Leo Schofield has left Tasmania for good, returning to his home and family in Sydney, after the collapse of his innovative Hobart Baroque festival. Before he left, he spoke to Martyn Goddard about Tasmania, music, friends and enemies, and the biggest disappointment of his long career.
With two days to go before Leo Schofield is to leave Tasmania, his rented house in West Hobart is a mess. Piles of shirts on hangers cover chairs and tables, huge half-packed cardboard boxes litter the place. His three daughters and ex-wife have been down from Sydney to help him pack. One daughter, the actor Nell, rings while we’re talking.
Leo likes Tasmania but doesn’t like this house. His rat’s nest, he calls it: a 1940s red-brick place badly in need of renovation. He’d needed to find somewhere to live in a hurry after he sold Dysart House, the colonial mansion at Kempton in the Tasmanian Midlands that he had meticulously and expensively restored.
In 1935, Leo Schofield he was born to a football-loving pub-owner at Brewarrina on the dry and unrelenting plains of far western New South Wales. But he went to school and grew up in Sydney, and then began his long career in the arts and advertising. In London, never having been to Tasmania, he and his wife, Anne, saw a BBC documentary on the place by the poet laureate, Sir John Betjeman.
‘Tasmania reminded Betjeman of Georgian England before the Industrial Revolution ‒ how unspoilt it was, Leo recalls. ‘So it stirred a curiosity. In the early seventies, Anne and I decided we needed a break and we did a road trip, north to south, and saw all the houses. And after that we made multiple visits. Whenever friends came from overseas, we’d say: “Let’s slip down to Tasmania?”
‘The thought occurred more than once that it might be nice to have a Georgian house in Tasmania. We’d never be able to afford one in Sydney but in Tasmania we could.’
The big moment was in 1988 when, with Donald McDonald, general manager of the Australian Opera, Leo and Anne made the trip to see a special bicentennial performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Theatre Royal in Hobart. It was a dull production but the theatre starred. He never forgot it ‒ Australia’s only surviving Georgian theatre. A great place, he thought, for early music.
The idea for a baroque festival in Hobart had been shared by a top international opera director, Goran Jarvefelt but lapsed when Jarvefelt died at the end of 1989, aged only 42, of a brain tumour.
In 2002, Leo bought Dysart House, the elegant colonial mansion that dominates the village of Kempton. There had been three opportunities to buy ‒ the first at only $400,000 ‒ but at last he felt he could face up to the task of such a complex and expensive restoration.
So the Tasmanian period began …
So the Tasmanian period began. There was a weekly column in the Mercury which quickly became one of the paper’s most-read features. Readers were kept informed about the progress of the Kempton project but they also saw uncompromising criticism of the second-rate: the Ten Days on the Island festival, the Tasmanian tourism industry and its official representatives, unprofessional service in restaurants and hotels, ham-fisted tourism promotion, the woeful condition of the state’s unique built heritage, the lack of any coherent arts policy.
You just don’t say those things in Tasmania: behind closed doors, certainly, but not in the newspaper. Someone might be listening!
Enemies gathered but in the manner of such people they remained, for the time, quiet in public. Their time would come; and it did.
Meanwhile, he became one of the state’s most indefatigable boosters. Events Tasmania ran a survey in Queensland to find out which brands people associated with Tasmania: the name ‘Leo Schofield’ came out top, the only individual ever to emerge as a brand in such a survey.
Parties of friends and colleagues still spent weekends and holidays at Kempton but his work was in Sydney and, increasingly, Brisbane. After successfully leading three of the country’s top arts festivals in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane ‒ and rescuing some of them from doldrum and decay ‒ he put together a regular season at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre of the world’s top ballet companies.
Dysart House was almost always empty. Time to sell. There was an open day to raise money for the local school, then a high-profile furniture auction. And a move to West Hobart before ‒ he hoped ‒ finding a smaller period house in Hobart to bring, once more, back to life.
Although Brisbane, and the global booking trips such an enterprise demands, continued to take much of his time, he remained in love with Hobart and Tasmania. It was, he knew, the ideal place to run the niche music festival he had planned with Goran Jarvefelt so long ago: based around the Theatre Royal, but using the city’s exceptional stock of other early buildings for rich and unusual performances. It would tap the only growth area in all of classical music ‒ the baroque ‒ and allow Tasmanians to see their island and themselves in a new and brighter way.
The first festival was tiny, funded with $200,000 from Premier Lara Giddings. ‘Paul Keating talked to Giddings and said: “You’ve got him down there, why don’t you use him?”’
Graeme Wood, the Wotif founder and philanthropist, gave $150,000. Much of the rest was tipped in personally by Leo and his co-producer, Jarrod Carland, a former professional singer with an arts administration business in Melbourne. It was enough ‒ just ‒ for a first toe-in-the-water festival.
‘[The core idea] was the Theatre Royal to begin with. It seemed to me that it was almost purpose-built for early opera. It was the right size, it was in the right-sized city. Baroque music was the flavour of the month and there wasn’t a baroque music festival.
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden …
‘The first festival in 2013 was put together really swiftly. I had the view that, for anybody to take notice of it, here or on the mainland, we’d have to have a big name involved in some way. And the first big name was, of course, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.’
That London production of L’Isola Disabitata [The Desert Island] a small-scale opera by Joseph Haydn. Though Haydn is regarded as a classical, rather than a baroque, composer, this small-scale piece written for the Palace of Esterhaza after a fire destroyed its opera house ‒ was compatible with the older style. It was the first time the Covent Garden company had performed in Australia.
And there was an acclaimed recital by the Australian counter-tenor, David Hansen.
‘For 2014 we expanded the festival. The audience seemed readier: they seemed to understand what it was. Very professional marketing helped: that’s a game both Jarrod and I know well. And we both know a lot of journalists.
‘We had an agreed strategy. First, we would have to have a major attraction in the festival that would interest mainlanders. Second, it would have to be exclusive to Hobart, to make people come here.
And thirdly, it would have to be relentlessly promoted. I’ve always believed any festival needs an opera at its heart, because that says ‒ even to people who don’t attend ‒ that it’s a serious event. It gives a sense of bigness to the thing. Even though there may be only five singers, it has a live orchestra and it’s not what people are used to.
‘We judiciously built around that. We wanted to be very considerate to local artists, to give them a showcase as well. Otherwise, the ‘elitist’ tag is always going to be hurled at you by bogans and anti-culture people. We thought we could minimise that by having a hefty component of local artists. And the five-dollar series de-elitised the whole thing.’
This time, Premier Lara Giddings contributed $400,000 of state government money. Other major donors, including arts patron Penny Clive and Federal Group director Julia Farrell, gave substantial donations and in-kind support. The Hobart Lord Mayor, Damon Thomas, shepherded through a City Council contribution and free rent for performances in the newly-restored Town Hall.
From his base in Hobart, Leo had the task of combing the world for the best young artists ‒ young because people at the start of their careers had not yet priced themselves out of Hobart Baroque’s very limited budget. By doing this, an event could be created to which people from all over the world would have to come if they were to see the best stars of the future.
For Leo, this meant a number of self-funded trips to Europe and America, looking at other performances and other festivals. ‘London, Vienna, Paris, Avignon, Salzburg. But I’d done those circuits for years when I was doing the eleven major mainland festivals. For this one, we were able through YouTube and so on to target precisely what we wanted to go and see.’
It was known immediately overseas …
But not everything can be seen in person. ‘We were getting notes from agents after the very first Hobart Baroque. It was known immediately overseas. Agents are out there touting for work. Everyone has production videos of the shows they’ve put on because you can’t always be in the right place at the time. The boss of Universal Classics rang me up and said: “There’s a knock-out Russian soprano called Julia Lezhneva.”’
And so the 24-year-old found herself on a plane from Moscow to Hobart.
There were important supporters at Government House. The governor, Peter Underwood, and his wife, Frances, were both ardent fans of baroque music but had never thought to hear it in Tasmania.
They would throw open to doors of Government House for a state reception for the 2014 artists and a public master class was to be held in the grand ballroom.
But enemies were gathering too. Luke Martin, head of the Tourism Council, attacked Lara Giddings for her government grant.
The centrepiece of the second, much larger festival, was Orlando, a Handel opera from the Glimmerglass festival in upstate New York. For modern audiences the plots of baroque opera seria are so convoluted and silly that they demand a cheeky, irreverent approach ‒ and that came in a production by Chas Rader-Shieber that Limelight magazine called ‘neatly conceived and enchanting’.
There was an exemplary concert by the top Spanish counter-tenor, Xavier Sabata, and ‒ best of all ‒ a momentous concert by that 24-year-old Russian soprano, Julia Lezhneva. Richard Flanagan, soon to pick up his Booker, was there: ‘I never thought I’d hear such beauty in Hobart,’ he said. There were four standing ovations, led by the governors of Tasmania and New South Wales.
Lezhneva’s concert went on to win the national Helpmann award for best classical concert. The runners-up in this category were Mariss Jansons, one of the top half-dozen international conductors; Murray Perahia, one of the top half-dozen pianists; and Andreas Scholl, the world’s most renowned counter-tenor.
The national media coverage was uniformly adulatory. There were six national broadcasts of festival performances on ABC Classic FM. Margaret Throsby came down from Sydney to record interviews for her national radio program. In the Sydney Morning Herald, arts initiatives in Tasmania ‒ MONA and Hobart Baroque ‒ were described as ‘the Tasmanian juggernaut’. The idea had been shown to work.
Sniping continued, mostly behind closed doors …
Not everyone saw it that way. Sniping continued, mostly behind closed doors. Lara Giddings came to almost everything. But no politician in the new Liberal government took up offers of free tickets to come to any of the events.
But those of us involved with the festival thought the artistic success would be recognised by the new government and would lead to support. We were wrong.
We asked the new government for the minimum amount necessary to provide Tasmania with a major classical music festival of global significance ‒ one with the capacity, if promoted, to attract thousands of visitors from China and the rest of the Asia-Pacific region. We asked the government for 45% of the proposed budget ‒ a massively smaller proportion than that of similar festivals in Australia and overseas ‒ $800,000 in the first year, rising to $1.25 million in the third year, with funding certainty over the three years.
After three months with no reply from the government, Leo rang a journalist from the Mercury to see whether she had heard anything. She made a call and then rang Leo back. The answer was no: we were to be offered $300,000 ‒ $100,000 less than the year before ‒ and no commitment for the following year or for any period after that.
The answer, in other words, was no. The event was simply unviable on those figures.
‘My feeling was total fury,’ Leo recalls. ‘To find out via a reporter was just absurd. We’d been asking for six months and had the meeting with Hodgman three months before. Finally we got a letter telling us to talk to Events and Tourism. Well, we’d been talking to them for months. They hadn’t returned calls, hadn’t responded to e-mails.
‘The public servants here are unbelievable. Unbelievable. They’re so scared that they never make a call. The won’t put anything on paper. They never want to leave any sort of a trail of their conversations.’
The best of them all was Jeff Kennett …
It was a contrast, and a shock, to the way he had previously been treated interstate as director of the Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane festivals. ‘I had direct dealings with the Premiers, with Neville Wran, Bob Carr ‒ and the best of them all was Jeff Kennett. He was fantastic. They listened and they understood.
‘But in Tasmania they just don’t get it. There are wonderful, intelligent, informed people here but unfortunately they do not sit in Parliament House.’
Hobart Baroque 2015 was cancelled. But there was a flood of support, and unsolicited offers from supporters promised $100,000. And there had been another $100,000 from the federal Arts Minister, Senator George Brandis.
By then the results of a survey by the EMRS company, commissioned by Events Tasmania, had been released. They were ‒ particularly for a shoestring event in only its second year ‒ remarkable.
There was a total spend in Tasmania of around $2.2 million by the 49% of Hobart Baroque audiences who came from interstate. They stayed, on average, 4.8 nights. Ninety-six per cent said they would come again, 82% within the next year. Ninety-three per cent said they had come to Hobart solely for the festival. Each spent an average of $2,455 in the state, compared with $1,517 for the run of interstate tourists in Tasmania. Commercial art galleries, cafes and restaurants, and hotels all reported a brisk pick-up in business during that ten days.
So, in a final attempt to save the festival, Leo swallowed his pride. He went back to Will Hodgman with a revised request ‒ for a grant of $450,000, just $50,000 more than the year before. That, with the extra money from supporters, would have been enough to put on one more festival: smaller, less adventurous than had been envisaged, but it would have lived.
Luke Martin applauded the rejection. The figures, he said, ‘didn’t stack up’ …
Hodgman’s answer, again, was no.
Luke Martin applauded the rejection. The figures, he said, ‘didn’t stack up’.
The work, the pressure and the disappointment have taken its toll on the 79-year old Leo. After each festival, he had become ill with a serious lung infection. It happened again with the second rejection and there were three days in hospital. When he last came to dinner at my house, a fortnight before he left the state, he had spent the afternoon once again in hospital: once again, it was his lungs. The doctors had given him the all-clear but he was tired, quiet and downbeat.
The toll has been emotional as well as physical. ‘Over the years I’ve had lots of disappointments but this is probably the biggest one. I believed so passionately in the event.’
His state of health has worried his family. ‘They’ve all been down over the last week. We had a big talk and they said: “We want to get you back to Sydney”. I have three grandsons and I just don’t see them enough. I can’t tell you how much I miss them.
‘I thought I’d stay and see it out but what’s to stay for? I have a great fondness for the place and a lot of people I really like. A lot of people have been really supportive. But in the end it was a tug-of-war, between Tasmania and my family.’
He believes, perhaps correctly, that enemies with the ear of powerful people helped kill off Hobart Baroque. But he does not regret being publicly critical of things he believes make Tasmania, too often, home to the second-rate.
‘I feel sad to be leaving Tasmania,’ Leo tells me, ‘but I feel I need to now. I’ve proved what I can do: I don’t have to prove it to anyone else. They weren’t ready for it.’
Martyn Goddard worked on a voluntary basis with Hobart Baroque.
• Leo Schofield, in Comments: A response to Luke Martin, Comment 3: ‘The amount we asked for over three years was exactly what the wretched Ten Days on the Island receives to run its miserable event that is about as attractive to a cultural tourist as a cup of cold sick. The funding for one single Ten Days event is two million dollars. But the local arts Pooh Bahs love that paradigm of parochiality as it ensures jobs for their mates. Lord knows what it costs to pay the wages of the self-serving rusted-on arts bureaucrats, to service countless boards and thoroughly unrepresentative pissant advisory boards. As one observer noted, ‘Who are these people?’
• mr t, in Comments: #30 Luke Martin, please read #31. Without going into all the pros and cons, #31 details the knowledge, skills, passion, time and money invested by Leo Schofield. In return, following his last bid, he learnt of its failure through the media. The Premier and his staff did not even pick up the phone to give him the courtesy of any notice. You admit never meeting him in person. It would seem no-one has shown him any courtesy of a face to face discussion since. In my career I have had to meet with many people. Some didn’t want to meet me. Some I had to persuade towards a common outcome. Some I had to communicate very bad news. The worse the news, the more it had to be face to face. Can you walk in Leo’s shoes for 5 seconds and see why he is bitter and turning a new chapter? PS Leo, best wishes with your next chapter. Do not look back. Always act now and look to the future.