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


Knit your own opera


Downstairs in the basement rehearsal room, sumptuous Wagnerian sounds are drifting into the hallway. Bergen National Opera is rehearsing a new The Flying Dutchman production. Senta is staring enraptured at the Dutchman´s portrait. Daland is greedily fingering a sack of jewels. Director John Ramster, glasses deep in his spiky hair, is brooding over the score. And almost everyone has a cold.

One floor up, tubas and trombones crowd the corridors, shiny-buttoned uniforms abound and band-masters are talking importantly into mobile phones about flugelhorn solos and how the band from Odda had just robbed them of third place in the mid-junior league. February, don´t forget, means the NMS National Championships, when Bergen swells with chest-busting brassy pride and the streets around Grieghallen bristle with the curious self-importance of navy suits and peaked caps.

But on the third floor, a gentle rhythmic clicking floats from the doors as though some dreamy animal is tapping its teeth. Outside on a long rail, hang dresses for the Dutchman chorus – the sort of between-the-wars rather fetching tea dresses with nipped-in waists, covered buttons over the bosom and swirly skirts. Such dresses need cardigans, and the BNO staff knitters are busy. They seem to be everywhere. In the wardrobe room, our costume chief is pulling a fluff of blue wool from a satchel. In Artistic Administration, there´s a shawl in process. I go, a little bewildered, into the communications office, to enquire… and Ida Marie, temporary assistant, whips a half-jumper from her bag. BNO, it must be said, has a staff team with initiative… and a chorus who now won´t catch a chill.

Dutchman´s designer, Bridget Kimak, has been committed to rooting Wagner´s version of the story in its Norwegian setting – Sandvika, on the southern coast. The set is an abstract marvel of stark coastline and a ‘ship’ which looks as commanding as a Richard Serra sculpture. On stage, the chorus ladies will knit for their menfolk, rather than sew. First we´ll see the start of jumpers, and as the opera progresses, the garments will grow. The yarn is local – beautiful oiled wool from Hillesvåg Ullvarefabrikk*, a fourth generation family business begun in the late 20th century – from fierce Norwegian sheep grazing close by. There are no fancy patterns here – these Nordic sailors wear a clear navy or cream.


Knitting and opera, however is not a first. As part of Stavanger2008, European Capital of Culture, we presented Odysseus Unwound, composer Julian Grant´s wonderful opera which, improbably, brought together a team of knitters from Shetland – formidable ladies who could click at virtuosic speed – with opera singers from London, all masterminded by Bill Bankes-Jones´s tirelessly inventive company Tete-a-Tete. While Stavanger2008 came into the process relatively late-on, Tete-a-Tete´s initiative was astounding. Flying Englishmen, they sailed to Shetland with Julian Grant and a clutch of singers. Imagine the scene, in a far Northern village hall – ladies who have never left the island confronted with artists distinctly Southern and urban; needles and arias at the ready; an operatic score of sounds curious, strange-coloured and fantastical to folk-tuned ears.

Julian remembers: “My personal epiphany notwithstanding, it struck us all that the Odyssey is rife with references to the crafts we were investigating, most obviously Penelope at her loom; then there was Odysseus’s island hopping, which resonated most naturally with life in the Shetlands. Yet there was still trepidation… Would this improbable cocktail of talent work at all? Starting with a simple skills-sharing session (knitting singers and singing knitters) within days what had seemed improbable became inevitable.”

His version of the story, with librettist Hattie Naylor, somewhat bucked our sloppy thinking – they had no truck with a glamourous swash-buckling Odysseus “to whom” Julian says “we are introduced in our childhood is first as a hero of brightly coloured children’s books, a victim of superior forces who has fabulous Boys’ Own adventures, outwitting monsters and treacherous ladies of dubious repute”  For a more realistic story, he suggested, we should read, The Iliad about the terrible carnage of Troy, and the needless destruction of Cicones. Julian took a sober view: “Odysseus is a flawed con man, a smooth and suave psychopath, whose tales of his own adventures conjure up a nightmare of blood-letting, which ultimately does him in.”

The opera, for six singers, five craftspeople and seven instrumentalists, in fact premiered in timely fashion at the National Knitting Show at Alexandra Palace before its journey to Norway. We staged it in Sandnes, home – until the 1980s – to a vast knitting industry; today the sheds are a shopping mall. In Sandnes Culture House, I´m not quite sure who was the more startled – the Shetland knitters or the audience. But the musical language was arresting – touching, fierce and luscious.

Meanwhile in Bergen, the knitting continues. Edvard Grieg Kor´s first soprano – the ensemble is the hub of BNO´s chorus – is hard at work, and so, she says, is her mother. If there is rigour in the rehearsal room, it is matched by tension of a different sort as yarn is tweaked and stretched, sleeves emerge and hemlines achieve a woolly frill.

For sure, every premiere has its own glorious personality. On March 10th, Wagner´s opera will triumph and will deliver new truths in John Ramster´s vision, sung by stupendous voices. But there´s a certain pride in the design. In amongst Bridget´s dramatic set are costumes truly, veritably home-made. Now, pass me my pins….

Mary Miller

More info: The Flying Dutchman

*Hillesvåg Ullvarfabrikk :

Irrepressibly outspoken, forcing reinvention – with Gerard Mortier opera has lost a king


There are those in arts leadership, some highly effective, of whom one could say ’his project was himself’. Of course personal ambition can be a fine thing and in its swirling wake, great things may happen. Egos dominate in most high level activities; Gerard Mortier, who died yesterday, most certainly had ego. His project, however, was not himself. Gerard Mortier, tiny, dynamic, charismatic and irrepressibly outspoken, had a mission to carry – drag if necessary – opera into the present, and to force this ancient form to reinvent itself continuously.

Meeting him, which usually involved a long wait as he whirled along corridors on two cell phones at once gesticulating with spikey fingers, smiling, mouthing apologies, talking in an articulate stream, was like experiencing the shudder of a small electric storm. Mortier was always in the moment – even if his moment was not entirely the one that you, yourself were expecting. He did not answer questions. He simply and with great charm told you what happened to be in his head at the time – or possibly a sanitised version, as he was perpetually at war with some politician, administrator, city authority, director, artist or sponsor.

He appeared to be utterly fearless. In retrospect it seems extraordinary that he stayed so long in Salzburg, running a revered festival in an immensely stuffy city twinkling with Mozart kitsch and feathered felt hats, with snorting insults levelled at his head every day of his 11-year tenure. But he had already blazed through a series of distinguished directorships in the major German houses, and renovated Brussels´s La Monnaie where he incurred an eye-watering deficit. Post-Salzburg, he swerved off to the Ruhr – an ambience less like gemütlich Austria one cannot imagine – and directed a festival of largely site-specific new work amongst the derelict factories and coal-blackened communities. He led Opera de Paris (where a Norwegian syndicate including Stavanger2008 and the company which is now Bergen National Opera co-commissioned Georg Frederik Haas/Jon Fosse´s Melancholia), flirted briefly and disastrously with the now defunct New York City Opera, and held his last post at Teatro Real, Madrid. Typically, while practically on his deathbed, he interfered roundly and imperiously with the process to appoint his successor, insisting that Spain itself had no suitable candidates.

Much has been made of his last commission from Charles Wuorinen, Brokeback Mountain from Annie Proulx´s story – a work he had originally intended for New York. Wuorinen´s dense, uncompromising musical language is just the stuff of Mortier´s artistic prescription for the audience, though it roundly bewildered the conservative Castilians. He attended the premiere despite being gaunt with illness; press pictures show him animated as ever, waving the spikey fingers, insistent, fierce.

We the audience owe him for countless new operas. He may not have treated us well – Mortier´s audience were not handled gently as humans with individual tastes and interests, more as a mass of beings lacking in courage and imagination – but for sure he taught the doubters that opening one´s mind can be exhilarating. He knew that undoubted truth – ask an audience what it wants, and it will want more of what it knows. No surprise. Few of us want what we cannot imagine. But Mortier understood that if artistic leadership is ambivalent, confused about its own taste, it will bewilder the audience. Mortier was certain: we need the new, the provocative and the startling, even if sometimes it fails.

Composers, directors, singers, artists of all kinds owe him something irreplaceable: he asked them all to take risks, and in taking that leap, he encouraged them to grow, be curious, exceed their boundaries, often by quite astonishing margins.

I don´t suppose for one moment that Mortier thought he was brave, or even assumed that he was always right. About the latter his enemies no doubt would totally disagree. His mission was absolute, and one imagines that as his life faded, his mind was still racing with plans and arguments, speeches unmade and music unsung.

Mortier´s project is now our responsibility to continue. Opera has lost a warrior of regal status. Now the king is dead. Long live the princes he has birthed and robed in pioneering spirit.

Mary Miller