Interview with Berislav Šipuš, Music Biennale Zagreb: Mirabilia Memorabilia

4 April 2011

Music Biennale Zagreb (MBZ), the most important contemporary music festival in the region, is celebrating its jubilee. Full fifty years have passed since the first Biennale, which some still vividly remember. As the Festival is soon to begin (7-17 April 2011), MBZ Artistic Director, Berislav Šipuš, talked in an interview about what the audience can expect at the Biennale this year, how the programme is conceived, and if and how the economic conditions affected the programme of this year's Biennale. This year the MBZ is celebrating its fiftieth birthday. How do you plan to mark this jubilee in the Biennale's program? Since this is a jubilee year, we thought long and hard about the program concept. We had various ideas on our mind, including the one to repeat the entire program of the 1961 Festival as homage of a kind. However, we soon realized that this would be impossible as in 1961 the Croatian National Theater in Zagreb held several Biennale productions, four to be precise, and that would be impossible to repeat today. Since repeating the entire program came to nothing, we thought about repeating only a segment of it, but in the end have decided to pay homage to those composers who were, throughout its history, important for the Biennale both as composers and as festival organizers by performing their anthological works. Among the Croatian composers these are, first and foremost, Milko Kelemen as the festival's founder, and Ivo Malec, as a great critic of the Biennale, who was also very important for the New Music. Then Branimir Sakač, Natko Devčić, Stanko Horvat and Igor Kuljerić, as well as Ruben Radica and Dubravko Detoni, who has left some anthological pieces, regardless of the oscillations in his opus. We also wanted to acknowledge the composers who have been guests at the Biennale over the years. These are primarily John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, Wittold Lutoslawski and Iannis Xenaxis. The program also contains a work by Pierre Boulez, who - although he has never performed in Zagreb - is essential for New Music. Last year the Biennale's theme was Art - Politics. What is the central theme of this year's Biennale? The theme of this year's Biennale is Mirabilia Memorabilia. We wanted to connect the theme and the jubilee in some way, but it was also requisite because of the World New Music Days, which we are again hosting this year and which always has an underlying theme. We have therefore decided to merge the title of one of Kelemen's compositions, Mirabilia (meaning amazement or astonishment, a characteristic which could be attributed to contemporary music), with something that reflects reminiscence, that is with something referring to the fiftieth anniversary of the Biennale. This year you have focused your attention to cooperation with national theaters in which Croatian composers will premiere their works. What do you expect of these projects? For some time the festival organization has wanted to take it outside Zagreb - during the very Festival - but has never been able to do so despite similar considerations in the past. While planning this year's festival, we have decided to contact all national theaters and to propose cooperation through coproductions. This idea is not limited only to the Biennale in that we want the local communities to get something valuable from it as the music is written by Croatian composers. We want these co-productions to "tour" Croatia, but also to remain in the repertoire lists of particular theaters. The Croatian National Theater in Zagreb has immediately accepted our proposal as we have been cooperating on every Biennale, and their only condition was to perform a ballet as they staged an opera by Srećko Bradić at the previous Biennale. We are pleased to have enlisted the cooperation of the famous choreographer Martino Mueller on the production of the ballet by Krešimir Seletković, which will be performed at the HNK Zagreb and will also close this year's Biennale. As for the other theaters, we were not sure how things would develop because, although we have received strong support from the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Croatia, the theaters are not bound by that support. Yet, we have managed to arrange co-productions with the theater in Rijeka, with which we have already cooperated successfully, and which will host a performance of the opera Stribor's Forrest by young composer Ivan Josip Skender, as well as the theaters in Varaždin, Split and Osijek. Silvio Foretić, another important Biennale author, was offered to write an opera as he has never written one before, although has always dabbled in the stage genres. He accepted and the Split HNK will give a performance of his opera Marshal based on the script, i.e. the movie, by Ivo and Vinko Brešan, who have even given Silvio Foretić permission to write his own libretto for this opera. As for Osijek, we were a bit skeptical in the beginning. I believe that Sanja Drakulić, who was also very enthusiastic about writing an opera, is the perfect choice for Osijek as she is familiar both with the theater and the ensemble. Initially, she was supposed to write an opera based on the text by Borivoj Radaković, a text which is quite provoking as it speaks about homosexuality, but this cooperation was sadly not realized as my colleague Radaković got ill. Instead of his text, Sanja chose - in my opinion equally good - text by Miro Gavran and I believe this will work very well. As for Varaždin, we wanted to stir up things there. Varaždin is a city with a long-established Baroque Music Festival, a philosopher for a mayor, a longstanding tradition of music education, and a hometown to some of the most beautiful voices in Croatia. Apart from that, the Varaždin Theater is the only one fully completed, with a rotating stage, an orchestra pit and a concert hall within the theater. Nevertheless, such Varaždin does not have a resident music ensemble, although it could be a central venue for, let's say, a chamber opera, which would fit perfectly there. That is why this coproduction of the ballet by Frano Đurović, who is cooperating with an Italian choreographer of middle generation, Massimiliano Volpini, is a provocation of the sorts. The Zagreb audience will get a chance to see all projects held outside Zagreb on the screen at the Tuškanac Cinema, just as they could have seen the Met in the Lisinski Hall or the Bolshoi Theater in the Movieplex. With large projects such as the MBZ it is always difficult to balance the financial means and the desired program. What was the impact of the economic conditions on the program? Where there any difficulties? We had serious difficulties. Very early on we had to cut the program due to a large budget deficit, which I personally found extremely difficult, and for this reason we were unable to realize cooperation with the Ballet Würzburg, an extraordinary ballet company. I think that someone called the Biennale "a window showing the world" at the press conference and I agree with this designation, but the Biennale should chiefly incite us to "jump" through that window into that world. For this reason the co-productions and guest performances, for which there may not always be enough funds, are extremely important as they contribute to Croatian culture being recognized abroad. We are cooperating with many festivals and ensembles of contemporary music and all of these cooperations are long-term projects planned several years in advance. This is the primary goal we are trying to achieve, and for which we should get support from the Ministry and local government bodies. We need to establish priorities, and we need to establish which projects should receive financial support in order for Croatian culture to be presented abroad. This is still not the case, although there are ten important projects which could be prioritized, the Biennale undoubtedly being one of them. The interview was conducted by the Music Biennale Zagreb. Read ahead!