Nights of northern soul: Manchester's second international festival is an eclectic feast

From Rufus Wainwright's first opera to a play set in a bingo hall, Jonathan Brown selects the highlights
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The Independent Culture

When Alex Poots travelled up to Manchester in 2004 to make his pitch to direct the city's newly-conceived international festival he thought he had nothing to lose. "Before I agreed to accept the job I wanted to set conditions," recalls the softly-spoken Scot. These included complete editorial and artistic control; a "sizeable" budget; the creation of a limited festival company beyond the reach of bureaucrats or politicians and a timescale and opening of his choosing. By the time the then-creative director at the English National Opera's train was pulling back into London's Euston station, the job was his.

What emerged in 2007 was an inaugural festival equally uncompromising, dedicated to commissioning new and innovative works which drew rave reviews from the arts establishment and beyond. The first Manchester International Festival gave the world such gems as the Chinese opera Monkey from Gorillaz, Neil Bartlett's beautifully realised reworking of The Piano, Lou Reed's live recreation of his Berlin album and landmark performances from the Cuban ballet star Carlos Acosta and comedian Johnny Vegas. "I wanted the festival philosophically born out of Manchester. This was the place where the computer was created, where the first public library was pioneered," he says.

Two years on, Poots has adopted the city as his base and has been spending his £10m budget on another extraordinary blend of high and low art, drawing on the Mancunian spirit of innovation and chutzpah. This year there are more than 20 new commissions, slightly less than in 2007, a third of which are free to the public.

Expectations are running high after 2007's triumphant start. Crucially there remains a frisson of risk to some collaborations. "There were things we could have done better," says Poots of the first festival. "The thing with world premieres is that some will work better than others. Here was something quite risky and we were prepared to try without hiding our failures."

Some 200,000 people are expected to attend over 18 days, including 30,000 who will line the Deansgate mile to witness Turner-prize winning artist Jeremy Deller's Procession. Poots has already been invited to stay on for 2011. "It sounds rather uncool but my parents taught me less is more – try and do a few things really well. That is what we try to do," he says.

Click on the image above to see our pick of the festival highlights