According to Leo Schofield, his new Sydney Sings festival is unlike any other festival in Australia. The program, revealed this week, covers as many different singing styles as possible, from gospel choirs to classical choirs, jazz soloists, musical theatre singers, operatic tenors and beat-boxers.
When Sydney Sings (produced by Jarrod Carland and artistically directed by Schofield) was announced in February this year, Tasmanian-based Festival of Voices director Tony Bonney accused Schofield of stealing the idea for the festival. But Schofield is adamant the two festivals are nothing alike.
“That was a mad bit of ambulance chasing on the part of the Tasmanian organisers to try to get a little bit of contention going,” Schofield says. “If you have a look at our program and their program, there’s as much resemblance to what we’re proposing as I have to Chris Hemsworth … It’s on a completely different scale, with a completely different set of objectives.”
The festival centrepiece is a staging of Orff’s Carmina Burana at the 20,000-seat Qudos Bank Arena (previously Allphones Arena) in Homebush. Schofield promises that it will be a spectacular visual production, directed by large-scale theatre specialist Nigel Jamieson, with musical direction by Simon Kenway. He won’t reveal exactly what the physical production will involve, but that there will be a “large degree of verticality” with over 500 singers and a full symphony orchestra.
Schofield was artistic director for the Sydney Olympics cultural festival, which opened with a performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony at the same venue. It was a sell out, and he’s predicting Carmina Burana might prove just as popular, particularly with residents from western Sydney.
American soprano Jessye Norman will also visit Australia as a guest of the festival to speak on the art of singing and hold a public masterclass at the Sydney Opera House. Jazz singer Cécile McLorin Savant will perform, as well as Austrian tenor Martin Mitterrutzner. Local musical theatre singers will join Broadway and West End performers in The Sounds of Broadway at the State Theatre.
“We’re showcasing some of the not so hidden but less often celebrated Australian artists, like Gondwana Choir,” Schofield says. “This is one of the most remarkable children’s choirs in the world.”
There are also several performances yet to be announced.
The first year of the festival is supported by the NSW Government through its tourism body Destination NSW. Schofield hopes he’ll be able to grow the festival in the coming years.
“It’s a new festival and until people are familiar with it I don’t expect that we’ll draw any large corporate sponsorship,” he says. “It’s designed to attract visitors to Sydney in a fallow period of the year. That’s the ambition of most festivals. You tell me a major festival that’s not geared towards tourism; Edinburgh, Salzburg.”
The festival is not dissimilar to Schofield’s Brisbane Baroque, which started its life in Tasmania. Interstate visitors made up 42% of that festival’s audiences last year. And like Brisbane Baroque, Sydney Sings has a very specific remit: the human voice.
“I think there’s a bit of an international move to highly focused arts festivals, rather than the multidisciplinary festival, which is a child of the 20th century, perhaps. And the idea that you could have a ballet company, an opera company, a theatre company, individual performers, a bit of chamber music, a bit of jazz, and you put them all together and you’ve got a festival — obviously it doesn’t always work.”
At 81, Schofield has had a hugely varied career (he spent many years as a advertising professional, journalist and notable food critic) but this is his 27th festival. He says he hopes to make it to 30 before he “shuffles off this mortal coil”, but that the breadth of singing that can fall under the umbrella of this festival is surprisingly wide.
“There’s nothing like this that’s such a fruit salad or mixed grill or whatever gastronomical analogy you want to use,” Schofield says. “It’s a very good menu.”
Sydney Sings runs from July 28 to August 7