Sitting back over coffee at a café in The Rocks, Lieven Bertels has a look of a man who is getting comfortable with his legacy. Not that he’s smug or self-satisfied, but sitting on the table between us is a draft programme that looks set to deliver the last and finest in his four-year tenure as Director of the Sydney Festival. “My thoughts were very much not to be too nostalgic,” he admits with that Belgian lilt that explains some of the enthusiasms and cultural loyalties seen in Sydney over past years. “It is our 40th year, but we didn’t want to go back to anything in our history without being forward looking as well.”

A good example of that ethos is this year’s headliner: Woyzeck, Robert Wilson’s reinvention of Büchner’s unforgiving tale of man’s inhumanity to man as a 21st-century musical with songs by Tom Waits. “It’s connected to the Festival’s history, through The Black Rider that Waits and Wilson devised and that came out to Sydney before,” Bertels explains. “But rather than bringing one of those classic Wilson productions, we thought, ‘what can we do that ties in with our history and looks forward?’ So, it’s a beautiful new production by the next generation. It’s a young German director, it’s from Thalia, a theatre company that has never been here even though they are one of the top three companies in Germany, but it’s connected to one of the highlights from our past.”

A scene from Thalia’s Woyzeck

Limelight readers will be delighted to see that this year’s classical music programme is a notch up on previous offerings with some big-hitters and two entire orchestras being flown in from Europe. “I’ve never made it a secret that I thought we have lost a bit of shine in classical music since the Brett Sheehy and Leo Schofield’s days,” admits Bertels “One of the goals of a festival is to choose things that wouldn’t otherwise happen in your city, and also try to combine the best of what Sydney and Australia has to offer with the finest international talent.”

This year Sydney’s Festival Director looks set to go out with a massive classical bang with what feels like real big event programing – an entire Beethoven symphony cycle from Belgian period orchestra Anima Eterna and their charismatic maestro Jos Van Immerseel. Bertels knew the orchestra well from his days in Bruges, and when he heard they were planning to travel to play Beethoven at New York’s Lincoln Center he jumped. “What really excited me was this unique opportunity to do these as a marathon,” he explains. “I said to them, ‘I know it’s not a straight line from Brussels to New York, but what if you did a little detour down under? Would you be interested in doing the full marathon?’ and they were! They were very excited.”

Jos van Immerseel’s Beetvoven

Immerseel is a classical music iconoclast in the best sense of the word, one who has explored period instruments in recordings from Mozart to Mussorgsky (over the phone from Mexico City last week he told me he considers Stockhausen and Messiaen early music!) His cracking set of Beethoven symphonies on Zig Zag, which burst on the scene seven years ago earning plaudits galore acts as a first rate advert for their four consecutive Sydney concerts. “They are a truly European orchestra so it’s not a local band,” enthuses Bertels. “They have the best players from around the continent and they pick and mix according to the repertoire. They scale the orchestra from the smaller group required for the First Symphony up to the much bigger resources Beethoven used for presenting the Ninth. They have had 15 years of expertise trying to sort out what is fact and what is fiction in the genesis of those symphonies, so what they bring is probably the closest we can get to what Beethoven’s contemporaries must have heard.”

The other big-ticket item is Matthias Goerne, last seen in Australia with the Vienna Philharmonic. The German bass-baritone has just scored a hit abroad with his first Wotan in Das Rheingold, but for Sydneysiders he’ll be performing his signature work, the epic song-cycle Winterreise with pianist Marcus Hinterhäuser in a version that will see Schubert’s nocturnal journey come face to face with the stormy line-work and charcoal animation of South African artist William Kentridge. “The project came about as a beautiful co-commission between a number of big festivals,” says Bertels “William has built a physical instillation, an artwork that sits on stage. It’s a massive piece that will travel here and which acts as a backdrop for video projections in the typical Kentridge animated graphical style and in which he often plays a role himself. Here he acts as a shadow puppet in his own videos. He’s illustrated pretty much every song of the whole 24-song bundle to make the whole thing into a truly artistic collaborative experience”.

Matthias Goerne on Kentridges Winterreise ‘set’

Opera as well has furnished a big name in a collaboration that must be a feather in the cap for one Sydney arts company. Somehow, Bertels has managed to bag Pierre Audi, one of the world’s most respected directors to collaborate with Sydney Chamber Opera on the Australian premiere of Passion, French composer Pascal Dusapin’s take on the Orpheus myth. The 60-year-old Dusapin’s work has rarely been performed in Australia, but internationally he is renowned for his supple lyricism, the complexity of his orchestral textures, and his memorable, atmospheric scoring, especially when writing for the human voice (try any of his compelling choral works for starters).

“Pierre is my former boss,” explains Bertels. “People know him as the opera director of the big and bold. He’s done an amazing Ring Cycle that has been revived twice and he’s been in all the big opera houses. But what really excites me most is when he works with very minimal means. Passion is probably one of the most staged contemporary operas of the last two decades together with Into the Little Hill. It’s sung in Italian and it’s loosely based on Orpheus and Eurydice. Pascal Dusapin writes in quite an accessible language so it doesn’t need all the circumstance of big opera. Pierre did a version, which was originally staged in a concert hall and I asked him, ‘Can we recreate this with the Sydney Chamber Opera?’ He, of course, had never heard of them. I said, ‘well, if I bring anything home to Europe from my years here it would be Sydney Chamber because I think they are a thrilling bunch of young energetic people and the quality is on a par with anything you find anywhere else.’”

An excerpt from Dusapin’s Passion

Luckily for Bertels, Audi agreed and so Jack Symonds will travel out to Amsterdam to work with the two European soloists: Elise Caluwaerts, a 26-year-old flexible soprano who is unafraid of tackling contemporary repertoire (Bertels likens her to the next Barbara Hannigan, who did the original Passion), and a young Polish singer, Wiard Witholt, who now lives in Leipzig. Dusapin fans will have another chance to hear his work when Mitchell Riley sings O Mensch! – 21 poems by Friedrich Nietzsche transformed into a virtuoso piece for baritone and piano in an intimate production directed by Sarah Giles.

The other orchestra making the journey down under is again from Lieven Bertels’ beloved low countries but has a definite Aussie twist. The New Dutch Academy has been conducted for some years now by Balmain-born maestro Simon Murphy, who is a specialist in the repertoire of the 17th and 18th centuries (try their outstanding recordings on Pentatone!) To mark the 400th anniversary of Dutch explorer Dirk Hartog’s expedition to Australia, Murphy has chosen a collection of music that could have been experienced on the Dutch music scene of the time: Vivaldi, Handel, Telemann, but also de Fesch, van Wassenaer and more. “The excuse really is to present some lesser-played Dutch composers (or music from the low countries I should say because the map of Holland looked a bit different 400 years ago),” explains Bertels. “And it was nice to organise a bit of a homecoming for Simon, who’s really well respected now in The Hague. And the band is getting really well known, particularly with this repertoire.”

Conductor Simon Murphy

Smaller, quirky ideas include Pleasure Garden which weaves together music and environmental sounds as you stroll though the gardens of Vaucluse House. Inspired by the 17th-century musician, composer, improviser and nobleman Jacob van Eyck, excerpts from his work and intertwined with newly composed music by recorder virtuoso Genevieve Lacey. My favourite oddity, though, has to be Mexrrissey which sees a seven-piece Mexican band interpreting the music of Morrissey through ranchera, mariachi, danzón, mambo, norteño and cha cha cha – now that’s what festivals are for!

Alongside all that classical music there’s an impressive line up of contemporary dance headed by a double bill from acclaimed Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. Fase, from 1982, is set to four pieces by minimalist composer Steve Reich and danced by De Keersmaeker herself, and the more recent Vortex Temporum by French composer Gérard Grisey involves seven dancers and six musicians sharing the stage, each dancer translating the sounds of a particular instrument into movement. Home-grown work comes in the form of Cut the Sky by Broome-based dance-theatre company Marrugeku, a big new work about our relationship with Country seen through an Aboriginal lens.

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Vortex Temporum

Theatre projects include The Object Lesson, in which the audience sits inside a towering installation of cardboard boxes while actor and illusionist Geoff Sobelle explores piles of trinkets, souvenirs of a life’s worth of recollections and relationships, in what has been called “a magical act of storytelling”. All the Sex I’ve Ever Had sees a group of Sydney’s over-65s sharing true stories of their romantic and sex lives while David Grieg’s play, The Events, sees Catherine McClements joined by local community choirs in a fusion of theatre and music showing how a community reacts in the aftermath of a terrible act of violence.

But back to that New Dutch Academy and all things low country. This year’s Sydney Festival falls only two days off from the 400th anniversary of the day when Dirk Hartog sailed out of the port of Leeuwarden, and coincidently that’s exactly where Lieven Bertels will be headed next as he has been appointed Artistic Director of Leeuwarden Fryslân 2018 – Cultural Capital of Europe. As he tells me this, I notice a hint of the not to be admitted nostalgia creep into Bertels’ eye. It’s a nice coincidence – but first there’s the small matter of this year’s festival to manage.

Sydney Festival 2016 runs from January 7-24.