Anyone lucky enough to take a seat at Jorn Weisbrodt’s dining-room table is going to have to struggle not to appear star-struck. The home where the new artistic director of Luminato has settled into his Toronto life is merely a comfortable two-storey apartment in a nice Annex reno, but the battered chairs you are sitting on were rescued from a renovation at Germany’s historic Berliner Ensemble theatre. Yes, you are parking yourself on leather that might have once, just possibly, welcomed the backside of Bertolt Brecht.
Meanwhile, through French doors into a little study, you can catch a glimpse of a baby grand that most definitely belongs to musician Rufus Wainwright, Weisbrodt’s long-time partner and fiancé. Wainwright, currently on tour with his latest album, supervised its move himself.
Weisbrodt, 39, arrived in town in January, replacing the festival’s first artistic director, Chris Lorway. He comes with a bevy of well-placed international artistic connections built up during a career programming the studio space at Berlin’s State Opera and, more recently, running the Watermill Center, the Long Island performance laboratory created by famed experimental American theatre director Robert Wilson. And, of course, he exudes a healthy dose of rock-star glamour courtesy of his seven-year relationship with Wainwright, son of the late, great Canadian folkie Kate McGarrigle of Kate and Anna McGarrigle fame. Weisbrodt and Wainwright are planning a summer wedding at their Long Island country home after Luminato 2012 wraps up in June.
“You are either out or you are in, and Jorn has been in at a very high level,” notes Canadian Opera Company general director Alexander Neef, who knew Weisbrodt in their native Germany when they were both working in the opera world there. “Producing art is about working with people ... building relationships, so that when there is an interesting project, people will come to you. Jorn with his background has that kind of connection.”
The question, however, is whether Weisbrodt, who moved to the United States in 2006, brings more than Wainwright and a Rolodex to Toronto: Does he have some artistic vision that will finally give shape to the five-year-old Luminato? The multidisciplinary festival held each June that was born as an exercise in tourism-boosting civic pride has always suffered from a personality split between populist street fair and elite contemporary arts festival – and it just got word the province of Ontario won’t be delivering the final instalment of money intended to commission new programming. Weisbrodt has some work to do.
A festival born rich
Luminato sprang up in 2007 with a whopping $7.5-million in direct funding from the province of Ontario over its first three years, thanks to its extremely well-connected founders, publisher Tony Gagliano and the late David Pecaut, a Toronto business consultant. The pair conceived of it as a way of boosting Toronto both locally and internationally after the SARS fiasco of 2003 and convinced politicians of its merits, but from the start it was a top-down exercise that suffered from a lack of clear artistic goals, a confusion about which of several powerful personalities spoke for the festival and a board full of its own bright ideas about programming. The result was a grab bag that has included everything from free outdoor concerts, street food and magic shows to pricey performances by hot European performance troupes.
Torontonians have happily consumed the light shows and circus acts but the festival still lacks the street cred the highly popular Nuit Blanche has established in a lifespan only one year longer. That one-night visual arts festival now draws an audience estimated at one million, while the 10-day Luminato saw total attendance climb over a million in 2010 and 2009 (when a free Cirque de Soleil performance drew huge numbers to Harbourfront) but dip below that mark in 2011.
As for winning international attention, it’s in a crowded field where many of the more successful contenders limit themselves to one or two disciplines – Spoleto is known for music; Avignon for theatre – while the granddaddy of them all, Edinburgh, is actually a cluster of festivals that grew up slowly and organically around an elite performing arts festival established after the Second World War.
Achieving that kind of success just as governments are cutting budgets seems unlikely. Because so many of its events are free, Luminato raises only 10 per cent of its funds at the box office and relies on three levels of government for half of its $11.5-million budget. Other arts groups have cast a jealous eye at Luminato’s direct and particularly generous provincial funding, but even before last month when the Ontario budget cut $3.5-million from it over two years, Luminato organizers knew they would have to find fresh sources of money.
The key – to attracting fickle local audiences, gaining sought-after international prestige and winning over beleaguered governments – is to distill the Luminato essence, to give it a clear personality that stands out in an international crowd. How will Weisbrodt do it?
To fix, make connections
It is his work at Watermill, both managing Wilson’s own projects and the centre’s cross-disciplinary lab for emerging, international artists, that is most relevant here.
Talking of a two-way cultural highway, Weisbrodt wants to bring top international artists to Canada but also introduce Canadian artists to the world touring circuit in shows specially commissioned by Luminato. Meanwhile, he stoutly defends the festival’s multidisciplinary nature, arguing all that is needed are some connections.
“It is what is unique about the festival,” he said but added, “I felt the different sections were quite separate from each other; there were seven different festivals, seven different pillars, but no roof,” referring to the festival’s seven disciplines, including theatre, dance, music, visual art, literature, food and film. “It was like when you put the different musical sections of an orchestra in different rooms to rehearse and you forgot to put them back together.”
In the short term, he likes the idea that Luminato has invited physicists from Waterloo, Ont.'s Perimeter Institute to speak about Einstein after a performance of Einstein on the Beach, arguing a festival of creativity should reach out to science. ( Einstein, one of the most glitzy offerings this year, is a revival of Wilson’s production of the Philip Glass opera. It was on Luminato’s books before Weisbrodt signed on – but was also the project through which he first discovered the Canadian festival.) In the longer term, he would like to see major Toronto arts institutions such as the Art Gallery of Ontario and Soulpepper Theatre come together to make unique works for Luminato.
A talent for ego-wrangling
Toronto arts groups have eyed Luminato warily thus far, but Weisbrodt should have no problems doing some seduction. Warm, energetic and forthright, he clearly brings a talent for wrangling big egos and taking a back seat to big names – key abilities for putting together a festival jammed with headliners. Typically, he attributes the birth of his long association with Wilson, one of the leading theatre directors in the world, to the most mundane administrative abilities on his part. While he was still a student at the Academy of Music Hanns Eisler in Berlin, back in the days of the fax, he targeted Wilson as a potential mentor and so impressed him with his ability to send stacks of messages in minutes – “I played the piano for a long time so I could type the numbers very fast on a fax machine,” he recalls, half jokingly – that the great man took him on as his personal assistant for a year. Weisbrodt had studied opera direction but soon decided, in a first crucial move from ego to enabler, that he would rather be a first-tier arts administrator than a second-tier opera director. He did an internship with the giant management consultancy McKinsey and took the job at the Berlin State Opera.
Similarly, on the personal front he meets all the curiosity about Wainwright graciously. “We have been together seven years; he’s the love of my life. If you are Michelle Obama, everybody wants to talk to you about Barack,” he said. Weisbrodt first met Wainwright when he approached the musician to do an opera project that never came to fruition; they had only been together for a few months when Wilson invited Weisbrodt to become artistic director at the Watermill Center, providing Weisbrodt with a convenient move to the U.S.
As for Wainwright’s child with Lorca Cohen, the grandchild of Leonard Cohen on one side and Loudon Wainwright III on the other, Weisbrodt is happy to accept the title of “deputy dad” bestowed on him by Wainwright and boast about a remarkable 14-month-old baby girl – Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen – who lives in Los Angeles with her mother – but sees her dads often.
Or so he hopes: Weisbrodt is going to be awfully busy in coming months, winning over artists, funders and audiences to a project that is supposed to entertain Toronto locally and define it globally.
“It’s not so much about people actually coming here, but about people realizing what we are without ever coming here,” Neef observes. “It is all about reputation. Why do people who have never been to New York think it’s a great city? Not that we need to be New York: We need to become Toronto.”
Becoming Toronto – it’s an awfully big job for one lone impresario.
Editor's note: Previous web editions of this story incorrectly identified the Perimeter Institute as being part of the University of Waterloo. Rather, it is based in the city of Waterloo, Ont., which also houses the university.