July 4, 2024
People & Places

Let there be light

Meet the creative team responsible for reinventing Adelaide winters and bringing light and love into the city during July.

Lee Cumberlidge and Rachael Azzopardi are in the midst of this year’s iteration of Illuminate Adelaide.

Lee Cumberlidge opens the sliding door to his outdoor deck and as he does, the faint hint of smoke hits the air. This deck is currently the prime viewing position to a spectacular pastel pink sunset spilling itself across the Adelaide skyline.

And tonight, Lee – co-founder and co-director of winter festival Illuminate Adelaide – and wife, Elena Vereker, are hosting a special dinner party as a homage to the festival and the warmth it will bring to the city throughout July.

Outside, the fire is eating away at the logs in the pit, ready to warm the guests who are due to arrive.

In honour of light, there are colourful decorative domes that are glowing from within spread out on the dining table inside and lining a path through the garden. These have been created by South Australian glass artist Bailey Donovan, whose works will be on show on North Terrace during Illuminate Adelaide.

Elena Vereker sears the barramundi.

Among the guests is Rachael Azzopardi, who is Lee’s co-founder and co-director of Illuminate. Tonight they are celebrating the season by inviting some of the people who have made the festival so special to a night time get together at Lee’s Torrens Park home.

Lee is at the record player, spinning tunes from Motez; the Iraqi DJ is one of Illuminate Adelaide’s featured artists this year, and also a guest tonight.

Rachael has taken on the cocktail duties, sprinkling bright red pomegranate seeds into a 23rd Street Distillery Pomegranate Vodka concoction.

Meanwhile, Elena is in the kitchen, faced with an elaborate menu, yet completely nonplussed by the task. Her secret, she says, is Yotam Ottolenghi.

Most of the dishes on the menu tonight are recipes from Ottolenghi’s acclaimed cookbooks – or at least a nod to the globally adored chef.

“He basically makes anyone a chef,” Elena says.

“I love cooking for others; I love the idea of the feast. It’s something you can watch people appreciate. Eating good food inspires great conversation and opens the doors for people to have a good time.”

Elena clearly has the talent to pull off the recipes, but she has undoubtedly chosen a menu that can be prepared ahead of time, which looks incredibly impressive in a home kitchen.

Lee puts together tonight’s starter – oysters with tequila and lime dressing, chilli, mint and coriander: “It’s basically a margarita with an oyster,” Lee says.

Lee arranges the oysters with tequila and lime dressing.

Moving on to entree, guests will enjoy salmon tartare and burrata with rosemary, blood oranges from the trees that line the couple’s driveway and special bread made by Lee’s best friend, whom they call Tomtom.

“He took the day off to bake the bread and when he comes to

our house, he always brings a loaf,” Lee says.

For mains, Lee moves to the barbecue outside to start the lamb eye fillet, which will be served with peanut, coconut and sesame, with a red onion salsa.

Lee picks up the tongs for the lamb eye fillet.

For the pescatarians, it’s barramundi with crushed celeriac – an ingredient that Elena says is grossly underrated – and a pistachio salad.

At the time of the dinner party, it’s a month out from the start of the winter festival, everyone is relaxed; Rachael says the major planning has been done and their much-trusted team is in full control as opening night nears.

After a rocky, yet successful, start in 2021 when freak storms and the Covid pandemic somewhat derailed plans, Rachael and Lee have built up a festival that has created a momentum seemingly well beyond its years.

Burrata with home-grown orange and rosemary.

The pair had never worked directly together before, but always in the same industry, coincidently even once in the same office when Rachael was the casting director for the Commonwealth Games’ opening and closing ceremonies, and Lee was working on the Games’ Cultural Festival.

Rachael had built up an international career, working on events for the Sydney Olympics, producing for shows such as Oliver, Cabaret, Miss Saigon and Lion King, and later the Sydney Theatre Company, where she worked with Cate Blanchett and Blanchett’s husband, Andrew Upton.

After a lot of time on the eastern seaboard, Rachael had earned a break and headed home to Adelaide, renovating a house before that familiar itch “to create” reappeared.

By then, Lee had also moved back after working interstate, including in Tasmania for a 13-year period helping with the opening of the acclaimed MONA art gallery, MONA FOMA the gallery’s summer festival and the beginnings of Dark Mofo (the boundarypushing winter festival).

The table has been decorated with spheres created by artist Bailey Donovan.

The pair ran into each other at a mutual friend’s birthday, setting up a coffee meeting to discuss some big ideas.

“Rachael walked in one day and I was hoping to talk about how

we would work together on various shows, but Rachael was really keen on a much bigger idea around a major event or festival at winter time,” Lee says.

At that time, there weren’t a lot of winter events in Adelaide and Rachael was keen to bring in all the things that had been inspiring her during her travels.

“It was a different look at art and creativity,” Rachael says. “The art I’d seen interstate and overseas wasn’t really happening in South Australia; those artists weren’t around. It was much more traditional performing arts, so we were excited about how we could transform the city.

“It wasn’t only about the artists we could bring, but how we could actually transform Adelaide at a really difficult time in winter when people don’t really come out. You need something for people to come out and engage with.

“The best thing you can do is give people an experience. That’s what makes memories and gets them to interact with things.”

For Lee, working on the Melbourne Cultural Festival for the Commonwealth Games and MONA FOMA were inspirations.

“I loved the free programming aspect, particularly with the Commonwealth Games when you saw a whole lot of sporting fans and the public in general come out and want to be part of it,” Lee says.

“They could come out and be part of this, outside of the sporting venues, and that’s the moment it clicked for me that dropping the barrier to access of having to buy a ticket to a theatre or a gallery is a hugely powerful thing. Adelaide is such a great place to do things like this – the scale of the city is perfect. You can walk everywhere, venues are close to each other, accommodation is right there, restaurants are right there.”

Rachael says winter in Adelaide could be a quiet time for creatives and Illuminate Adelaide has given them another employment avenue. “We both had to leave SA to further our careers, and I know a lot of people who seasonally go to Edinburgh in winter because there just wasn’t the employment here,” she says.

“I think we wanted to give back a little bit – we wanted to create something that would keep people in South Australia if they want to be here.”

From there, it snowballed. They both had ample contacts in the industry and one in particular that was Rachael’s first port of call when stepping off the plane in Adelaide was arts leader Christie Anthoney, another of tonight’s guests.

Rachael and Christie have known each other from their early days working together at arts organisation Carclew and when Rachael came back into town, she immediately shared her grand ideas with her long-time friend.

“It wasn’t really until she met with Lee that it blew up into a concept,” Christie says. “What I love about these two is that they don’t start little – it was a bang. Other festivals that are a part of our DNA, most of them have grown with us.” WOMADelaide director Ian Scobie shares the sentiment.

“I remember when Rachael and Lee first talked to me about the idea, I thought, this is amazing, but it’s going to take years because Adelaide doesn’t go anywhere in June and July and here we are, three years on and it’s a huge success in terms of the audiences that come out in massive numbers,” Ian says.

Lee, Elena, Jessica and Motez get into the wintry spirit by the fire.

For Ian, one of Illuminate’s highlights for him, is walking along North Terrace while City Lights is on, watching the faces of the audience – real time feedback.

While the visual elements of Illuminate are much-loved, the music program is something both co-directors are immensely proud of.

When Motez arrives, he chats about playing in huge festivals such as Electric Forest in the United States.

“They have a big focus on lighting, that for me was a huge benchmark and seeing what Illuminate has brought years later, there’s so much pride in that,” Motez says.

On the visual side, lighting designer Chris Patridis has been involved in the events held in the Botanic Garden for the past few years, and is taking a break this year before unveiling something new next year.

Elena and Lee in their beautiful outdoor space.

Rounding out the guest list is deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Adelaide, Jessica Gallagher, who’s looking forward to City Lights moving into Bonython Hall this year.

“It’s the university’s 150th birthday, so we’ve got something special in Bonython Hall,” Jessica says.

Jessica moved to Adelaide two-and-a-half years ago with her daughters, and she chats about the memories they’ve already made at the festival.

“It’s so special because we’re Queenslanders so we’re cold all the time and I think it’s so clever that in the middle of winter, when all you really want to do is sit in your heated lounge rooms in your pyjamas, it encourages you to get out onto the streets.”

As night well and truly sets in and the guests have worked their way through the courses, dessert comes out, and to fit the theme of the night, it’s a flaming Bombe Alaska – a touch of illumination at the dining table.



This story first appeared in the July 2024 issue of SALIFE magazine.

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