Cover Tisa Ho (left) and Flora Yu (Photo: courtesy of Hong Kong Arts Festival)

Tisa Ho steps down as executive director of the city’s biggest arts festival after 16 years, and will be handing her baton to Flora Yu

Expect a spectacular line-up of world-class performers, including Grammy award-winning artists and international ballet and piano superstars, to flock to the city in February and March 2023 as the Hong Kong Arts Festival celebrates its 51th anniversary—and a change in leadership.

Tisa Ho, who has served as the festival’s executive director since 2006, stepped down earlier this year and will be replaced by Flora Yu, the festival’s development director for the past 11 years. At Ho’s farewell party in October 2022, she fondly recalled her days of sorting out health authority documents for circus horses (the “trickiest artists to take care of”), flying to far corners of the world to preview shows, and all the unexpected scenarios that come with putting on the most dazzling, spectacular productions for Hong Kong.

Ho expressed her confidence in Yu, who officially stepped into her shoes on November 14, as well as her faith in the new leader and her team to continue the festival’s vision to foster cultural and artistic exchange between Hong Kong and the rest of the world and spotlight local talents.

Yu talks to Tatler on her new role and what exciting shows to expect in the new season.

Congratulations! What are your roles as the new executive director?

Flora Yu: We have forged a strong international brand image as an arts festival and have built excellent networks worldwide. My role is to ensure the organisation can continue to provide the right work environment, structure and sufficient resources to our talented and experienced colleagues to realise their artistic visions.

How will your previous experience help you in this new leadership position?

Being a development director in the past 11 years… I was in charge of generating nearly 60 per cent of the festival’s income through fundraising-related activities.

My job as the executive director now still involves ensuring the festival’s financial stability—in a way my previous experience comes in handy and makes it less daunting for me.

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What challenges do you expect upon your appointment as the executive director?

There will be many, but the most immediate one will be the city’s current economic atmosphere, which will likely have an impact on our box office and sponsorship in the coming year. However, the festival has thrived on challenges in the past 50 years, and I am sure we will brace ourselves for this with determination just as we have in the past.

Tell us about the theme of the new season.

The festival faced great challenges in the past three years due to the pandemic, and the new theme marks our reunion in the performance venues to celebrate the arts, and our presentation of the best artistic talents on stage.

Honouring our tradition of offering a balanced programme to the city, we will continue to feature outstanding international and local artists in the coming year, so that different audiences will find programmes of their tastes and interests.

Aside from onstage productions, what other programmes will the HKAF feature in 2023?

Our arts education activities continue to be a very important aspect of our work. Our Young Friends scheme—which enables students to watch shows at affordable prices, perform in original works and attend art journalism workshops—have reached over 800,000 students in the past 30 years. I’m sure it will continue to play a significant role in the city’s cultural nurturing.

This year, we will continue to offer outreach and education projects to primary, secondary and tertiary school students. We are also looking at the possibility of expanding our reach in terms of service targets and the nature of programmes.

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Give us a sneak-peek of the new season’s highlights.

On the top of my list is Ballet Maribor from Slovenia, led by choreographer Edward Clug. They are going to open the Festival with two reimagined classics: Radio and Juliet, a must-watch for Radiohead fans, and The Rite of Spring, originally by Russian composer Stravinsky whose avant-garde melody led to a riot at its Paris premiere in 1913.

We are overwhelmed about the return of the Bamberg Symphony, who delivered three successful online concerts earlier this year. I just can’t wait to see them live at our finale.

I’m thrilled to welcome top-notch international artists coming to Hong Kong, such as Natalia Osipova, Russian principal ballerina at The Royal Ballet in London; Porin Award-winning French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, who will star in a new retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus; American composer and organist Cameron Carpenter, who is the first organist to be nominated for a Grammy Award for a solo album; and Canadian piano sensation Bruce Liu, who will make his Hong Kong debut after winning the International Chopin Competition in 2021.

I also look forward to Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses, to be performed by Handspring Puppet Company which incorporates puppetry and visual arts into the show; Michel van der Aa’s musical theatre The Book of Water, which features All Creatures Great and Small actor Samuel West, and the concert film experience of Grammy-nominated period instrument ensemble Insula Orchestra.

What are the local productions to look forward to?

The HKAF-commissioned local productions, including Table for Six, a stage adaptation of Sunny Chan’s film in 2022 which features Ivana Wong; the long-awaited musical Yat-sen; and also Cantonese operas including Love in the Bamboo Grove and The Painted Skin.

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