Handing the baton to the people | Michelle Castelletti

Now in her second year as the Malta International Arts Festival Artistic Director, Michelle Castelletti speaks to us about what lies in store for this year’s edition – which kicks off on July 8

Michelle Castelletti: “I believe in the power of the arts to transform people’s lives”
Michelle Castelletti: “I believe in the power of the arts to transform people’s lives”

How would you describe the legacy of the Malta International Arts Festival so far, and how does it feel to form part of its ongoing operations? What would you say are some of the most significant developments for the Festival over the last couple of years?

It is a privilege to be playing a part in Malta’s cultural and artistic movement in the 21st century, especially in the current direction towards European Capital of Culture 2018. I want to be able to make a difference and, together with the wonderful team at Arts Council Malta, including, of course, my immediate artistic group, we will achieve this. I believe in the beauty and strength of ideas. I believe in the power of the arts to transform people’s lives. I believe in creativity and I am constantly intrigued by research and innovation.

From the chair one sits on, to the painting hanging on the wall, from the building we enter every morning to the music we listen to every day, we are constantly surrounded by art. How can we use this to better people’s lives and to make the world a more beautiful place to live in? These are some of the questions that I ask myself and this is why I wished to have an integral part within Arts Council Malta, through which, I believe we can – and should – make a difference.

The Malta International Arts Festival is constantly aspiring to reach out to people.  By deciding to embrace all artforms (this year we are more than ever), we have extended our reach and remit. By deciding to go to the people, rather than them always coming to us, we have made it more possible for our goals to be achieved – and that is, to touch as many people’s lives as possible. As I have said from the very beginning, I want MIAF to be the festival that puts us at the forefront of what is happening in the arts today.

I want us to sometimes challenge people, but I want to be careful not to scare people away. So each year, we learn more and more, and we programme accordingly.  I fundamentally want MIAF to be a big player in the cultural map of the world and for our audiences to go on this journey with us. I think this has started – but it is not an easy task. I aim for us to do this by being as interactive as possible and awakening, and tantalising people’s curiosity.

Last year we have started our more international-facing route.  We have brought in some extremely cutting-edge stuff – more as a sort of statement – and to say: “Look – this is what is happening in the arts”.  This year, we are bringing in some works that have only just been premiered – e.g. BalletBoyz with their Salders Wells commission, and Arvo Pärt’s latest work commissioned by Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, premiered only this month, which we have got permission to premiere here, in Malta, in its year of exclusivity around the world. These are extraordinary things. We have also taken this a step further, and are commissioning and presenting new work – e.g. ZfinMalta with Tlieta, MOVEO with D.O.K, B’tal-Linja Jaqbillek, site-specific works like Vertical Dance, new composition and poetry with POW Ensemble and all our various calls for art.  We are investing in young talent, and nurturing it with our Young Artists Platform call and with our very many free workshops, this year, with a particular emphasis on dance.  All of this is our legacy for the future.

Focusing on this year’s edition: did you feel there were particular areas that needed to be addressed and improved? How does this particular edition of the festival differentiate itself from its predecessors?

Yes, I think that will always be the case. We will always aim to improve and we will always seek new ways of doing this to achieve our goals. Art is organic, and that is what we have to be. Last year, we experimented with various things. The opening night included the magical light carpet installation by Miguel Chevalier as well as a truly cutting-edge installation by Pendulum Choir.

This year we have opted for a more interactive installation, which will allow the people to create different sounds simply by “going to the swings!” We wanted to hand over the baton to the people. This way, they are the ones that make the choices, they are the ones that choose when the music starts and stops, they are the ones who will physically swing on our BANDLI creating this kaleidoscope of sounds.

The other part of the opening night is trying to capture that wow-factor of the thrill of vertigo and amazement, together with wonderful choreography danced vertically, rather than horizontally, on the glorious façade of our beautifully glorious Bibliotheca Nazzjonali. We are going to different villages with our quirky, traditional Maltese bus – which I love! We are programming Maltese artists alongside international artists and we are also providing the “laboratory” for them to work together. Guitarist Simon Schembri will be working with bandoneon player Gilberto Pereya.  He will also be playing a new work chosen from an international Call for Scores; Diverso String Quartet will be joining the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra. 

We have created a new choir for the special Arvo Pärt concert which will workshop music together and perform for the first time during MIAF.  We have more workshops than we ever have before. These are the kinds of things we have changed.

Was there a particular reason why you issued calls for artists this time around?

Absolutely. I believe in seeking out new talent and trying to find ways and means of nurturing that, and providing artists with platforms that are very difficult to come by; and I wanted to try and do this across the various art forms. And the response rate has been staggering – which proves the necessity and want for this to happen.

We have had a call for scores for composers, which has drawn applications from across the world. We have had a call for visual art.  It is very difficult for us to represent visual art extensively within the festival, so we are trying to find ways and means of doing this more laterally. This particular call was for any form of art which can be photographed and then published in our final festival programme. 

It has been incredibly popular – and we have had submissions with visual art in so many media – woodcuts, bronze, painting, photography, sculpture, fretwork, mosaic, illustration, graphic scores…  It has been fascinating just going through them all.

Of course, we are also displaying some work, such as a beautiful fretwork by a young 16-year-old which will be displayed during the Young Artists Platform in the exquisite Ambassador’s room at Castille, as well as a bone-structure which is truly mesmeric which will be displayed during the St John Co-Cathedral Arvo Pärt concert. We are also including visual art in other ways, especially in the merging of art forms, which is actually happening a lot throughout the festival.

Another call was the one for artists at the cusp of their careers, to give them an opportunity, a platform. It is so important for us to be able to do this, and I would like to look at ways of increasing this next year.

Our final call was what one might think of as quite a novel idea. Having Arvo Pärt as featured and guest composer of the festival is a true privilege and one which I wanted to mark in a very special way. Inspired by Arvo Pärt’s beautiful quote, ‘a need to concentrate on each sound, so that every blade of grass would be as important as a flower’, I wanted to create a choir of voices that truly does this and aims for the beauty right at the core of sound.

Basically, I wanted to festival to start becoming something that is more “owned” by the artists and by the people, and not just by a committee or institution.

How will you tackle audience engagement? Are there ways you are looking to maximise the way the festival does its ‘outreach’?

What I enjoy doing most is finding ways to help inspire, educate and enrich people’s lives. I want to enchant children and stimulate adults, and I want to find new and memorable ways of doing so. This year we are building on what we started in 2015, where the aim was to spark people’s curiosity and hopefully gain their trust. Now we want to take our people on a journey of discovery.  That is the beauty of audience development. I see “outreach” as engagement, and this in multifarious ways. 

Even the actual programming process must have audience engagement in mind.  Programming across art forms and across genres allows us to reach diverse audiences.  Going to the people, rather than expecting them to come to the theatre, allows us to increase our reach. Giving the general public more ownership with interactive installations, opportunities to participate and be part of the festival creates a sense of ownership and belonging. This is what I believe in and want to increase year on year.

BANDLI is one of our key works this year, and one which will resonate with everyone. As soon as I saw a presentation of it in Rotterdam last year, I knew that this would be the installation that would help us bring out childhood memories, teenage instincts, and actual simple “joy” in all. Very exciting is our “real-life” court-case of Hamlet – will Hamlet be innocent or guilty in the end? We will only know this on the day, together with our audiences, as our lawyers and star-witnesses unfold the drama. 

Not only are we broad across genres, but also across styles.  We merge Stravinsky’s iconic Rite of Spring with Big Band sounds, contemporary chamber music with tap-dancing, meditative strings in the cathedral with sculpture. We are nodding at Shakespeare’s 400th in Hamlet, but also in orchestral works across the ages, culminating in a concert with the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra with Tchaikovsky’s lush sounds, Prokofiev’s powerful Montagues and Capulets in his poignant Romeo and Juliet, and Bernstein’s modern take with his Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.

Our calls across the different art forms have helped us engage even more closely with the public. Our “cross-pollination” of the arts and providing the space for people to work together is creating an identity. Our truly eclectic festival is painting a wonderful canvas, allowing us to reach different audiences with different interests. Our moving Maltese theatre-in-a-bus across different towns and villages will take theatre to the people. We have created ensembles, we are working with Maltese poets, artists composers. We are commissioning new work.  We are creating a community.

 The Malta Arts Festival will be taking place across various venues in Valletta from July 8 to 18. For more information and a full programme, log on to http://maltaartsfestival.org/