At 75, the Holland Festival Is Back and More Global Than Ever
The event, which focuses this year on the climate and issues of representation, is designed to introduce audiences to vital artistic voices.
Each summer the Holland Festival welcomes the world to Amsterdam with a monthlong performing arts lineup that is a highlight of the Dutch capital’s cultural calendar. After two years of reduced offerings because of the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s festival, which runs through June 26, returns to full strength with a robust program to mark the event’s 75th anniversary.
In the wake of World War II, the Holland Festival was established in 1947 as a project for peace and understanding between nations. A similar belief in the power of art to bridge cultures also led to the founding that year of the Edinburgh International Festival and the Festival d’Avignon.
After three-quarters of a century, the Holland Festival is arguably more global than ever. This year’s program, which focuses on the climate and issues of representation, features new and recent work from a varied roster of established artists from the United States, Europe, Africa and South America.
“I think we’ve never been mainstream,” said the Holland Festival’s director Emily Ansenk. In a recent phone interview, she explained that the event is designed to introduce Dutch audiences to vital artistic voices rather than line up superstars guaranteed to generate hefty box office receipts.
“We are not after the big names because they are big names,” said Ms. Ansenk, 52. “The festival starts with a clean slate every year and you have to fill it in with the perfect mix,” she added.
In its latter half, the festival features a combination of theater, dance, opera and music, including works by the French-Beninese singer Angélique Kidjo and the German theater director Nicolas Stemann, who are both artists-in-residence this year.
Ms. Kidjo performs in “Yemandja,” her new musical theater piece about slavery and betrayal. The work, which had its world premiere at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in March, is a magical realist panorama set in a 19th-century African village where the local ruler collaborates with a Brazilian slave trader.
“‘Yemandja’ is about how we might come together to heal the wounds caused by colonialism and slavery,” Ms. Kidjo said in an interview available on the festival’s website. “Music plays a key part in this.”
On June 24, Ms. Kidjo is also scheduled to appear in a concert with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta and solo musicians in a program that includes her own songs and several others written for her by the American minimalist composer Philip Glass, as well as chansons by Edith Piaf and George Brassens.
Ms. Ansenk pointed to the concert as an example of the sort of cross-pollination that her festival encourages. “We put local ensembles or stars together with international ones and then something magical happens,” she said.
While assembling the program, Ms. Ansenk explained that she and her programmers wait to see what sort of themes and connections emerge from the lineup.
“It’s really what the artist wants to bring to the table and then we kind of weave a red thread through the festival program with it,” she said. “It’s nice also for the audience to kind of bundle it and say, this is what artists nowadays are working on.”
The question of accurate representation, a topic of much of Ms. Kidjo’s work, was front and center in “Contre-enquêtes,” which played at the festival earlier this week. The show is Mr. Stemann’s theatrical exploration of “The Meursault Investigation,” the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud’s post-colonial take on Albert Camus’ “The Stranger.”
“While I was busy with this project, the question arose: who are we to tell this story?” Mr. Stemann says in an interview published on the festival’s website. “Who can play these characters? This is part of an important and highly current debate about identity politics. I wanted to consider these questions not as problems but as productive subjects for theater.”
The ethics of storytelling also lie at the heart of “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” an irreverent reworking of Wagner’s epic cycle written by Necati Oziri and directed by Christopher Rüping, an in-house director at the Schauspielhaus Zurich, in Switzerland.
Mr. Oziri, a young German playwright, imagines the inner lives of Wagner’s mythological figures, with an emphasis on the exploited and marginalized among them, while Mr. Rüping wildly stages the monologues over an energetic and music-filled evening with a nearly four-hour running time.
Mr. Stemann, the co-artistic director of the Schauspielhaus Zurich, proposed Mr. Rüping for this summer’s lineup. As artist-in-residence, Mr. Stemann is showing three productions at the Holland Festival, in addition to a sneak preview of “Sonne,” a new play about climate change (told from the point of view of the sun) from the Austrian Nobel Prize-winning author Elfriede Jelinek. Mr. Stemann, who will stage the work next season in Zurich, frequently collaborates with Ms. Jelinek.
The environmental theme carries through to “Kein Licht,” an opera by the composer Philippe Manoury based on a text by Ms. Jelinek that will be staged by Mr. Stemann in the festival’s closing days.
Cheekily called a “Thinkspiel” by its composer, the musical theater piece conjures a desolate world after a Fukushima-style nuclear power plant disaster through instrumental, vocal and live electronic music — as well as a real howling dog.
“It starts with Fukushima but then expands into the theme of exploitation and the destruction of nature and the planet in general,” Mr. Stemann explained in the website interview. In Amsterdam, the director will present an updated version of the work, which premiered in 2017 at the Opéra Comique in Paris.
“Kein Licht” treats its bleak topics — stupidity and blindness leading to man-made apocalypse — with neurotic humor and a taste for the absurd. In this, the sense of outrage is counterbalanced by mischievousness. For Mr. Stemann, it’s important to find a way to confront timely themes without being propagandistic or preachy.
“Currently art is at great risk of being hijacked by political agendas,” Mr. Stemann said. And although he’s featured prominently in a festival that has chosen to highlight burning issues, the director feels that it’s necessary to “defend art’s autonomy.”
“I feel art loses its potency when it becomes too political,” he said.