Auckland Arts Festival's artistic director Jonathan Bielski has included more music in this year's programme because he says it can be more unifying and inclusive than other art forms.

1 Why haven't you got a big fireworks show to open this year's festival?

It's important we don't do those every year because it becomes predictable. A festival has to surprise, confound and provoke. We do try to open with a large free event in a public space. This year we're having a waiata singalong in Aotea Square with Stan Walker, Maisey Rika, Ria Hall and Troy Kingi singing in te reo. The words will also be on a big screen so it's a bit like karaoke.

2 What's most likely to go wrong this year?


Every year something goes wrong — someone misses their flight or fails to get a visa. Last year the freight for Akram Khan's Giselle missed the boat from England. Our staff managed to get it on another boat and transited through the Suez Canal to get here in time which saved us an awkward situation. Our team's so experienced we can quickly reconfigure to solve any problem. The only thing we can't fix is the weather, so if it rains on opening night we'll just sing in the rain.

3 This is your second year as the festival's artistic director. What have you done differently to your predecessors?

I've got a lot more music in the programme. It's a great way to broaden the audience because it's more universal in its appeal, and in many ways more participatory than other art forms. I don't see music as being a "feeder" for other parts of the programme, where there's a hierarchy with opera at the top. It's about creative participation, so someone who comes along to do Cook Island weaving in the Square on Whānau Day is having an artistic interaction of equal value to someone who's paid $200 to see the Magic Flute from Berlin.

4 Why do festival artistic directors only get a three-year term?

It's an industry standard that keeps festivals from ossifying. Otherwise artistic directors can become powerful tsars. Aucklanders don't want their festival to become one person's play thing. It's a bit like a change of government. You get a clean slate to come up with a new programme but the festival is a continuing entity — you are always building on the work of those before you. I'm proud that in my first year we had our highest box office return of over $3 million, with 80,000 seats sold and 170,000 people participating across all the events.

5 Do you curate to attract a particular market or do you just choose some cool stuff and hope a mix of people turn up?

A bit of both; festivals have to lead and cater. Just putting on an opera is not interesting in itself because we already have an opera company doing that. There has to be something of a scale, quality or boldness of idea that elevates it to something you could only see at an arts festival. The Magic Flute is a great example; it comes from a 150-year-old storied German opera house, but it's the comedy opera house and this production has a slightly anarchic twist with singers interacting with live animation. So it's leading and saying here's the best of what a global city can offer and then we've also got acrobats performing on blocks of frozen jelly in the Speigeltent for the kids on the weekend to cater for families wanting to have fun.

6 This year the festival has announced a new kaupapa called Toitū te reo. What's that about?


In the past we've included Māori works in the programme. The next step was to look at ways to embed a bilingual philosophy in the festival itself. Our vision is that people will be able to see, hear, and feel te reo Māori throughout the festival. It's about normalising te reo; making it every day; showing that you can have a bilingual brochure and put on shows in other languages that are accessible and interesting.

Jonathan Bielski says art festivals must include something of a scale, quality or boldness of idea that elevates them. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Jonathan Bielski says art festivals must include something of a scale, quality or boldness of idea that elevates them. Photo / Jason Oxenham

7 How much of Auckland do you hope to reach with this festival?

While the big shows are on in the CBD, the festival has tendrils going out into Auckland's furthest reaches with shows like Kupe's Heroic Journey playing in community halls and marae in Piha, Waimauku and Warkworth. Tola Newbery brings Kupe's Odyssey to Aotearoa to life through movement and words in this immensely accessible tour de force. We also have Te Kuia me te Pūngāwerewere (The Kuia and the Spider) going around schools.

8 Growing up on a farm in the Manawatū, did you show an early interest in the arts?

I think we all realised I wasn't going to do farming quite early on. Being in a school play at age 6 was a formative experience; something about the lights going down and the curtain coming up — I knew I wanted to be in the theatre. I came up through amateur dramatics in Feilding where I went to live with my grandparents when my parents divorced. My grandmother was an immense influence. We'd listen to Sharon Crosbie on the National Programme and classical music on Concert FM. When I worked out I wouldn't be an award-winning lighting director, I got into arts administration.

9 You came to Auckland to work at the St James. Were you sad when it closed down?

New Zealanders struggle with investment in cultural infrastructure of substantial size, but when we do these projects we love them and are proud of them. The Civic Theatre was the benchmark cultural regeneration project. It was exciting to be around; they spent the money, brought in the experts and did it properly. Tens of thousands of people pour through the doors there a year. We never look back with regret on these projects.

10 You were part of the formation of The Edge, now Auckland Live. Was a multi-venue brand a hard-sell initially?

It was hard for Aucklanders to understand that we had a "cultural precinct" because we'd never had one like other big cities. The idea became more embedded once Event Cinemas, the Basement, Q Theatre and The Classic went in there as well.

11 What do you do in your spare time?

This job involves a lot of travelling so I watch a lot of Netflix. I absolutely love The Good Place. If I can't sleep I'll watch Kath and Kim. I've started using silly phrases like "Give it a bone Kim" around the office. I worked at the Sydney Opera House long enough to pick up an Australian accent.

12 What are you most looking forward to seeing this year?

I really enjoy the family shows; there's something very special about seeing young people entranced by live performance. In this digital era, there's a fear they'll become instantly bored but in fact when parents manage to get their children into a theatre they're captivated. In our Whānui programme, we have a group of children who worked with kaumātua to create a piece of theatre about the Pānuku awa running through Corban Estate. It's inspiring to watch these kids totally engaged in what they're doing. They're utterly glorious.

For more information go to Auckland Arts Festival.