A chat with the man who held his nerve to see Hobart Baroque rise like a phoenix in Queensland.

There are many words to describe Leo Schofield. Gourmet, entrepreneur, impresario – all apply to the indefatigable artistic chief of Australia’s youngest festival, arisen phoenix-like from the ashes of the late, lamented Hobart Baroque. As I join him for a glass of wine in a favourite Potts Point café, the word raconteur springs to mind. I am here to discuss Brisbane Baroque with the man who, with partner-in-crime, Executive Producer Jarrod Carland, pulled the fat from the fire in the nick of time, and Leo is clearly up for a good yarn.

“The idea for a festival first occurred to me in 1988,” he tells me. “My wife and I went down to Hobart for the bicentennial re-enactment of the first fleet arrival. It was beautiful and touching, particularly when the Polish ship came in and all the Polish community came out on the wharf in national costume to present bread and salt. It was the old Soviet Poland, mind. The sailors were in 18th-century canvas clothing and poor quality Soviet sneakers, and they were all lined up on the yardarm as it swept into the harbour. The Americans were sleek and the Spanish were chic. I’m sure an awful lot of babies were conceived that evening!”

Steering him gently back to the point in hand, while he may not have been in the baby generating party on that occasion, the germ of an idea was conceived, thanks to a production of Don Giovanni coincidentally playing in Hobart’s historic Theatre Royal. “It was a funny production but I thought it was a great idea,” Schofield recalls. “Being in that beautiful building for the first time was such an experience and the thought of that theatre stayed with me for a long time. It seemed to me totally underutilised, as it had seemed to many people.”

Schofield’s passion for early music dates back to the 1950s. “I was crazy about it at university, we all were,” he tells me. “It’s not just the melodies, I love the idea, the whole conceit. I produced The Fairy Queen in 1960 at university alongside H.M.S. Pinafore and a couple of plays, and Charles Mackerras’s niece was in the orchestra playing cello! Alfred Deller was our big influence back then. We were fascinated by the sound of a countertenor.”

“We presented a business case, but the new Premier’s idea of culture was Bruce Springsteen”

In later years Schofield put in some money to help form the Van Diemen’s Land Opera, a company hoping to replicate the success and style of Sweden’s legendary Drottningholm Court Theatre. “I bought a house down there, a little north of Hobart,” he says, “and the thought was always drifting around my head about trying to get up a baroque festival. Nothing much happened. I couldn’t find anybody who even understood what ‘baroque’ was for a while. Eventually I decided to make a last ditch stand and I spoke to Jarrod Carland about it. Within a few days, he’d magically produced $200,000 from the government and that was enough to kick start us. We got $120,000 from Graeme Wood and we got it up with Haydn’s L’isola disabitata – not really a baroque opera but it was available.”

That pragmatic approach served the organisers of the first modest Hobart Baroque Festival well. “It drew a reasonable audience and it got people chattering,” says Schofield. The second festival was the real winner though, featuring the Australian debuts of Russian coloratura Julia Lezhneva, Catalan countertenor Xavier Sabata and Handel’s Orlando fresh from America’s Glimmerglass Opera. Doubling attendance figures and pulling in a considerable interstate audience, year three was on the cards. “It was clearly set to go ahead, there was no question,” Schofield opines. “No one said it was a flop, so we went ahead and planned, but we couldn’t convince Will Hodgman’s new Tasmanian government to make a proper investment. We presented a business case entirely attached to results (although they tried to present it as a handout), but the new Premier’s idea of culture was Bruce Springsteen. We invited all the ministers but nobody came! Nobody! They ran some of their own research, but we encountered some animosity from people within the tourism industry. I don’t know if they felt their toes had been trodden on. One particular guy was horrendous. He kept telling the newspaper that the money should be spread around the state, without any idea. Their obsession with regionality was just ludicrous!”

By last September things were going to the wire and there was still no confirmation. “We started to lose stuff on account of the delay,” Schofield explains. “Neither Jarrod nor I were prepared to continue to pump our own money into it, but then several people suggested we take it to Queensland. We considered our options. Hodgman asked if the festival was going to Brisbane. I didn’t want to appear to be blackmailing him, but I confirmed there was interest. I wanted put the fear in him. I wanted it to stay there. But we just didn’t encounter anything like the collegiality that we found in Brisbane.

So Tasmania’s loss was Queensland’s gain. “Every interested party – from Tourism and Events Queensland, Arts Queensland, the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, the Queensland Conservatorium – they all made it very easy for us,” Schofield says. “Now we have a budget that is right for the event and we also have a three year tenure, which is what we asked for and couldn’t get in Hobart.”

Max Emanuel Cencic

Fortunately for Leo, his headliner held firm. “I saw Max Emanuel Cencic in Handel’s Alessandro in Athens,” he says, “and I just had to have him.” The Croatian superstar is something of a modern day Farinelli, and his Australian debut is quite a coup for Brisbane. A complete staging of a rare Handel opera from the Göttingen Festival is also on the bill. “Faramondo has never been seen here so there’s a lot of curiosity about it,” Schofield explains. “I think people will like it. It’s cinematic in feel and it’s a terrific score with a lot of surprise little duets and things that happen instead of just da capo aria, off, another da capo aria, on. We have a good percentage of the original cast – Anna Devin is marvellous and we have a terrific singer in Jennifer Rivera. Christopher Lowrey as the villain, Gernando is wonderful. He’s vaguely ‘Diagalevian’ with black fingernails and he’s always sniffing panties. It’s wacky – but good wacky!”

There will be some interesting young singers, too, in a one-off performance of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, and violinist Julia Fredersdorff will perform Biber’s marathon Rosary Sonatas. “It’s a real festival thing to do,” says Schofield. “It’s a day, two hours in the morning, two in the afternoon. We’ll do it in a very pretty church.” 

Listening to him rhapsodise with such enthusiasm for a passion stretching back over 60 years, I marvel at his determination. After Hobart, a lot of people would have walked away. So what drives Leo Schofield to pull something like this off again and again? “Anger!” he laughs, fixing me with a gimlet stare. “No, fury! I hate to see a good idea die. I’m ruthless when it comes to relinquishing something. I cling to ideas I think would chime with public taste.” For which we are truly thankful.

Brisbane Baroque in association with Queensland Performing Arts Centre runs from April 10-18