Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Illuminating Luminato

The massive arts festival gets a little more gay

Puppet master Ronnie Burkett.

From the high-end doll-inspired installation fashions of superstar gay designers Viktor & Rolf to appearances by Luminato artistic director Jörn Weisbrodt’s husband, chanteur Rufus Wainwright, the annual festival has not only become a major event in the Canadian artistic landscape, but is a welcoming venue for queer artists from all over the world.

“I don’t necessarily think in terms of quantities or percentages. It’s not like we have to have at least three queer artists in our programming, but I’m gay, and expressions of the LGBT experience are incredibly socially relevant,” Weisbrodt says when asked about the importance of queer creators at Luminato. “If you look at the history of the arts, some of the world’s greatest artists were gay and we didn’t even know about it. Gay artists have always contributed to the arts, and for a long time they did so under cover, so I think it’s a very important thing to lift that cover and start a dialogue.

“I was talking with Joni Mitchell, and she said that it’s basically women and gay men who are her biggest fans. Her emotional rawness and her openness in her music is something that a gay audience is drawn to,” says Weisbrodt, who after late-night conference calls and holiday dinner meetings convinced the now-retired icon to allow the festival to stage the career-spanning concert Joni: A Portrait in Song – A Birthday Happening to celebrate her 70th birthday. “She once said a star is someone made by others and artists make themselves. She really is a true artist, and we’ve got a great night planned in her honour.”

The tribute features Chaka Khan, Glen Hansard, Liam Titcomb, Lizz Wright and Rufus Wainwright. “Someone has to be the first lady of the festival, and since [Wainwright] had known Joni and was an admirer of her work, we booked him,” Weisbrodt says with a laugh.

Evening Illuminations

Wainwright will also join Alexander Neef, general director of the Canadian Opera Company, and Gerard Mortier, general director of Teatro Real Madrid, for the Evening Illuminations series, in Verdi vs Wagner, a talk in celebration of the 200th birthdays of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner. “Rufus is an active opera composer and quite knowledgeable about opera history, so we thought it would make sense to combine these experts together to chat about the love/hate relationship when it comes to the work of these musical titans,” Weisbrodt says.

The Daisy Theatre

“It features a giant middle-aged homo playing with dolls. It doesn’t get any gayer, seriously. I’ve had people ask me, ‘What’s the gay character?’ and I’m like, ‘Honey, it’s the guy working the puppets; it’s all gay, everything on that stage is gay,” jokes puppeteer Ronnie Burkett of his latest show, The Daisy Theatre, making its debut at Luminato. Inspired by the underground “daisy” puppet shows put on by Czech puppeteers, working under the constraints of Nazi censors, that criticized their occupiers through satire and allegory, Burkett’s show is a fantastical mix of improvisation, music, monologues and current events featuring more than 30 puppets, including some familiar characters from his past shows.

“I’ll have talking animals, all kinds of misfits and losers and glamour. These characters are all parts of me. I think I have the best job because I get to expose the conflicted differing parts of myself through my work.”

Burkett also approached a handful of playwrights to contribute vignettes to the show, all of whom instantly said yes and wrote pieces using his puppets as their rep company. “Daniel MacIvor is so fucking prolific and gave me his piece in a week. Brad Fraser has written a very odd piece with a cow and a stripper and a little girl. Damien Atkins wrote a great piece, too, and there are some speciality songs written by my partner, John Alcorn, including a stripper number and an operatic piece,” he says.

Marina Abramovic

Performance artist Marina Abramovic brings The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic to the festival. The piece is the last in a series of autobiographical theatrical collaborations created with director Robert Wilson. It focuses on Abramovic’s life story, with screen star Willem Dafoe stepping in as the narrator and her male counterpart, and features music written and performed by queer powerhouse Antony, of Antony and the Johnsons fame.

“Marina heard Antony for the first time at a concert Rufus had done at Carnegie Hall for Christmas. She fell totally in love with the fragility and strength of his voice,” Weisbrodt says. “Antony has this incredible ambiguity in his voice and stage presence, and they became friends over time. She approached him to contribute music and perform onstage for the show and was adamant that Antony was the only one she could see delivering the right performance.

“His identity in relation to gender has become stronger and stronger in his work,” he adds. “Antony is one of the first people to be really outspoken about his trans identity in the music world. He writes songs for Antony only, and that’s what makes him so unique and endlessly watchable.

“Queer performers will always be a part of the programming at Luminato. It doesn’t hurt that a large percentage of artists are queer, and when the best art comes from a very personal and deep story and that story becomes universal, it can help cause change,” Weisbrodt says. “So let our dialogue continue on.”