A man is walking fast through the streets of central Manchester, and he is lost. "Where is Peter Street?" he demands. One of his team, a dark-haired woman in her 30s, is talking with some agitation into her mobile, trying to keep up as her boss scoots along the pavement, head turning this way and that. "I think…" she begins. "Is it here?" the man says. "No it’s here. This way."
It is May 2012; in nine months’ time, Alex Poots—a small, snap-crackle-pop Scot with salt-and-pepper hair, a mind like a Rolodex, and something of Gordon Brown in the dark bags under his eyes—will have to announce the full programme for the 2013 Manchester International Festival (MIF), an £11m event, taking place every other July, which he has directed since its inception in 2005. Everything in the 18-day festival—operas, plays, gigs, art installations, public events—will be new work, commissioned by Poots. Often, he pulls together stars from different firmaments. At MIF07 "Monkey: Journey to the West", a modern opera with a cartoon aesthetic, teamed two Britpoppers (Damon Albarn, Jamie Hewlett) with a Chinese-American arthouse film director (Chen Shi-Zheng). For MIF09 "It Felt Like a Kiss" matched an immersive theatre director of grand guignol bent (Felix Barrett) with a fiercely cerebral documentary-maker (Adam Curtis) to make a series of choreographed "experiences" exploring late-20th-century American power and guilt.
After the festival, several of these commissions will tour the cultural centres of the world: New York, Amsterdam, Madrid. With them goes the reputation of Manchester, and their maker. But for the moment, most of MIF13 exists only in Alex Poots’s head.
What’s in his head right now is Albert Hall, a derelict Wesleyan temperance mission hidden above what used to be Brannigan’s nightclub. We’re heading there to meet a local property developer who has promised Poots he can get the space up and running in time to act as a venue for next year’s festival. We’re also meeting Guy Garvey, whose band Elbow were a hit at MIF09 when they played two nights live with the Hallé orchestra—whom Garvey described as "the best Manchester band of all". Poots has been working with Garvey on an idea for another piece. He hopes it will be a centrepiece of MIF13, and he wants to hold it in this hall.
At the venue—a magnificent, golden-bricked building with two-storey stained-glass windows up top and a series of black-painted hoardings below—the door is opened by a slight man with blackened fingers and filthy trousers. He has a sweet, gentle smile and looks mildly bewildered. That’s decent of them, I think, they’ve employed a homeless man to look after the place. "This is Joel," says Poots. "He’s the developer.” Next to him is a bearish figure in an overcoat clutching a brown leather folio case. "And this is Guy."
We inspect the building. Downstairs, where Brannigan’s used to be, there is a faint odour of ancient beer. Flyers for gigs are stuck on peeling walls beneath a ceiling of glorious coloured Edwardian tiling, and a tipsy, hand-painted sign points the way to "Ladies". But it’s the floor above, up three flights of echoing stone stairs, which Poots is interested in: an abandoned wreck of a liturgical space, dominated by leaded skylights and an organ as big as a house. The floor is full of broken parquet, junk is piled against the walls. We clamber along seatless tiers in the balcony, picking our way over ropes of exposed electric cabling, thick with dust. "We’ll get 1,500 people up here," says Joel, beatifically. "We can have cushions."
Poots looks around, bright-eyed. "Great, great. The one thing that worries me, though. Will it be ready?" Everybody laughs. I’m not sure why.
"Oh yeh, yeh," Joel nods, a buddha of optimism. "I’ve got a meeting tomorrow about dates and consultants, and… everything."
Poots turns to Garvey. "See? D’you get it?"
"It’s amazin’," Garvey says, "Amazin’."
Manchester has always been something of a made-up city, a triumph of imagination over reality. Before the industrial revolution it wasn’t a city at all, but a small market town; it was only thrust into hugeness and the modern world by the confluence of the Bridgwater canal, cheap coal and cotton from the empire. Much of its 19th-century population was a hotchpotch of Scots, Irish and Italians, who had to invent a way of splicing together their different cultures. And by the late 20th century, as manufacturing slowly died and the city first emptied, then rotted, Manchester had to invent something else: the idea of reinvention. The Manchester-born music journalist John Harris remembers Tony Wilson’s Factory Records taking over a derelict boat showroom on the edge of the city centre in the 1980s, and turning it into the Haçienda. "These days that’s called cultural regeneration," he says. "Then it was just opening a nightclub. But the local politicians saw the idea and ran with it."
Or perhaps it was the other way round? In 1990, Manchester City Council got rid of its plodding old slogan—"Defending jobs, improving services"—and came up with the much shinier "Making it happen". The chorus of "Cigarettes and Alcohol", the anthemic 1994 single by Oasis, has local boy Liam Gallagher wailing "You gotta make it happen." Four times, like a charm: you gotta make it happen.
In late 2004, when Alex Poots was 37, and 14 months into a frustrating stint (no budget, no team) as director of contemporary arts at English National Opera, he got a phone call asking him to apply for a new job. Manchester city council, he was told, wanted a replacement for its previous and, in the words of the council leader, Sir Richard Leese, "mediocre" annual festival. Why? "Because", they told Poots, "Avignon has a festival, and Edinburgh has one, and we want one." And because, after the success of the 2002 Commonwealth games, the council wanted to continue exporting Brand Manchester to the rest of the world.
"So I talked to some people, which is what I always do: the alchemy of ideas," Poots tells me. It’s 8pm, the meeting with Garvey is long over, and we’re on a high-speed train back to London, where Poots lives with his American wife, Kathryn, and their two small children.
"One of them was Peter Saville, who’s an old, old friend—you know, the graphic designer?" (This is underplaying it a bit. Saville is a legendary Manchester character, the art director at Factory Records in the 1980s, and thus the man who turned Joy Division’s angst into world-famous album covers.) "He’d been doing consultancy work for the council, helping move their brand on from the perception of the grey, post-industrial, declining city of the 1970s. And he said, 'There’s a few things that you can absolutely and unequivocally hold on to about Manchester. One, it’s the first industrial city.' And then he said this. 'It’s the original modern city.' And at that point—I just went, ‘Brrrrr'. I suddenly knew exactly what the festival was going to be."
What it was going to be, Poots told the council not long after, was the first festival in the world that consisted entirely of new work. It would be a festival that at least partly acknowledged what he called "Manchester’s invention of popular culture, from the Bee Gees to Oasis" (though Liverpool, London, New York, Memphis, Detroit and Hollywood might all have something to say about that). It would reflect the city’s taste for the radical, and for radicals: not only were Engels, Marx and Alexis de Tocqueville all there in the 19th century, but as Poots says, "the first English-speaking library anywhere in the world to be made free to the public was in Manchester. That’s the equivalent of turning on the internet."
He also made three demands. "You need to pay for this festival. Without money, a lot of money, it’s just dreams and aspirations. You need to appoint a brilliant artistic director. And you need to completely disconnect yourselves from the festival. Cut it free and have absolutely no influence over it."
That’s a brave thing to tell a group of politicians: you’ve got to pay, then go away? "I didn’t care, I wasn’t putting myself up for the job, I had a job. And in a way I was thinking, 'Well, they’re not going to buy any of this.' Because no one normally buys it when I tell them this kind of stuff." But they did buy it. By the time Poots had got back to London, five hours later, Sir Richard Leese had decided: he had the job.
To play for time—"you need time to do these things really well"—Poots asked that the council wait until 2007 for the festival’s debut. In the meantime, he rang another old friend, Christine Cort, a money-smart former communications director for Time Out Worldwide, and asked her to "help me start a festival". For the next three months they schmoozed sponsors for office space, paid for computers on their own credit cards while waiting for the council to set up a business account, and "blagged a load of desks from Habitat". Poots also approached yet another old friend, Damon Albarn, whom he’d travelled with when Albarn was researching his album "Mali Music", to put together a high-profile taster show for November 2005. The job of this event, which ended up being the live staging of the Gorillaz album "Demon Days" at the Manchester Opera House, would be to demonstrate what exactly it was Poots meant by a festival of new work.
"Rather than trying to explain it all in endless press releases," he says, "I thought why don’t we just do a show. Then we can point at it and say 'Look: MIF is this kind of thing."
Switzerland, June 2012. What an MIF kind of thing turns out to be is three identically dressed women, one a raven-haired, world-renowned performance artist from Serbia, lying on funeral biers on a stage in Basel. At their feet, silhouetted against a glowing crimson backdrop, two live dogs silently pick over giant plastic bones. Antony Hegarty, the huge yet ethereal child-man from Antony and the Johnsons, croons high, worldless sounds over the PA. The auditorium, an odd architectural mix of woody Swiss chalet and concrete modernism, is rapt, filled with international types in town for Basel’s annual art fair.
This is "The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic". Its 70-strong cast and crew call it, affectionately, LADOMA; Poots calls it "one of the best things we’ve ever done". A mixed bag of biography and musical tableaux vivants written and performed by Abramovic (once she gets off her bier), it’s staged by the unremittingly experimental theatre director Robert Wilson. Hegarty sings in a suit of armour like a Brobdingnagian Joan of Arc, and the film star Willem Dafoe crawls, mesmerically, across the stage in a flaming red fright-wig. It premiered in Manchester in summer 2011, has travelled across Europe since then, and by June this year it will have reached Toronto. It’s a £1.2m circus with two jobs to do: promote Manchester as a city of cultural note, and send home the money for future festivals.
“Co-commissioning is a vital part of what we do.” This is Christine Cort: wide, smiley mouth, blonde hair in a dishevelled French pleat, as sparkly as the glass of champagne she’s gripping. MIF, she tells me, leaning in conspiratorially while the LADOMA after-show party swirls around us, has an unusual finance structure for a festival. The first bit is straightforward. The council puts up roughly a quarter of the costs, while sponsors, public funders such as the Arts Council, and box-office receipts provide another large chunk. But since 2007, when just £600,000 of the festival’s £9m budget came under the "other income" heading, the deals Cort and Poots do outside have played an ever more important role. In 2011, co-productions with the likes of the Abu Dhabi Festival, Teatro Real Madrid and Ruhrtriennale brought in £2.28m of an overall budget of £11m. (This is an equivalent spend to the Edinburgh International Festival, although Edinburgh commissions only up to 40% of its content, and puts on, according to its director Jonathan Mills, "maybe 150 events" compared to MIF’s average of 20.) Three quarters of LADOMA’s costs came from institutions in Madrid, Basel, Amsterdam and Antwerp. If a show is a hit in Manchester, theatres elsewhere will happily pay to host it afterwards.
So Poots travels. A lot. At the Heathrow departure gate at seven that morning, he was bustling, compact, loud, trailing Cort in his wake. Later, waiting in a geologically slow immigration queue at Basel, he looked shocked when I asked if they had slept on the plane. "We worked! We don’t often get an hour and a half together uninterrupted." In photos from five years ago, he looks ten years younger. Yes, his children are tiny (his daughter is five, his son two) and his wife has a full-time post as an academic. But the job—back and forth between Manchester and London, flying to Iceland to meet Bjork for an evening, to LA to see the artist Paul McCarthy, to the Avignon festival to check out the competition—must accept some responsibility for the silver in his hair and those bags under his round, brown eyes.
In December 2011 it became clear that he would be doing even more travelling. The Park Avenue Armory, a new and huge central-Manhattan performance space with Tate Modern-like ambitions, appointed him its artistic director. He has had it written into his contract that he’ll do two co-commissions with the Armory as part of every MIF; the first, premiering in both cities this year, will be a new play by a young playwright called Matt Charman, about the chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov and his match against the computer Deep Blue. When we first discuss this—the idea was Poots’s, and he seems both nervous and deeply excited about it—Charman is two weeks into writing, and they don’t have a star, or a director. "We’re talking to a number of people. Stephen Daldry, Rufus Norris…"
Poots is always talking to people. Earlier that day, in a dressing room furnished with a camp bed and a single peach rose in a plastic water bottle, he had spent 45 minutes perched on a stool at Marina Abramovic’s feet, yip-yapping thoughts to her, hands clasped in front of him as thick white make-up was pasted slowly onto her face and a photographer clicked away in the background. She cooed back: a terrier and a throaty turtle dove discussing plans. One was for a two-month research trip "to see every single mysterious thing" in Brazil. Another was a "healing" performance piece, perhaps for the Armory, perhaps for MIF, perhaps with "the world’s greatest living saxophone player", perhaps with 1,500 crystals. And 1,500 beds. Or if not beds, then tents. Or moss.
Their ideas swirled dreamily around the tatty room. Poots made some little practical tugs at them—When can this happen? Where do we find 1,500 crystals? Don’t read that out loud, send it to me by e-mail—but by and large seemed content to let what he calls "the magic and innocence of art" play out.
Later Abramovic told me, over the phone, that "the first thing I see is his eyes, they fix you and they are so sparkling, you think 'oh my God'. You feel he has an empathy with you, that he understands. Also, he has such energy. I often experience people first energetically, so that is what I noticed."
At the party, I’m chatting to Poots when a beautiful, scruffy blond boy appears at my elbow, propelling a straight-backed woman with grey hair in a chignon and a brooch at her throat. She is the director of the Museum of Modern Art in Moscow, and she wants to buy LADOMA. "Oh, I know your museum!" cries Poots. "I saw your exhibition two months ago." She preens, and they begin talking, fast, in French, Poots smiling into her eyes.
I go back to Cort, who tells me that earlier this year, Willem Dafoe’s agent refused to commit his client to doing LADOMA in Antwerp until seven days before it opened. Dafoe’s performance is the show’s lens and its focus; the thought of doing it without him must have appalled Poots. "He spent five hours at lunch with Willem in New York," says Cort, "persuading him to commit."
At the party, Dafoe has already left, and Marina Abramovic has yet to arrive. I go in search of a taxi. Antony Hegarty is standing by the lifts in his mummy-like white wrappings with his back to the room, guiltily wolfing cake from a paper plate. Glancing back, I see Poots in a corner, hunched and intense, exchanging business cards with two Serbian singers. I check the time. It’s midnight.
“Timing is everything." This is one of Poots’s favourite phrases. (Another is "I don’t want to jinx it": a belief in serendipity and a superstitious nature go hand in hand.) It’s a saying he inherited from his father’s father, Ernest, a pharmacist from Northern Ireland. Ernest’s son, Victor, studied medicine at Trinity College Dublin, where he met Mireille, a language student from southwest France. After Mireille took a double first, the young couple moved to a genteel suburb in Edinburgh, where she landed a lectureship at Heriot Watt university, and Victor began to practise as a dentist. Alex was born in 1967, his brother Benjamin 11 years later.
They were an intensely musical family. Mireille’s mother—a formidable woman who hid American soldiers in her basement during the occupation, and ran the amateur dramatics society in the village—stayed with the family for months at a time, and would "sing all day long"; her sister was an opera singer, her daughter played piano, and Victor played the trumpet. Poots’s first memory is of practising the cornet aged five—"it was very heavy, but the playing came easily to me." Photos from the early 1970s show him in velvet knickerbockers and waistcoat, performing trumpet solos for the neighbours at one of the family’s regular musical evenings, the music-stand as high as his head.
He describes himself as "really, really average" academically, but also as a fearless musician who at nine happily performed the "Mexican Hat Dance" at double speed in front of the whole school. He says his ability gave him the confidence every child needs "to get through". Ten years later, working the summer vacation as a barman in the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, he had the confidence to tell the then number two at the Edinburgh festival that he would be the perfect concert manager. He knew the hall, he knew music—by then his interests had veered from purely classical to jazz and pop—and, as he was already doing session work with local bands, "I knew what the performers were going through." Again, he got the job: making sure artists "left happy". He blow-dried the pianist Peter Donohue’s suit after Donohue dropped it in a puddle before a show; he ordered a white Rolls-Royce to drive the opera singer Jessye Norman 50 yards from her hotel to the venue "so she wouldn’t be bothered by meeting anyone".
Soon after he began studying for a BSC in music at City University in London, and joined a jazz outfit signed to Factory Records. But he quickly decided he wanted to be the band’s manager, not their brass player ("their admin was a mess, and lots of people in the band needed changing"). This meant his first real boss was Tony Wilson, the man who reinvented Manchester in the 1980s. "I phoned Tony up one day from my very, very student digs and said, 'Tony, we’re going to do gigs, we need contracts, we need a fax machine. I’m a student, I can’t afford one.' He said, 'You leave that with me. I’ll see you next week.' So the next week we’re waiting for Tony, and Tony breezes in in his Armani suit and trainers, says 'Here’s your fax!" and puts one, unboxed, on the table. I said, 'Wow, thanks, where d’you get that?' and he said 'Just took it out of the office. I told you I’d get you a fax.'
"I loved that. Get them the fax. Try to make it easy for artists. They’ll remember it. And then when you’re in a corner and they can help you, they want to."
He’s been giving them the fax pretty much non-stop since then, first running a free summer school for young composers (which he did from his living room), then persuading performers to take part in Louis Andriessen and Elvis Costello’s Meltdown festivals. After that, he started his own festival—Flux—in Edinburgh, before moving on to work full-time as a contemporary arts programmer for the Barbican, the Tate and ENO. His interest was always in new work, perhaps because, as Damon Albarn says, the most important thing in Poots’s life other than his family is "his imagination…He loves creating, he loves the unknown." Then he adds: "I’m not entirely his puppet, but people like Alex are totally essential to people like me. We feed off each other."
Why would someone so imaginative, a professional musician rated by his peers, choose to step out of the spotlight and into the wings? Poots tells me several times about joining Pulp on the main stage at Glastonbury in 1998 and playing to 70,000 people; you’d expect him to wax lyrical about it, but instead he says, "It was—whoah. The responsibility. If you show even a flicker of uncertainty, the audience loses interest." Soon after, he stopped playing altogether. When I ask his wife whether he wants, secretly, to be on stage, she thinks for a moment, then says, "No. He wants to put the artists on stage. He wants to help them." For Poots, feeding them ideas, getting them the fax—that’s the bigger stretch.
Early November, Manchester again. Alex Poots is back in the Albert Hall, hopping down the precipitous steps from its stage like a particularly lively goat. Following him are a gaggle of producers and technical people from MIF, along with Sarah Frankcom, the whiskery, no-nonsense artistic director from the Royal Exchange Theatre up the road, and the Manchester-born actress Maxine Peake. Like many in her profession, Peake is far prettier in real life: a clear-eyed, golden creature in a caramel-coloured camouflage jacket and scalloped white ankle socks. The hall, though, is no better-looking. Despite Joel Wilkinson’s assurances back in May, nothing has changed. If anything, the place looks even more decrepit.
We’re here because just around the corner there was a murder. A lot of murders. In 1819, as a crowd of men and women gathered on St Peter’s Field to demand reforms to parliament, a group of cavalrymen, apparently unprovoked and with swords drawn, charged into them. At least 400 people were injured; 15 were killed. In response, the poet Percy Shelley wrote "The Masque of Anarchy", a call to arms, if you like, for non-violent resistance. Since 2011 Poots has been rummaging about trying to find the right way of using this local hero of a poem within the festival. He first asked Guy Garvey, but Garvey wanted to do something different (and it now turns out has pulled out of MIF13 altogether after the offer of an American stadium tour proved hard to refuse). Instead, Poots knocked on Maxine Peake’s door.
He seems unfazed by the change of tack. Peake, he says, is like Garvey, in that "they’re both heartfelt Mancunians. People really rate them round here. Though what’s more important to me is that they’re both real, proper artists…I don’t like high-low distinctions in the arts. I mean Maxine was with Victoria Wood in 'Dinnerladies' so she has a huge popular following, but you can do something incredibly serious as well, with the talent she has." So now Frankcom will direct Peake reading the poem in the Albert Hall. There are vague plans too, to launch some kind of semi-political "Manchester Manifesto", inspired by the poem’s closing line: "Ye are many—they are few", in the same venue. Oh, and Peter Sellars, the theatre director, will use it for a performance of Shostakovich’s "Michelangelo Sonnets" by a famous opera singer from New York.
Taken as a whole, these three plans sum up the kind of art Poots best likes to make. One artist of global relevance, another with pop-culture cred backed by copper-bottomed ability, a local hero or heroine, a nod to the past, a resonance in the present. His final dissertation at university was about "fusion and change; how things that have similar essential elements have a synchronicity, how apparently very disparate things can come together". No surprise then that his hero is Diaghilev, "the greatest impresario of all time, who brought together Stravinsky, Satie…though Diaghilev was lucky. There’s no Stravinsky around at the moment." Among the rackfuls of awards displayed in MIF’s spanking new offices in Blackfriars House, the one Poots is most proud of is the Diaghilev Festival award he won in 2012 for LADOMA.
Like Diaghilev, Poots’s nose for collaborations that will whet the appetite of aesthetes and the public is often fox-sharp. He says that they work best "when two people really need each other"—when an older artist is refreshed by someone younger, say—though the difficulty lies in matching those needs. But his strength is also the festival’s weak spot. The same collaborators tend to pop up again and again, particularly Curtis, Albarn, Abramovic, Barrett. As the local arts journalist Ben East says, "it can feel a little like you’re getting variations on a theme, rather than a completely different, exciting festival each time".
Despite the billing, not everything at MIF has felt wholly new. Getting the rapper Kanye West to play the Manchester Apollo in 2007 was a coup, but hardly a new commission. And not everything has felt quite produced enough. Asking the blind Malian musicians Amadou and Mariam to play a gig entirely in the dark for MIF11 was a coruscating idea, let down by a rather dull narration of their biographies. But then there are the unabashed hits: Zaha Hadid’s unwound snail-shell of a pavilion designed specifically for listening to Bach, Kraftwerk playing in front of swooping cyclists in the Velodrome, both for MIF09, or "11 Rooms", a group show of physical art put together for MIF11 with the help of Poots’s long-time collaborator and "filter", Hans Ulrich Obrist, curator of the Serpentine Gallery in London.
Poots’s mind is a compendium of the arts. Time and again in the ten months I followed him, I saw him reach into his mental track-listing and offer artists to each other. You want a film director to help make a documentary? Let’s try Wim Wenders, James Marsh, Harmony Korine. You want a good-looking male lead for your play? Let’s talk to Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zachary Quinto. Poots’s former boss at the Tate, Sir Nicholas Serota, says both he and his ideas have "unbounded ambition". Marina Abramovic agrees: "he thinks big, and then bigger".
And, sometimes, he gets it spectacularly wrong. In Basel, the day after Danny Boyle unveiled the model for his London 2012 opening ceremony, I asked Poots what he thought of it. "Honestly? I was underwhelmed. I would have asked Ridley Scott."
Now, over lunch in a hotel, we discuss progress with bookings, flicking through pages of neatly tabulated ideas in the black Moleskine notebook he carries everywhere. He’s almost ostentatiously relaxed, cheery and chatty—he’d told me before that running the festival is a kind of controlled panic, but he seems less secretly tense than in Basel and I wonder if perhaps he actually enjoys the rush as he gets nearer the deadline, the moment in February when the brochure is printed. In May, he had told me he was "over halfway there" and that "by the summer I’ll be 80% there." Is he?
There’s been progress on some fronts. The young rock band The XX are booked for an exclusive run. Sir Kenneth Branagh has agreed to play Macbeth (not a new play, clearly, but a new production). And Adam Curtis has an idea for a two-hour show with Massive Attack, expressed as four pages of closely written thesis about "the real structures that govern the world". His final demand is "at the end the show will turn itself inside out". "Thanks, Adam," says Poots. "We’ll try and work that one out."
Then he shows me his timetable, a sheaf of A4 spreadsheets with dates for premieres marked in black and runs of shows marked in grey. There seems to be a lot of white space.
Making things up, filling empty space with stuff, is not only the preserve of the arts. Politicians do it too. Manchester has a festival because politicians invented it.
At a pre-launch event a week after the meeting with Peake, Poots was due to give a taster announcement about three MIF13 shows to an audience of around 150 sponsors, patrons and festival friends. While we were waiting, I talked to Sir Richard Leese, the Labour leader of the city council. The crowd was milling, drinking and talking loudly in a room provided by the property developers Bruntwood, a festival sponsor and a group that worked hand in hand with the council in the aftermath of June 15th 1996. That was the day a 3,300lb IRA bomb peeled the city centre open like a piece of fruit—and gave everyone the excuse they needed to wipe away the architectural detritus of recession and rethink Manchester’s life, both economic and cultural. Leese had been made leader of the council just a month earlier; one of those moments when a crisis makes a career.
He is a quiet, considered 62-year-old, with pale, close-cropped hair and a smooth, clean face. You can tell he wields power, because he doesn’t move much. We talk about whether he is happy with the festival so far (yes), about its purpose (telling more people about what the city is like), and about the council’s hands-off attitude (they were a bit worried about having a copulating bull on stage in the Opera House in 2007, but they reckoned Poots knew what he was doing). Then he mentions Poots’s idea of co-commissioning: "so even after the festival’s finished, MIF is still going round the world. That’s a piece of genius which will appreciate for a long time."
Not "we’ll appreciate", but "will appreciate". It certainly does. According to the arts consultancy Morris Hargreaves McIntyre, in its first, pre-recession year, MIF earned the city a net income of approaching £29m, and the advertising equivalent of £12m in press coverage. MIF11 had a net economic impact of £37.6m, and got £23.3m worth of press coverage. You can see why Leese is pleased. Whether he and his chief executive, Sir Howard Bernstein, entirely enjoy the fruits of what they’ve created is a moot point. Bernstein, an impish man with surprisingly black hair, a taste for jewellery and a muffler always around his neck, resembles an ageing urchin tumbled from some Victorian chimney. After the London premiere of Damon Albarn and Rufus Norris’s opera "Dr Dee", he hopped up, said, "Well, that’s me done for opera for the next six months," cackled loudly, and shot up the stairs to the exit.
Leese, Bernstein, and a coterie of large, local businesses make things happen for Poots, just as he makes things happen for the festival audience. On a rainy day in July I had sat in a panelled office in Manchester Town Hall and watched Bernstein’s monthly meeting with the MIF team. When artists are discussed, Bernstein (still with his scarf on) has a tendency to check his mobile; I’m fairly sure he doesn’t have a clue who Massive Attack are. But when Poots mentions running into problems with venues or finances, he perks up. Try this bunch for more money, he says. Put your play on in this car park. Then he tucks in his chin, and cackles again.
So yes, the festival has made money for the city. It has told people in Basel and elsewhere what Manchester is "all about". But why does a festival, in particular, do this? Could you not just spend the cash on a big advertising campaign? I ask my way around the party: what does MIF do for people, local people? Why in fact—if that’s not too big a question after two glasses of red—does it matter?
"It’s all part of education," says Shirley Murtagh, an elaborately coiffed patron of the Royal Exchange Theatre. "If we don’t educate people we don’t have anything, do we?" Jo Bloxham, a trustee of Manchester Art Gallery, hopes MIF will help people forget about football and get "more interested in art" instead. Then there’s Roger Stephenson, who has lived in the city for 34 years, watched the regeneration from the inside out, and whose architectural practice builds the tented pavilion that acts as a hub during every festival. "Why does it matter?" He sips his wine, and smiles. "It has raised the spirits of the city…It makes everybody happy."
Months later, when I ask Poots why his parents chose to live in Edinburgh, he says, “Well here’s the thing. They were attracted by the culture."
Early February 2013. Poots and I sit in the fading light of afternoon in his flat on the second floor of a block of Edwardian mansion flats, high on a hill in north London. We’re in the living room: two sofas, library-red walls, slightly grubby cream carpet, and a heavy, Indonesian-looking coffee table whose corners are diy-padded against toddlers with foam and black masking tape. There’s a shiny black baby-grand piano in the window, and a hi-fi by the fireplace. It is a week before the MIF13 brochure goes to press, and Poots has the proofs on the table in front of him. We’ve been talking about his plans, and about art.
"Why is it important? Why is it important that 2,000 people will hear Martha Argerich play Shostakovich’s piano concertos pretty much better than anyone on the planet? Because that’s all that matters! That’s when you get taken to heaven—or hell—but you get taken somewhere amazing. You get to a point in your life where you realise the rest of it doesn’t matter, money and all the rest of it, what matters are your family and your friends, and those moments in your life when the arts have transported you or illuminated something inside you or touched you profoundly. That’s what we work for, what makes the two-year journey and all the grief worth it."
I wonder how much grief there’s been. Of the plans we discussed back in May, many have come to fruition. Some have knitted together at the last minute, like Robert Wilson, Willem Dafoe and Mikhail Baryshnikov adapting a surrealist short story called "The Old Woman". Some, such as the Massive Attack/Curtis show, are still only half way there; Poots is "starting to know" what happens in each section, "and we know what it looks like, where the band is, and we know how to lift all of that up and take it on to Germany and then America". The Kasparov play has a director—not Norris, or Daldry, but Josie Rourke—though no lead. The Manchester Manifesto, which it turns out had ambitions for changing the structure and/or workings of the real city council, has faded away "for the moment…there just wasn’t time to put it into practice". Apparently Bernstein and Leese "were really up for it" (but then this was politics, not opera). And the Albert Hall?
"Not finished. We’re worried." Is there, actually, any difference to it all? "There is difference." What difference? "In that planning has gone through. So they can start work next week. I have to keep the pressure on."
How much, during the past year, has he had to hold his nerve under pressure? "I’m constantly holding my nerve. To the point where in fact you stop holding it, you just have to think ‘it will work’ or you’d be a nervous wreck." So part of your job is having faith? "Yes, just jump off the cliff and hope the parachute opens."
The door to the living room bangs wide, and Poots’s children, two dark-eyed, picture-book moppets, burst in, rosy-cheeked from the cold walk home from school. It’s time to go, but before I leave we return to the show he seems most excited about: the Argerich, which—like at least four of the other pieces he tells me about in the programme—was only confirmed in the past week. What would have filled that slot if it hadn’t landed? "Nothing, we made space for this. We didn’t really have the money, but I couldn’t resist it. I’m working even harder to get my last £50k of co-commissioning funds. If I hit my target for 'The Rite of Spring' [a new staging of Diaghilev’s most famous piece of showmanship], I can afford this. If not, it’s just jump off cliff, wait for parachute."
And then I remember Hans Ulrich Obrist telling me about that notorious copulating bull. "To have a bull in front of a live audience in an opera house seemed an a priori impossibility. Alex asked us a couple of times 'Is this really important? Is it an essential part of the show?' I said yes, indeed it is. And then you know…Alex just made it happen." Argerich might be a risk. But I imagine Poots will make it happen.
MIF13 Manchester, July 4th-21st; mif.co.uk