Author: Christine Richard OBE FRSA

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Tuesday, August 8th, 2006 at 12:41 pm
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Festival Director Bows Out

Sir Brian McMaster has been Director of the Edinburgh International Festival for 15 years. This year’s event will be his last. He was born in Hitchin in Hertfordshire in England. Brian is an only child and rather whimsically reveals that the nursing home where he was born is now a music college. He is a very private man and when it comes to talking about himself is modest and reserved almost beyond belief – there is a very real sense of separation of his private life and public persona which demands respect.


After reading law at Bristol University and Comparative Law at Strasbourg University, he qualified as a Solicitor. In 1967 he studied on the first Art Council of Great Britain’s course in Arts Administration and thus began his distinguished career in this field. Thus, in 1973, he joined English National Opera as Controller of Opera Planning and three years later went as Managing Director to Welsh National Opera, where he stayed until 1991.

This was a busy time in Sir Brian’s life as from 1984 until 1989 he also served as Artistic Director of Vancouver Opera. In October 1991 Brian was appointed as Director of the Edinburgh International Festival. Currently he is Chairman of the National Opera Studio and a member of the Arts Council of England. Since its inception he has been a judge for the Cardiff Singer of the World competition. In 1987 Brian McMaster was made CBE and a Knighthood followed in the 2003 New Year Honours. The universities of Bristol (1989), Edinburgh (1995), Heriot Watt University (2000), the University of Glasgow (2001), Napier University (2002), Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (2003) and the University of Westminster in 2005 all conferred honorary doctorates. He appears to be mildly bemused by these accolades, in particular the one from Bristol where he admits to ‘not doing very well.’

When asked “What drives you” the self-deprecation surfaces again, “It’s the only thing that I can do,” he replies. Similarly there seem to have been few what we might call ‘highlights’”. He explains, “It’s not about highlights. It is a total experience or set of experiences.” However, Brian did say that he had really enjoyed “the chance to put on 175 operas that people have wanted to see.” Also he says “working with a team of ten amazing people is very special. The part time people come back year after year, as do the Press. This is a unique Festival – the best in the world.” He is clearly totally immersed in the concept of Edinburgh as the ideal location for a Festival which he describes as “popular” not “populist” with the whole city being taken over for what he calls “everybody’s Festival”, embracing local people as well as visitors.

Funding is always an issue with large scale events but, contrary to what one might expect, Brian McMaster is hugely grateful for the support of the City Council. He says “The Festival does the job that it is required to do with the least possible public funding whilst providing excellence with affordability. It is not elitist and lower prices are deliberately set to encourage the widest range of people to participate.”

Many people in such positions, when asked, can find something that they might have done differently; not Sir Brian. He says “Every decision is taken for the right motive. It is a risk business and you have to be prepared to take risks.” He refutes, however, that putting on a show that is provocative and possibly shocking should not be done simply to court controversy but the Director should not shy away from this either. He cites the Barbaric Comedies of a few years ago which caused a great deal of comment, not all of it favourable, but which went on to be a great hit in Dublin, as an example of the kind of production that was a risk worth taking.

Most people who are successful in any field can point to great influencers who have made a difference to their lives. Brian chose French classical music composer Pierre Boulez who was born in 1925 and who became a conductor as well as composer. Boulez latterly has concentrated, since the mid-1970s, on his work as Director of the Institut de Recherché et Coordination Acoustique/Musique which is a computer studio in Paris where his main work has been Repons for orchestra and digital equipment. To Brian McMaster he has been “a wonderful, influential human being whose style has been to challenge and overcome.” Another “hero” has been Glen Byamshaw from the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Days who Brian describes as “A true gentleman and a primary influence at an impressionable time in my life.”

Brian McMaster says that he does not do “fun” in the widely accepted sense. His whole life, he believes, is fun and when asked what will be his next big challenge after directing the Edinburgh International Festival for 15 years he smiles and says

“I’ve had a bloody good time so far and I intend to go on enjoying life.”

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