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A cup of tea brought this US rock star to curate a unique festival in Cork

Bryce Dessner from the National has been working with Mary Hickson, who has overhauled the Cork Opera House since 2010.

Bryce-Dessner-Press-Photo-by-Annie-Mie-Dreves-and-Deustche-Grammaphon Bryce Dessner, curator of Sounds From a Safe Harbour

‘Statio Bene Fida Carinis/A Safe Harbour for Ships’ – Cork’s motto

WHEN MARY HICKSON first took up her post as CEO of Cork Opera House, she grabbed a blank piece of paper, wrote the venue’s name on it and asked herself: “What is wrong with this?”

She knew she had to “get down on my hands and knees” and figure the Opera House – operating at a loss and in need of an overhaul – out.

Hickson realised that she “didn’t feel [Cork Opera House] was Cork”: although she was Cork born and bred, when she returned home after 10 years in Dublin she didn’t pass through the doors of the venue much.

Mary Hickson

“We can all have airs and graces about what the Opera House shouldn’t be but in a city like Cork, we have to be a variety house. We have to open to all the different audiences that are here – it can’t be an ego project,” she decided.

Sounds From a Safe Harbour

Her approach – go big or go home – started with a performance of Steve Reich’s music on his 75th birthday in 2010. Her tenure will end this October just weeks after the ambitious festival Sounds From a Safe Harbour, curated by The National’s Bryce Dessner, puts its stamp on the city.

It has been a remarkably successful five years for the Cork Opera House under Hickson. The last three years have been happily spent in profit, and a heap of fantastic artists have passed through its doors.

Sounds From a Safe Harbour is its most ambitious project yet, and a fitting swansong for Hickson.

It all came about after she met Bryce Dessner for tea in the five-star Hayfield Manor hotel a few years ago. They hit it off, and after two and a half hours of chatting had come up with a plan for “making something happen” in September 2015.

Bryce-Dessner-Press-Photo-by-Annie-Mie-Dreves-and-Deustche-Grammaphon Bryce Dessner Source: Annie Mie Dreves and Deutsche Grammaphon

“I left with a spring in my step, saying ‘this is actually going to happen’,” remembered Hickson. A while later, Dessner’s publicist got in touch to see if Cork Opera House would go into commission (with the London Barbican, Sydney Arts Festival and Edinburgh International Festival) for a project of Bryce’s – called Wave Movements – involving a symphony orchestra.

The piece is about responding to wave patterns, and itself became a swell that spilled out to become a deluge of 70 events involving 450 artists, taking place around Cork city over four days.

It has branched out from music to art to conversation, with galleries, University College Cork, cafés, theatres, the City Hall, CIT, and even the historic bonded warehouses near the port being utilised as venues.

LISAHanniganpress_3 Lisa Hannigan

The latter venues will host talks, art, and music, and are part of the festival’s connection to the sea. “The theme running through, wave movement, made us look to the river, to the port, to the harbour – the idea of it being a safe space, and a space for making music and collaboration,”explained Hickson.

The whole event is “a leap of faith”, she said, but there’s been a great energy to it from the very beginning.

They were able to get bands like The Gloaming and Wild Beasts to perform, and venues were quick to come on board. It’s testament to how Hickson and team have helped invigorate the Opera House and give it a new, fresher reputation.

AaronDessner Aaron Dessner

Why Cork?

Why does Cork mean so much to The National? “The first gig they played here, there were at max 20 people at, in the Triskel Arts Centre,” said Hickson. “It really stayed with [Bryce]. They played around Christmas time and it was ‘like this enchanted city’, he said in an interview afterwards.”

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Given the city centre’s compact size, all the venues are within strolling distance, and the south and north channels of the River Lee are always close by. “There’s an intimacy about what we’re doing creatively as well as physically – you’d be in these people’s company all weekend,” added Hickson.

At the heart of Sounds From a Safe Harbour is collaboration, which complements the journey the Cork music scene has been on in recent years.

“The landscape has changed a lot creatively in Cork. There is incredible willingness and openness,” said Hickson. “Everyone is bringing a lot of themselves.”

Eat-my-Noise Eat My Noise

Artists like St Vincent once wouldn’t have taken to a stage in the city, but now Cork is firmly on the list of Irish locations to visit. “I don’t see why Cork shouldn’t be [as active as Dublin], it’s the second city, it’s the biggest county with a huge population. We put the work in and we’re seeing the reward now.”

Hickson said that “not in my wildest dreams” would she have imagined, back in 2010, commissioning work with someone like Bryce Dessner. But now, Cork Opera House is more than bricks and mortar:

It feels alive, it feels the public really connect with the building as much as the programming.

Source: Culturefox.tv/Vimeo

As Hickson gets ready to move onto her next career phase – after a holiday with her family somewhere warm and far away from Ireland – she’s looking forward to reflecting on her last five years at the Opera House, but in particular Sounds From A Safe Harbour.

“It’s really exciting for Cork that we’ve managed to do this together – the biggest thing is the noise we can make when we come together,” she said.

Sounds From A Safe Harbour features performances and collaborations by the likes of Lisa Hannigan, Sam Amidon, Crash Ensemble, Kjartan Sveinsson (Sigur Rós) and the Wave Movements, Bryce Dessners collaboration with Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire. To view the whole line-up, and buy tickets, visit the official website.

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