indignation “Really? Well how do we put it for our new cool age? Where´s the edge? I want to know their critical message.”

He had asked this of all of the writers at yesterday´s session. Our third composer, the quiet, thoughtful Lars Skoglund, had talked about how his opera – which takes place in a library where three people, an awkward triangle, converse in fractured whispers – reflected his fascination about how conversations chose words in a space where texts line the walls. Rebecka had talked about female assertiveness – a line in her opera talks about Beyoncé wanting to ‘wear a suit, go to meetings’. Our only male singer present, Halvor Melien, a proud recent attendee at a Beyoncé concert, spoke up fiercely ‘What! I don´t recognise the male sexuality you´re talking about!’ and we hastily moved on to how new violin bowing might produce white noise, and how to scream elegantly “without sounding like a horse” says Halvor helpfully, recovering tranquillity.

On Day Two, Annelies Van Parys – award-winning Belgian composer whose Private View Bergen National Opera co-produced with seven European partners in 2016/17 and is now with us here as a mentor – is discussing microphone techniques with singers Elisabeth Holmertz  and Lore Lixenberg, Lars Skoglund is handing out revisions and Øyvind Mæland is doubling as rehearsal pianist. Ahvenniemi is in the canteen writing furiously.

Exciting times – to have three new works in development, each one brilliantly individual in its sound world, each one topical, each one visually distinctive, is remarkable. Don´t let´s worry about our future opera. It´s all in good hands.

Mary Miller

January 9, 2018

Il turco in Norwegia


“Wow” says Pietro Spagnoli, great Rossinian buffo baritone “we´re talking Rossini to Broadway!”

At Bergen National Opera, everyone is breathless from high kicks, razzle-dazzle, fancy moves and footwork. The dancers are sweating lightly, stretching their lycra-clad legs and fiddling with their feet. The chorus is gasping quietly and practising jerky movements as though searching for a wasp lost in their clothing – dance director Sean Curran´s routines are not, for sure, in their usual repertoire. The soloists are beaming and chattering in Italian by the coffee machine.

Welcome to Il Turco in Italia directed by American opera supremo Mark Lamos – a riotous combination of highly sophisticated ensemble, fabulous arias, touching moments and carefully choreographed mayhem.

Mark, along with designer George Souglides, last illuminated BNO in 2014 with Rimsky-Korsakov´s The Golden Cockerel – a Norwegian premiere which put Russian opera firmly on the Bergen map – and which created pictures never to be erased from memory: a golden cage shimmering above the stage with a jittering boy/bird as the eponymous cockerel; a wicked Eastern queen in a dazzling scarlet feather coat singing seductive lines to bewitch a foolish, doddering Tsar; a blasted landscape under a blood-red moon with ruined trees and a scattered, broken army. Unforgettable.

But Turco! It couldn´t be more different. Now, listen carefully – like most Italian opera, the plot is tortuous. We are at the seaside – maybe even in Pesaro, Rossini´s eccentric, enchanting home town. A poet, Prosdocimo, is looking for a story for his next libretto and in front of him, an interesting tale begins to unfold. Old Geronio (Spagnoli´s role) has a tiresomely flirtatious young wife Fiorilla, a girl troubled by a voracious need for male attention, preferably not from her husband. A Turkish ship sails in captained by the glamorous Selim – do not look to this opera for political correctness – and Fiorilla wastes no time. Meanwhile, Selim´s old girlfriend and a pack of gypsies are in hot pursuit. In the end, after a domestic ruction, a masked ball, a critical letter, it all resolves… How? You will just have to wait and see.

Meanwhile, upstairs on Grieghallen´s third floor, a mix of Hungarian, Norwegian and German costume makers are draping bling onto delighted extra cast members. The clothes are outrageous, all froth, silk turbans, shocking pink trousers and bosomy dresses. There are harlequins in primary colours and pom-poms, crazy hats, and skirts the size of Victorian overmantels.

Along the corridor, Øystein is working with his puppets, little gesturing, weaving miniatures of the principal characters, clad in matching extravagant silks. Little Fiorilla is learning to stretch her wooden hand to slap mini Geronio. He is organising his dangling feet to swerve smartly away.

But right now, we have a half hour break. Spagnoli has taken his dog for a walk – he never travels without her – and our office has adopted her with somewhat soppy adoration. The dancers are outside smoking, and Fiorilla, Spanish soprano Sylvia Schwartz is on the phone to Rome, to her children´s nanny.

Mark is composing an email to the Metropolitan Opera, New York – they´ll revive one of his Verdi productions next year – and we are trying to catch our breath. We´ve just had cake for Mark´s birthday, and the sugar high compounds the atmosphere of overall exhilaration. In ten minutes, Rossini will swirl gloriously back on stage, the music will bewitch us and our toes will start to tap.

Broadway, Pesaro, Italy, Bergen – here we come, with the Norwegian premiere of an opera like no other. Bring your dancing shoes – isn´t that what the aisles are for? – and settle in for a night on the town, at the seaside, in the company of our cast of sparkling stars.

Mary Miller


The European Cultural Parliament meets in Pristina: politics, art, equality, strong coffee and opera


Arriving in Pristina for the annual European Cultural Parliament meeting, we gather in the gleaming new airport foyer, all glass and marble, and so squeaky clean that one daren´t finger a surface. The airline magazine has already pointed out two unmissable Kosovan experiences: Pristina´s exciting nightlife and excellent morning coffee. These may, we feel, be related.

Driving into the city, a less upbeat scene is immediately apparent. Around the new airport are grim reminders of the old war airbase. Concrete bunkers and half demolished walls squat under barbed wire. Derelict vehicles lurk in lurching doorways. But the countryside is beautiful. Gentle hills, greenery, red roofs, verdant fields of vegetables. On into the city – we wave in passing at the cheery statue of Bill Clinton (Kosovo still loves the US for its unflinching support for its independence) – then pull up at the sumptuous Swiss Diamond Hotel where a flurry of flunkeys rushes to assist. ”Why is it, in these damnable conflicted Balkan countries, that there are always these ridiculous hostelries funded by the Swiss” mutters an elderly Austrian philosopher.

The coffee is indeed excellent. We walk past a half-built Roman Catholic church which looks untouched for several years, past the bizarre national library which appears to have been designed to replicate some strange tangled triffid, past innumerable posters of (Albanian) Mother Theresa, to the national museum filled with a mix of vibrant contemporary art and installations. A posse of disturbingly handsome political minders slide into the room, flanking the minister of culture Memli Krasniqi who talks passionately about culture and quality, and how fundamental both are to the growth of an emerging nation. Krasniqi will remain part of proceedings all weekend, an impressive and articulate contributor.

Dinner, then vague talk about the unmissable Pristina nightlife. All at our table are too tired. An early start tomorrow demands clear heads to listen to Kosovo´s prime minister, debate issues around new nation branding, the rise of neo-popularism, and to explore the peculiarities of artists´ knowledge which can bring insight to the business world.

So next morning, we arrive under the stares of even more sultry-eyed minders attending the arrival of the prime minister, culture minister and deputy foreign minister. The PM Hashim Thaci is formidable – the man credited above all others with the liberation of his country; there are probably about 17 different Kosovan/Albanian/Serbian versions of this story, which we will hear over the next three days – but his speech is formulaic and low on charm. Deputy PM Petrit Selimi is another matter entirely. Selimi studied in Oslo thanks to Thorvald Stoltenberg, who heard Selimi speak as a teenager at an international seminar. His speech is fast, tricky, funny and super-bright to point of being slightly dangerous. The PM´s body language, on hearing this torrent of virtuosity, is telling. That the European Cultural Parliament is in Pristina at all means a great deal; it´s a solid affirmation of Kosovo´s European aspirations. So Thaci clearly wants us to be impressed – but his squirming shoulders perhaps recognises that this young protégé needs ’supervision’.

The minders and the minded leave, and we listen to some bureaucratic noise about new nations and Europe, then some formidable interventions from various boisterous Central European members. The culture minister talks to me about how he wants to develop Kosovan opera – certainly they have the singers – two terrific tenors already are ’hot’ globally, Saimir Pirgu and Rame Lahaj – a good young orchestra and a choir of 50. But no venue. We talk about site specific work – the pros and cons. I say ’just do it’.

The day proceeds. So many ideas, so much talking. So much misery over new populism: Farage in the UK, Le Pen in France, Islamophobia in Denmark. At the National Library, we are to explore the artistic psyche: the session is called ’What artists know that others don’t’. We hear propositions from Ireland and Sweden before a mad intervention by Slovenian violinist Miha Pogavich who plays Bach while scribbling on a flip-chart (this is to explain the building and release of emotional tension). Pogavich sits next to me on the bus en route to dinner. It turns out that he knows Bergen, is a friend of Steiner School´s music director Magne Skrede with whom he shared a project some decades ago in Africa. He insists on borrowing my phone to call him, and I listen, incredulous, as Magne – ever gentlemanly – attempts not to sound bewildered at this sudden, untimely late night ear-bash.

So, shall we explore the exciting Pristina night-life? Um, no. But some report next morning that they did find a bar with local raki – but no sign of gleeful Kosovan revellers.

As well perhaps, for Ambassador Pär Stenbäck now leads a formidable session on the Ukrainian situation and its implications for Europe, shared with the Ukranian academic, Kateryna Botanova. It is intense, with several interventions from Russian ECP members asking that ordinary Russian citizens not be demonised. The brutality of the conflict is not glossed over: feelings are acute and solutions few.

Then, I have the inappropriately timed task of leading a debate on The Role of Culture in Gender Inequality. My French feminist colleague, Blandine Pélissier, who I know has prepared a vituperative paper on mispractice in theatre, shrugs and says ’after such a politically sensitive session, this issue is suddenly not important’.

We try to keep the discussion within a men/women frame – despite some vociferous interruption from gay activist singer/festival director Emilio Pons. We argue that GLBT are not victims of discrimination working in the artistic milieu. Quoting Gina Krogh´s 1875 speech, I urge concentration on the different qualities that both sexes can offer. Eliza Hoxha, Kosovan architect and singer, talks brilliantly. Lunch. Pristina-strength coffee. Heads are spinning. More about Kosovo´s opera aspirations from the culture minister. Maybe we send a Bergen task force?

Three of us absent ourselves from the afternoon session to explore a unique local monastery from the 14thC where we battle with an elderly whiskery nun for permission to enter; then a visit to the charming ethnology museum. Terrific dinner with spicy Balkan food. No-one reports exciting local night-life except for a few hardy Belgian raki raiders who turn up late next morning.

On Sunday we write resolutions for the EU on behalf of the Parliament, and start to trickle back to the airport. At the departure gate cafe, a young girl with pale shadows below her eyes and slightly shaking hands serves us odd sloppy cake and fine coffee – perhaps at last we´ve found an expert in Pristina´s exciting nightlife. It just doesn´t seem the moment to ask…

Mary Miller

13 October 2014