Peter Benoit's dream (1898)

The opening of deSingel was the fulfilment of Peter Benoit's (1834-1901) dream. In 1867 this composer became the director of the 'Antwerp Flemish Music School', which obtained official recognition as a result of his unceasing involvement and in 1898 became the Royal Flemish Conservatory of Music. However, Benoit's ideas extended further than educating students and training artists: he dreamed of involving the entire population in the international musical and theatrical scene.

In addition to the music school he wanted an auditorium where not only the students but also the public at large would have the opportunity to benefit from the range of cultural and artistic activities available. In this sense Benoit represents the first steps towards what would ultimately become 'deSingel international arts centre'.

In 1883 Antwerp city council drew up the first plans for a new Conservatory building, with a theatre that could also be used as a concert hall. Execution of these plans was postponed and Benoit was 'temporarily' given a mansion on St Jacobsmarkt. It was to be more than eighty years before a new Conservatory was available for use.

The architect Léon Stynen designs the Antwerp Conservatory (1958)


In 1958, when Flor Peeters was the director of the Conservatory, the Ministry of Public Works commissioned the architect Léon Stynen (picture) to design an ambitious complex. The foundation stone was laid in 1964 and the new Antwerp Conservatory opened its doors in 1968. The second stage of building, which included the concert hall, the theatre and the library, was delayed for some time because of, among other things, a lack of funds. This was until the Governor of the Province of Antwerp, Andries Kinsbergen, proposed housing the BRT2 Omroep Antwerpen radio studios in the complex too. In 1973 work got going again.

The building gets a name

In the meantime, Nic van Bruggen (poet, 1938-91) and Herbert Binneweg (designer, b. 1944) thought up the name 'deSingel'. Others were looking more in the direction of something like 'the Peter Benoit Centre'. But the preference was for a neutral name which would only at a later stage represent a particular content. Its location near the Desguinlei, which is part of a boulevard around the city, was undoubtedly the inspiration for this name. Binneweg was a lecturer in graphic design at the Royal Academy of Fine Art in Antwerp and it was he that designed the typography of the name and the then logo. Like the building itself, the auditorium were also given neutral names: the Red Hall and the Blue Hall, referring to the colour of the seats, and the Small Hall.

Opening of 'deSingel cultural centre' (1980)

King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola in the company of Eugène Traey On the fourth of November 1980 the halls were at last officially opened in the presence of King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola. The architect, Léon Stynen (1899-1990) himself said that this was one of the most difficult briefs of his long career.

The intention was that the Conservatory students, future musicians and actors, would be able to gain stage experience and see professionals at work in these auditoria. The infrastructure had an enormous cultural potential that far exceeded the possibilities of the Conservatory. For this reason, on 1st December 1979 Eugène Traey, then director of the Royal Flemish Conservatory of Music, appointed Frie Leysen to help him prepare for the opening of the complex.

In 1983 the Flemish community established an autonomous npo with the name 'deSingel', whose main tasks were the management of the building, the development of its own programme and the hiring of the auditoria.


deSingel launches its own artistic activities: theatre, dance, music and architecture (1983)

Ingmar Bergman

In terms of infrastructure, the Red Hall and Blue Hall at deSingel filled an obvious gap, the one as a fully equipped hall for theatre and dance with variable seating capacity, and the other as a modern concert hall which had until then been lacking both in Antwerp and Flanders as a whole. A second gap was filled by deSingel's own activities. The establishment of this infrastructure was also intended to give a new artistic impulse to the whole of Flanders.

historiekband_forsytheWilliam Forsythe

The 1983 season, the first with its own programme, presented classical music, theatre and dance from both home and abroad. 1985 saw the opening of the first architecture exhibition. This unique combination of artistic disciplines in the same building drew a large and varied public and immediately made an impression abroad, where numerous performers saw deSingel as an ideal partner with whom to present their work in Flanders.

historiekband_zachariasChristian Zacharias

For major international figures in the performing arts, including the theatre-maker Ingmar Bergman, the choreographer William Forsythe, the pianist Christian Zacharias and the singer Olaf Bär, deSingel provided their first opportunity to work on a Flemish stage. DeSingel kept close track of such Flemish companies as De Tijd, Rosas and Het Nieuw Belgisch Kamerorkest. The presentation of the work of OMA, the firm headed by the now world-renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, in addition to exhibitions by such architects as Luc Deleu and Aldo Rossi, set the tone for this discipline too.

historiek_Rem_Koolhaas.jpgRem Koolhaas

After three years of compiling its own programmes, deSingel acknowledged its own role as a 'spearhead' by uncompromisingly opting for artistic renewal and creation at a European level. In Flanders there was a task for a small number of centres to detect the best artistic work being done in the region and possibly to act as a springboard towards other countries, and, in the opposite direction, to present foreign artists in Flanders. These international arts centres would act as platforms for the contemporary arts in an international context, where performing artists would be able to gauge themselves against and draw inspiration from each other, and where an interested audience would be able to see them at work within a broad frame of reference.

Recognised by the government as Flanders' leading international arts centre (1990)

It had not escaped the notice of the Flemish government that major international initiatives were emanating from deSingel: in 1990 the then Minister of Culture, Patrick Dewael, officially recognised deSingel as the leading international arts centre in Flanders. A substantial increase in its operating funds in 1990 enabled it to expand and increasingly internationalise its programme. Driven partly by a strong commitment to Antwerp 93, Cultural Capital of Europe, in which project deSingel was the main artistic partner, it became a major presenter and coproducer of European performing arts, a concert organiser with a very clear profile, and a pacesetter in architectural debate.

From that time onwards such major international performing artists as Merce Cunningham, Heiner Müller, Peter Brook, Pina Bausch and William Forsythe presented their work in the Red Hall more than once, alongside such internationally established Flemish artists as Jan Fabre, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Ivo van Hove, Jan Lauwers, Wim Vandekeybus and Alain Platel. There were important international coproductions with and creations by people such as Trisha Brown, Robert Wilson, Christoph Marthaler and Heiner Goebbels. With an accent on contemporary, early and chamber music, alongside jazz and world music, the Blue Hall confirmed its reputation as an authoritative international venue where top performers and ensembles such as the Arditti Quartet, Valery Gergiev, Radu Lupu, Pierre Boulez, Cecil Taylor and Thomas Zehetmair appeared regularly, alongside such internationally celebrated musicians from Belgium as Philippe Herreweghe, Jos Van Immerseel, Ictus and the Danel Quartet. Works by Elliott Carter, Iannis Xenakis, Luca Francesconi, Harrison Birtwistle, Kaija Saariaho, Karel Goeyvaerts and Luc Van Hove and others have been performed for the first time at deSingel. Such international giants as Norman Foster, Jean Nouvel and Daniel Libeskind had their first Flemish exhibitions at deSingel, alongside top Flemish architects, then still young, including Stéphane Beel, Paul Robbrecht/Hilde Daem and Xaveer De Geyter. To accompany the exhibitions deSingel initiated a long series of architectural publications which it published under its own name.

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Merce Cunningham Heiner Müller Peter Brook
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Pina Bausch Jan Fabre Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker
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Ivo van Hove Jan Lauwers Wim Vandekeybus
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Trisha Brown Robert Wilson Christoph Marthaler
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Heiner Goebbels Arditti Quartet Valery Gergiev
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Radu Lupu Pierre Boulez Cecil Taylor
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Thomas Zehetmair Jos van Immerseel Ictus Kwartet
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Danel Kwartet Elliot Carter Yannis Xenakis
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Luca Francesconi Harrison Birtwistle Karel Goeyvaerts
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Luc Van Hove Norman Foster Jean Nouvel
In the Nineties festivals and events were introduced, including the Theatre Festival (hosting repeat performances of Flemish and Dutch stage productions, and organising the accompanying programme together with the Flemish Theatre Institute) and 'The Nights' (a happening for young people involving music and literature, in association with Villanella and 5voor12). Other one-off festivals focused on a particular genre or region: 'De Opera' (exclusively music-theatre creations) and 'Alleen Theater' (on stage monologues), 'Azië Centraal' (Theatre from Central Asia) and 'Europa/Utopia' (Theatre from central and eastern Europe).


The first decade of a new millennium: grandeur and adventure.

'On the basis of its years of experience and the pioneering work it has done, deSingel is uniquely competent to function as a centre of excellence in Flanders and also to be recognised as such by the government. The organisation has a remarkable set of strengths: more than 20 years' experience, artistic authority, recognition at home and abroad, the ability to engage in international negotiations, broad public outreach, and a strong sense of enterprise combined with a high level of management skills.'

From 'Audit of the major Flemish cultural institutions', Nikè, September 2003 -February 2004.

Cooperation in support of international arts productions

DeSingel is part of and operates within several international networks. Its production and coproduction partners include major festivals, production companies, concert halls, museums, companies and orchestras. It has a strong international position. It has to be said that the artistic management of several such well-reputed festivals as Edinburgh, Melbourne, Ruhr, Holland and Avignon are not only regular visitors to deSingel, but are also full of praise for its programme. Antwerp's former alderman for culture, Eric Antonis, outlined the position of deSingel as follows: 'Thanks to deSingel, it's like the Holland Festival all year round in Antwerp'.

With a few exceptions, contemporary international art creation only functions when several organisations become involved. Large-scale dance, theatre and music-theatre productions can only be produced when the companies' operating resources are supplemented by coproduction budgets from partners who also commit themselves to international distribution. Large music projects are only set up when assured of an international tour. Big exhibitions are financed by organisations in several countries. All the partners in this mechanism are dependent on each other: the producers on their coproducers and programme compilers, the host and coproducing organisations on the commitment of the producers and their fellow coproducers. In this way the production risks are shared and international performances are made possible.

historiek_jesuissan2.jpgIf an organisation wants to take part in these international networks it is expected to make this sort of commitment as a coproducer. This applies to deSingel too. What is more, it is precisely these networks that allow us to support Flemish artists and introduce them onto the international scene. The exhibition 'B-Architecten Antwerpen', for example, produced by deSingel and shown there in spring 2004, was taken over by Lille 2004, Cultural Capital of Europe. We have in the same way introduced the work of Jan Fabre to the Festival d'Avignon. The first ever performance of 'Je suis sang' took place in Avignon in 2001, with deSingel as coproducer. We later presented this production at deSingel, signalling the start of a world tour supported by the Festival GREC in Barcelona and the Melbourne Festival, partners with whom deSingel has worked for years.

Jan Fabre's Je Suis Sang

In addition to the abovementioned festivals, the following organisations are also among our most important partners in the international network of coproducers:

  • Théâtre de la Ville in Paris, for international dance productions, Jan Fabre's work for the stage, and non-Western concerts
  • Festival Musica Strasbourg, for contemporary music creations
  • Festival Montpellier Danse, for international dance productions
  • Léonard de Vinci/Opéra de Rouen, for contemporary music-theatre and dance creations
  • Arc-en-Rêve Bordeaux, for architecture exhibitions
  • Rotterdam Schouwburg for contemporary music-theatre creations
  • Holland Festival, for theatre, dance and music-theatre creations
  • Nederlands Architectuur Instituut, for architecture exhibitions
  • Ruhr Triennale, for performing arts creations
  • Berliner Festspiele, for performing arts and music creations
  • Tramway Glasgow, for international theatre
  • Wiener Festwochen, for performing arts creations
  • Theorem, for theatre creations from Central and Eastern Europe
  • Festival Zürcher Theaterspektakel, for performing arts creations
  • Kunsthalle Zürich, for architecture exhibitions
  • Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne, for contemporary theatre creations
  • Brooklyn Academy of Music (New York), for contemporary music-theatre creations
  • Festival de Théâtre des Amériques (Montréal), for performing arts creations
  • Festival Roma Europa, for performing arts creations
  • all the Cultural Capitals of Europe

Centre of excellence

DeSingel is highly esteemed abroad and is considered a 'centre of excellence' among European arts centres. There is no other arts centre in Europe where comparable activities are carried on under one roof. They are usually spread over several centres in one city or country. If in Paris one were to combine the activities of the Théâtre de la Ville and the Cité de la Musique, and add to it the work of a centre like Arc-en-Rêve in Bordeaux, one would end up with a comparable all-embracing programme. In Rotterdam one would have to bring together the Schouwburg, De Doelen and the Nederlands Architectuur Instituut. In terms of content, the Walker Art Center at Minneapolis in the USA comes close to deSingel, though there is very little classical music and the overall programme focuses on exhibitions and visual culture.

Large-scale, pioneering and always ahead of the game

In the framework of its unique infrastructure, deSingel concentrates on showing and coproducing large-scale pioneering performing arts productions. When it comes to music we opt for a keen selection of high-class ensembles from both home and abroad and in a broad range of genres. The recently revised principle underlying the architecture exhibitions is a focus on the border area between architecture, art and urban life.

DeSingel's artistic policy is intended to continue creating a cohesive and productive tension between the familiar and the unfamiliar, between the established and the new, between the local and the international and between art and society.
For this reason the range on offer is constantly being adjusted and is in continuous flux. In the international setting we continue to seek out experimental and small-scale work in addition to established names that bring renewal on a larger scale, which enables us to show a broader spectrum of contemporary art practices. We develop specific forms of presentation that complement existing forms in order to shed a new and often unique light on worthwhile work.

In this way new initiatives are constantly appearing:

  • large-scale composer events, in association with deFilharmonie (in which top international performers share the stage with Conservatory students for a whole day, performing the work of just one composer, such as Shostakovitch or Stravinsky)

  • the three-day 'music@venture' festival of contemporary music, in association with the Flanders Festival in Antwerp (specialised ensembles from home and abroad perform new works in a musical framework defined by such curators as Luc Van Hove and Jonathan Harvey)
  • the 'Curating the Library' project (the building of a subjective library, whereby such artists as Luc Tuymans, William Forsythe, Dirk Braeckman and Thomas Hirschhorn introduce their favourite books; the books and DVD recordings of their presentations are then added to a library which visitors may consult)

  • the 'Curating the Campus' project (in which we give works of art by such artists as Matt Mullican and Rémy Zaugg the opportunity to enter into dialogue with the building for a long period)

  • the 'dedonderdagen', experimental one-day events (a generation of exploratory artists including Der Rote Bereich, Kris Verdonck, Patricia Portela and Tino Sehgal enter into an adventurous dialogue with the public)

  • the thematic 'Clusters' for young people, in association with Villanella (a series of themed days or evenings when connections are made between art, politics and science)

Multidisciplinary and international

Each season will continue to comprise an extensive and selective range of music, theatre, dance and architecture. As a consequence of the larger scale on which this is done and because of the mixing of disciplines, we are clearly distinct from other arts organisations in Flanders. In addition to the Flemish openings and exclusive series of performances of top international performing arts productions, including Ariane Mnouchkine's 'Tambours sur la Digue', Flemish performing artists regularly give the very first performances of their creations which they then take on international tours. Obvious examples are a productions by our residents Jan Fabre and Philippe Herreweghe, and the contemporary opera 'The Woman Who Walked into Doors' by Het muziek Lod, with music by Kris Defoort and directed by Guy Cassiers, which also involved the Beethoven Academy (deSingel's resident orchestra), the Danel Quartet, Dreamtime, the national opera company and Ro Theater. This production was first performed in 2001 and is still touring international theatres.

A Flemish Community institution

Healthy ambition and expertise mean that deSingel will continue to perform its unique role as a modern arts organisation with an international reputation. It is precisely its unique large-scale, international and multidisciplinary dimensions that mean its programme is experienced as essential and complementary to major arts centres, opera houses, concert halls, festivals and museums in the Flemish arts world. In Flanders, only one centre can perform this role.

This position on the Flemish and international arts scene was officially recognised in Belgium in 2003 by its acquisition of the status of 'Flemish Community institution'. These institutions have a specific position and task in the Flemish arts world. Together they represent a substantial symbolic capital for the community. We currently collaborate with every one of these institutions on either a regular or occasional basis.

Off to the arts campus!

In autumn 2007 a start will be made on the new building for the deSingel arts campus. It is an ambitious plan including production rooms for the performing arts and music, a proper exhibition area, a multimedia reading room and art shop, offices for the Flemish Architecture Institute, a spacious café and restaurant plus a bar for the audience during intervals, as well as lots of rooms for the Conservatory.

This new building will also be an expression of deSingel's great project for the future, the creation of a unique and international arts campus. A place where the arts are not only shown, but can also be learnt and created. Many elements of this are already to be found in our present activities. In the first instance in the independent arts education institutions themselves: the Conservatory/College of Drama, Music and Dance, the Postgraduate School for the Performing Arts, and the Sabattini Employment Initiative. Also in a wide range of extra activities aimed at interaction between the arts programme, arts production and the educational environment. This applies both to the students and those members of the public who wish to learn more. After all, we have always considered it important not only to show the arts, but also to facilitate their production and to provide numerous ways of offering guidance to the public.

In the new building, production and coproduction will be able to follow a much more natural course in purpose-built accommodation. In addition, the public will be able to witness work-in-progress or finished productions there when this production space is the most suitable venue for it.
Guidance and education will be important keywords at the new arts campus. With plenty of focus on workshops and masterclasses, public and otherwise, background information on the artistic activity, public rehearsals, talks, colloquia, and access to information on the arts for both the researcher and the interested layman.

We shall be developing the campus programme over the next few years so as to launch ourselves as the fully-fledged 'deSingel international arts campus' when the new buildings open in 2010.