When the past is a foreign country


It broke Fergus Linehan’s heart to leave Ireland, but working at the cutting edge of the Australian arts in the Sydney Opera House is ample reward, writes BRIAN O'CONNELL

‘TOM WAITS, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Prince – they’d all be great in here,” says displaced Dubliner Fergus Linehan, while standing in what is one of the most famous performance spaces in the world.

Many venue programmers have a wish list of performers, but generally it remains just that. Linehan, however, knows that most artists will take his call. Linehan has been head of contemporary music at the Sydney Opera House for the past two years.

From 2006 to 2009, he was director of the Sydney Arts Festival, the first person from outside Australia to hold the post in its 30-year history. He brought the festival on to the streets through large outdoor performances and attracted major acts, including Brian Wilson, Grace Jones and Al Green.

As well as his post at the Sydney Opera House, he also runs Vivid Live, a music and arts festival based around the venue, which this year featured Florence and the Machine, Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs performing a lost album from 2005 as a “psycho opera”, and Sufjan Stevens with Bryce Dessner and Nico Muhly playing a series of songs inspired by planets. The Australian newspaper recently named him among the top 50 most influential persons in the arts in Australia, and he currently divides his time between London and Sydney.

Linehan came to Australia after running the Dublin Theatre Festival from 2000 to 2004. The move to Sydney was something of an artistic release.

“Running the Dublin Theatre Festival, I was always so conscious of what had been done before. Brian Friel wrote a play for the festival and so it sometimes felt like you were carrying around Maud Gonne and everyone else. It was like being over-burdened with the past. Here, there is so little interest in the past. Everything is about what is coming next.

“The other thing I noticed moving here was that in Ireland there is a lot of contemplation and discussion around events. Fundamentally, we’re not as interested in the engineering of something. Here they want to get to the application, to pull up the flowers and see how the roots are growing as soon as possible.”

When Linehan returned to Ireland in 2009, having left near the peak of the Celtic Tiger years, he was immediately struck by the shift in national mood. The country was burdened not so much by the past any more, but by the present.

“I remember getting into a taxi at the airport with all my bags. It broke my heart a bit to leave Ireland in 2006, and now I was coming home. The taxi driver said to me in a heavy Dublin accent: ‘You’re coming home? Everybody is trying to get out of this place, did nobody tell you?’ I hadn’t lived in Ireland for five years and I came straight back into doing nothing. I stayed with my folks for four weeks and suddenly I was back in my bedroom listening to Joe Duffy. It was like the point at which the penny began to drop for the country and I was in the middle of it and thinking, sweet Jesus.”

In this atmosphere, was there ever a danger of the arts becoming overly commercial or commodified? “If you’re talking about branding, then artists are always a bit anarchic and any sense that what they are doing is being commodified into something to help sell cheese or whatever, well they’re going to resist it. I think what is happening in Ireland is more of a belated acknowledgement of what the arts can do.

“For too long the entire communication about Ireland was golf and pints of Guinness. I felt for years when I was in Dublin that tourism bodies were almost anxious about putting forward the arts. I did two big projects with the Gate over here and I did think when we were doing them that we really do it better than anyone else.”

What then of Australia’s relationship with art and culture, which is often the source of derision from the outside? Linehan says he gets where much of the questioning comes from. “There is a confused relationship here with indigenous culture and a lot of people do not appreciate how rich that is. On the other hand, the exciting thing is that cultural infrastructure is being built and there is incredible enthusiasm. If you go back 50 years, there was no real theatre company and no opera house here in Sydney.

“We’re not walking into a cultural environment that is fully developed. We’re still building this but if you take the likes of Cate Blanchett and Peter Carey and many others, the work is really strong. But one of the things here is that you do have to seek artistic life out.”

His two years at the Sydney Opera House have given Linehan the opportunity to work with such acts as The Cure and Fleet Foxes, and he has also, from time to time, been able to programme some Irish acts on the venue’s stages, including Martin Hayes, Dennis Cahill, Altan and Glen Hansard, who performed with Marketa Irglova. “Of the Irish acts about at the moment, I’d bring Damien Dempsey out in a heartbeat and also Damien Rice if he decides to tour again.”

Closer to home, Linehan retains a passion for theatre, inherited of course from his mother Rosaleen, the well-known actress. “We’ve had the Gate here twice, once with Beckett and we also had a season of Friel work for his birthday. It’s great to see that kind of Irish theatre on such a big stage. Although, I’ve never brought my mother out to perform, much to her annoyance.”

CV Fergus Linehan

June 2010-present: Head of contemporary music at Sydney Opera House

Nov 2004-Feb 2009: Artistic director, Sydney Festival

Oct 1999-Nov 2004: Artistic director, Dublin Theatre Festival

1994-1999: General manager, Dublin Theatre Festival

1991-1994: General manager, Tivoli Theatre, Dublin

1989-1991: Co-founder and director of Pigsback Theatre Company