It's gotten to be almost a problem, actually, the way that Lincoln Center Festival: which runs from July 5 to August 5 in 2012: can cut into your summertime planning. Just as you're thinking of heading off to the beach or the mountains, you remember that you need to stay close to Lincoln Center, in case you miss the show that everyone's talking about come fall. This summer, a number of shows will tether you to Gotham: no one could bear to be away for the New York premiere of Dmitry Krymov's In Paris (August 1 _5) starring Mikhail Baryshnikov. And who would dare skip the Paris Opera Ballet in its first Festival engagement (July 11 _22), performing several works including an Orpheus and Eurydice choreographed by the great, departed Pina Bausch?
There will be stars, certainly, and they will exert their own gravitational pull. Astonishing acting talents (Alan Cumming doing a one-man Macbeth; Cate Blanchett in Uncle Vanya) are already on the roster. Crucially, though, the Festival's greatest attraction is much broader. "The point of the Festival," says its director Nigel Redden, "is to add to the cultural life of the city by filling in niches that might not otherwise be occupied." Redden must know that if it weren't for these summer extravaganzas, many of us in New York might not recognize there were niches needing to be filled.
Over the years, the Festivals have created their own constellation of familiar artists, like the returning Garry Hynes, director of Galway's superb Druid Theatre, which amazed the city in 2006 with DruidSynge, a blistering cycle of J.M. Synge's entire oeuvre, and again in 2011 with Sean O'Casey's The Silver Tassie. Hynes and Druid return with another encyclopedic project, DruidMurphy (July 5 _12), this time giving Irish playwright Tom Murphy: a writer considered in a dead-heat for "greatest living Irish playwright" with Brian Friel: the master's treatment. Co-commissioned by the Festival, the marathon trilogy of transcendent pieces about the formation of Irish identity through famine and emigration may not be something we knew we were missing. But if Druid's track record is anything to go by, there's a new niche coming right up.
Another name familiar to old Festival hands is Hungarian director Tamšs Ascher, whose Ivanov (LCF 2009) mined a rich vein of cruel hilarity in one of Chekhov's most difficult plays. (The New York Times called it "magnificent.") When he returns to helm the Sydney Theatre Company's Uncle Vanya (July 19 _28), his marquee cast will include the astonishing Richard Roxburgh as Vanya, the radiant Cate Blanchett, and saturnine Hugo Weaving. Those who remember Ivanov, though, are starstruck enough that Ascher himself has returned. Likewise, after Alan Cumming took his Dionysiac turn in a punk-glam The Bacchae (LCF 2008), festwatchers have been waiting for his second act. Now it arrives when he plays all the parts in the National Theatre of Scotland's gender-bending solo version of Macbeth (July 5 _10).
The Festival has also traditionally honored special musical artists like Philip Glass and Ornette Coleman with dedicated concerts that spotlight their life and work. This year celebrates the late soul music icon Curtis Mayfield with a 70th birthday tribute on July 14.
In some ways, the Festival seems an extension of its director. Redden confesses to his personality being deeply stamped into its structure. In one conversation he claims three homelands _ ancestral Ireland, his native America and even Italy, since he was raised in Rome. This easy fluency between cultures and a profound interest in cross-cultural braiding gives the Festival its particular profile.
Other pieces are straightforward celebrations of excellence, like the first New York performance of an opera by the celebrated Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, a visit Redden calls, "criminally overdue." Saariaho and librettist Amin Malouf have turned the story of the vigorous Enlightenment intellectual ê_milie de Breuteuil into the monodrama ê_milie, sung by soprano Elizabeth Futral. Other major works, though, have Redden's intercultural conversation woven even more deeply into their structure.
In fact, you can see that Redden has programmed a kind of festival within the Festival, an investigation into the collision of Eastern and Western sensibilities, of nationhood and its discontents. The Krymov work In Paris, for instance, is an elegiac portrait of a White Russian: played by Baryshnikov: falling in love with a young expatriate. It's a portrait of the wistfulness of emigration, a ballad of cultural dislocation.
And then there are the Chinese projects. Theatre de Vidy Lausanne sends the Chinese puppeteer Yeung FaÇ with Hand Stories (July 18 _22), which uses puppets, video, and hightech effects to tell his own life story, including his grandfather's death during the Cultural Revolution. Redden has also programmed Beijing's TAO Dance Theater (July 25 & 27) with two contemporary works by choreographer Tao Ye. And finally, Guo Wenjing's chamber opera Feng Yi Ting (translated roughly as The Phoenix Pavilion) will debut July 26 _28.
Celebrated film and stage director Atom Egoyan directs this multi-media opera production, eager to grapple with Guo Wenjing's musical sensibilities. The plot dramatizes an ancient story of a woman who deliberately seduces two warlords in order to sow dissent and make way for a new Empire. "This destruction," says Redden, "gives rise to the greatness of China. That has more than a little resonance today."
"What's interesting about the Guo Wenjing opera and Hand Puppets is the intersection of Eastern and Western ways of thought. It's true, Lincoln Center is a bastion of a kind of classicism, but there is the classicism of different cultures, too. We look at work that happens around the world that ought to be seen here. That's what this Festival is essentially about. Learning through performance about cultures that are not ours. As we understand any one of these experiences, we can put our own into a more thoughtful, more satisfactory context. It just all becomes richer."