Yesterday's pop hits get an operatic makeover in Kfar Blum

The three-day event (April 27-29) goes by the name of Just Before the Eurovision, which references the advent of the long-running international song contest.

 DAVID SEBBA and members of the Meitar Opera Studio.  (photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)
DAVID SEBBA and members of the Meitar Opera Studio.
(photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)

It is an empirically proven fact that if you hang around long enough, at some stage or other you are bound to come back into fashion. I have seen that happen with, for example, drainpipe jeans and flairs and there have been similar retro movements in the music sector. The latter probably largely informed David Sebba’s efforts when he put together the program for this weekend’s Festival at the Pastoral bash, at the Pastoral Hotel in Kfar Blum.

The three-day event (April 27-29) goes by the name of Just Before the Eurovision, which references the advent of the long-running international song contest, in Liverpool, UK, on May 9.

Sebba is probably best known as a classical conductor and pianist, which is in addition to numerous other professional pursuits, including composing and arranging scores, teaching and even doing some singing himself. His expansive educational and curatorial activity domain takes in a suitably broad sweep of material, spanning the seeming chasm between opera and pop.

Both of those genres are in the festival mix up north this weekend with the schedule referencing the Sanremo Festival, which has been an annual fixture in Italy since 1951, and its famous progeny, the Eurovision Song Contest, which began five years later. And there will be numbers from a bunch of other song festivals and in all kinds of languages. All the above will be presented in operatic style by members of the Meitar Opera Studio, the young artists program of the Israeli Opera. As music director of Meitar, Sebba has access to the personnel he needs to do the musical rendition business at Kfar Blum.

Adding some operatic spice 

Talented members of Meitar will be on call during the course of the weekend to add some operatic spice to Billboard Hot 100 hits by the likes of Swedish pop group Abba, who went on to become a megastar act following its success in 1974 with “Waterloo,” French-born 1973 winner for Luxembourg Anne Marie David, Italian singer Gigliola Cinquetti who won both the Sanremo and Eurovision song contests at the tender age of 16, in 1964, and fellow Italian Sanremo winner Domenico Modugno, who came in first six years earlier.

 A man walks past the lit logo of the legendary Swedish pop group ABBA at ''ABBA - The Museum'' in Stockholm (credit: ARND WIEGMANN / REUTERS) A man walks past the lit logo of the legendary Swedish pop group ABBA at ''ABBA - The Museum'' in Stockholm (credit: ARND WIEGMANN / REUTERS)

The aforesaid and more will be among the hits of the 1960s and 1970s featured in the Douze Points show on Friday. The slot moniker alludes to the top score each Eurovision entry can receive per voter – 12 points in French. The members of the Kfar Blum audience will also be privy to some behind-the-scenes enlightenment about the songs and the artists who performed them.

Some might find the marriage of pop and opera a little strange, if not downright unnatural. Sebba, unsurprisingly, begs to differ. He believes it is a snug fit and he has the learned presentational collateral to support that standpoint. “We are showing our appreciation for the Eurovision Song Contest from the years when all the songs were, and the whole setting, everything was so orchestral. The songs were genuine compositions. It was something else in those days.”

I was getting the impression that despite his work in almost exclusively loftier musical circles, Sebba does not differentiate between high and low culture. He put me in mind of now 83-year-old Melvyn Bragg who for many years fronted a BBC TV arts and culture program called The Southbank Show. Oxford University education notwithstanding, Bragg never took the high ground. His cast of interviewees over the years included British classical pianist John Ogdon and the 1980s synth-pop duo Pet Shop Boys.

It seems the 55-year-old Festival at the Pastoral artistic director embraces a similar nondiscriminatory span of cultural references. “I strongly connect with that,” says Sebba. “People have asked me why I perform all these songs with singing troupes, instead of classical music with big choirs” he notes. “I tell them I have heard a choir – I won’t mention the name – destroy Mozart’s Requiem and I have heard a singing troupe performing a song by [Israel Prize laureate songwriter] Sasha Argov and I have been moved to tears. Good music is good music, regardless of the genre.”

Dinner and a show

Soul food and corporeal vittles also provide analogous backing. “I can enjoy a great falafel more than a Michelin star restaurant meal,” he said. Sebba might also have cited jazz great Duke Ellington who, in a somewhat PC-friendly manner, observed, “There are two kinds of music: good music and the other kind.”

Clearly, the folks who make their way up to Kfar Blum for the weekend are going to be served with some enticing sounds, presented in an alluring professional fashion and get some eye-openers on some of the subtexts to the musical format along the way.

Sebba gets in on the informative act on Friday morning when he delivers his Three Flowers – A Rose, Violet and Lotus lecture. The floral triad references songs written by Mozart, Schumann and Schubert. “I will make a comparison between three very important composers of lieder – art songs – and will use that to talk about the composers themselves, about their approach to text, art and composition. I will show when you take three songs, including two by the same poet – Goethe – and one by Heine, the approach varies so much.” Sebba did not want to give too much away ahead of time. “I will just say that Mozart’s approach was the most courageous. He was an innovator but not a revolutionary. You hear songs he wrote, which sound like lovely lullabies, but there are all sorts of innovative things hidden in there.” It sounds tantalizing.

The opening day of the festival features a globetrotting talk called Carnivals and Festivities Around the World, which takes in music, color, masks and letting loose. The visual presentation will incorporate pictures taken at various joyous occasions, in India, in the Dominican Republic, at the famed mask carnival of Venice and even at an Adloyada Purim event at a yeshiva in Bnei Barak.

The musical program includes some operatic tasters from the Salzburg Festival in Austria and the final day focuses on some local contributions, in the Scandal or Festival show. The concert repertoire takes in Eurovision preliminaries numbers, Children’s Festival songs and a selection of other Hebrew-language hits that flew the Israeli flag across the globe.

With the luxurious surroundings, fixtures and fittings of the Pastoral Hotel, multi-course repasts and verdant surroundings, Festival at the Pastoral sounds like a winner.

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