EFA Festival in Focus | Ljubljana Festival

Simon Mundy, in interview with Darko Brlek, Artistic & General Manager of the Ljubljana Festival, Slovenia, looks at their history and current success

The capital of Slovenia is one of Europe's smallest, and the population of the whole of Slovenia is a million less than that of Madrid, but Ljubljana's festival is one of the longest established and now one of the most distinguished. It is to the city's great credit that, even in the first years of communist Yugoslavia, a festival was seen as an answer to its problems, not just a decorative add-on.

“In 1952 the tourist workers were worried that the city was empty in the summer [when everybody headed for the Adriatic resorts] and decided to start the festival to bring visitors into the hotels,” Darko Brlek, its Director and Past President of EFA, tells me. Very quickly the authorities agreed to renovate and transfer to the festival the dilapidated buildings of the Krizanke monastery, originally the base of the Teutonic Knights, which had been confiscated from the church in the late 1940s when Tito came to power. The renovation became the last project of one of Slovenia's most revered architects, Joze Plecnik, and it meant that the festival had flexible performance spaces of its own from the outset.

 For all the forty years of the remaining Yugoslav period the Ljubljana Festival remained a significant but regional event, reflecting the federal nature of the country but also the fact that the main artistic organisations were centred on Belgrade. All that changed when Slovenia broke away from the disintegrating Yugoslavia in 1991. Unlike the other republics, after a tense few weeks it largely avoided the communal strife and civil war which consumed the countries to the south.

As I remember only too clearly from many visits as an adviser, the following years were difficult as the newly independent Slovene institutions struggled to find their feet. Money was hard to come by and, while Slovenia had political vision and stability that was the envy of its neighbours, the EU borders to Austria and Italy were not much more porous than they had been under the old regime. Nonetheless, “Slovenia's independence was a big help in defining the identity of the festival,” Darko says, “and our international development began to grow in those years.”

 Once the borders opened, though, and Slovenia was on the path into the EU, the full potential of Ljubljana began to be realised. It sits at the junction of four international highways that have been vital for travel since Roman times. Trieste and Klagenfurt are less than an hour away and the peace dividend with Croatia has brought it back within reach of the Dalmatian holiday destinations. The festival has been the beneficiary for, while “perhaps only 10% of foreign visitors come for a specific event, the others see the posters when they are wandering around town and find it is easy to get a ticket, especially for the outdoor shows.”

The city has a delightful riverside character, perfect for strolling visitors, and while the air connections are still not as good as they should be, the bars and cafés are usually crowded. The city has realised that festivals (and Ljubljana has several others, apart from the main organisation) bring in a different class of tourists than the budget airlines with their stag and hen parties. The result is that, although Sovenia's national budget for culture is still being squeezed after the recession that of the city has steadily risen so that it now accounts for 11% of total spending.

 In recent years the festival's ambition has expanded, building a strong relationship with the Valery Gergiev and the Mariinski Theatre from St. Petersburg. The performers see it as something of a summer retreat, Darko says, because when they have free time they can escape to the Alpine foothills around Bled or drop down to the coast and its old Venetian Republic towns of Piran and Izola. Piran was the birthplace in 1692 of the composer and violin virtuoso Giuseppe Tartini and his parents' house in the town is now being restored, and with it will come a programme in co-operation with Venice and the Ljubljana Festival.

It shows a side of the work which Darko says tends not to get the same attention as his June to August main event in the capital but represents the way he can innovate through collaboration. Another example will be with Mittefest, just across the modern border with Italy in the ancient town of Cividale del Friuli, which will mark the sacrifice of thousands of young men from the area forced to fight at the end of the First World War.

 Darko has also extended the events beyond the summer months in recent years. Now there is a young musicians’ concert series stretching from autumn to spring, giving a platform to Slovenia's emerging talent. It is, he says, a natural extension of the way the festival itself had to change after the financial crises of 2008, when he had to cut back on imported events. It was, he reflects, actually a positive change in the long run because he has been able to introduce Slovenian artists to the visiting international companies and promote their careers.  He cites the closing concert of the new Winter Festival, running for a week in February, where he has paired the tenor Ramon Vargas with local soprano Elvira Hasanagic.

These days, as Ljubljana is enjoying probably the most prosperous period in its history, Darko's audience is expanding year on year. He has a 5000 strong Festival Club of Slovenian patrons and in 2017 sold some 67,000 tickets, an increase of 20%. His biggest problem now is logistical. Ljubljana is running short of hotel space, even with the massive expansion of the last decade (rather different from twenty-three years ago when I first visited the city and – as I recall – there were only four). “I am wondering what to do with the Concertgebouw Orchestra when they arrive from Amsterdam. They may have to stay across the border in Trieste. Still,” he shrugs, “it's only fifty minutes away.”

Further Information on the Ljubljana Festival

Ljubljana Festival is the oldest, largest and most important festival in Slovenia. Since 1953 it has been a highly popular part of the summer holidays for residents and tourists. With its colourful cosmopolitan spirit and carefully selected programme of outstanding performers, driven by excellence, creative energy and a desire to provide audiences with the best possible performance experience, this almost 3-month festival contributes a great deal to the life and energy of this vibrant capital. The festival puts its focus in different arts – music, opera, classical and contemporary ballet, musical, theatre and visual arts. In addition to attracting the best artists and performers from these fields to Slovenia, it also provides opportunities for Slovenian artists to perform and stage productions – including the first – of their work.