Brett Sheehy’s last Melbourne Festival was always going to be a big one. The festival’s artistic director for the past four years – having directed arts and culture festivals in Sydney and Adelaide in the six years prior – Sheehy possesses a wealth of knowledge across various disciplines in the arts. His final Melbourne Festival is a culmination of everything that he has learnt in the past 10 years, bringing together his favourite artists, as well as those who have long been on his must-have list.

The two themes that dominate this year’s Festival are identity and place, with many of the works dealing the longing for identity and how individuals and societies define themselves in certain spaces. Melbourne will certainly have its spaces contorted, challenged and seduced by the artistic talent on display this October.

Let us start with the opening night Australian premiere of Michel van de Aa’s opera After Life, which is sure to provoke both thought and the heartstrings. Based on Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 1998 Japanese film of the same name, After Life concerns six deceased souls as they gather in limbo and are compelled to choose one memory to take with them into the afterlife, lest they wallow in purgatory forever. This is a stirring work that showcases the strengths of contemporary opera.

The contemporary music program is absolutely bursting with personalities. Billy Bragg will present two shows – one celebrating the work of folk music pioneer Woody Guthrie and the other a set of Bragg classics. Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth will perform solo and, not to be outdone, Ranaldo’s band mate Thurston Moore will also be treading Hamer Hall’s new boards on the back of his latest record Demolished Thoughts. Most excitingly, this Festival will see the return to Australia of Antony and the Johnsons and the second ever performance of their new show Swanlights.

The dance program sees Lucy Guerin Inc. grace the festival for the first time, with the world premiere of Weather. Chunky Move will be taking over the Sidney Myer Music Bowl and pushing all its physical boundaries in An Act of Now, while a unique collaboration between China’s Leshan Song and Dance Troupe and Christchurch-born choreographer Sara Brodie has resulted in Fault Lines, a deeply personal response to the trauma of earthquakes and the horror of familiar spaces destroyed beyond recognition, loved ones gone and the eventual path to rebuilding.

The program even includes a special food event. Grobak Padi will see a phalanx of Indonesian gerobak food carts take to the streets of the CBD, while video screens attached to the carts display live video of other gerobaks on the streets of Yogyakarta.

We could go on and on, such is the wealth of this program. There’s the Art Matters…On Film program screening at ACMI, Chamber Made Opera’s presentation of The Minotaur Trilogy, Paul Kelly’s tribute to poetry in Conversations With Ghosts, the epic finale to visual artist Santiago Sierra’s cross-continental mediation on demolition DESTROYED WORD, the first Australian appearance of ‘avant-pop classical’ violinist Hahn-Bin, not to mention the Melbourne premiere and first festival appearance of the darlings of cabaret, the cheeky La Clique with La Soiree.

As swansongs go, it’s an impressive and audacious one.

Melbourne Festival runs from October 11 to 27.