When it comes to cultural events titles, “Regarding...” has most of them beat. And what about that nifty-looking, suggestive, epexegetically leaning ellipsis? As any Steiner-educated kid will tell you, leaving a little to the observer-consumer’s imagination helps to draw them into the thick of the offering in question.
The international arts festival, backed by the Riga, Latvia-based LOUD Foundation nonprofit, will take a bow in Tel Aviv next week, with the inaugural edition running October 21-23. Each successive year’s program will have a thematic anchor, with the curtain-raiser focusing on divine female characters. The Regarding Goddesses program includes the world premiere of Kundry specially commissioned for the festival. The score was composed by Avner Dorfman based on a libretto by Yael Ronen.
The debut production will take place at the Israeli Opera House, directed by Lotte de Beer, with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra conducted by Steven Sloane, and starring British-Canadian soprano Jessica Muirhead.
If the organizers of the newcomer to the local cultural calendar were looking to lay down a marker it looks like “Kundry” should do the business. The work is named after the lead female character in Wagner’s final opera, Parsifal, although festival founder and curator Maria Nasimova is at pains to distance the production from any direct Wagnerian connections. Considering the 19th-century German composer’s Holocaust-related profile in this country, that only seems wise.
The Regarding… opener, in fact, also features another world first, with A Message from Gaia, which is described as a site-specific vocal participatory promenade. It was created by Dutch-based Anthony Heidweiller, who has made a name for himself as an innovator in operatic circles, and a creator of new participatory forms of the musical discipline. A Message from Gaia will be performed at various locations around Tel Aviv and Jaffa.
Nasimova says she was keen to get the annual festival ball rolling with a powerful declaration of conceptual intent.
“I was thinking it would be good to have female characters, of any kind, in the festival program, in all the genres,” she said. It seems this was not set to be a vehicle for trumpeting feminism per se, although women were definitely going to be raised to pedestal level. “It didn’t matter if the characters were strong or weak, interesting or not interesting, boring whatever, they are still goddesses,” Nasimova says. “Every woman is a goddess.”
The second production has an important subtext to it.
“Gaia is the goddesses of Earth, and the project is dedicated to climate change,” Nasimova explains. The show features seven female vocalists who address that pressing global ecological issue, looking at it from political, scientific, social and personal perspectives. The peripatetic performance will take place in Hayarkon Park and in Old Jaffa.
The curator admits to harboring an ulterior motive for presenting the work in the open air.
“There are people who don’t want to come to culture, so if they don’t want to come to culture, culture will come to them,” she laughs. “If they don’t want to go to the Opera House, the music will come to them, where they are. Hopefully they will see there is nothing too traumatizing about the opera.” It should be interesting to see whether that helps to sway locals to the operatic side of the arts in the future.
Apparently there is a textual hook in Gaia, which also references the chosen spots. “The libretto has the local context in it,” Nasimova adds. As the “site-specific” element is front and center in the artistic credo, that sounds perfectly reasonable.
Back to Kundry, and the potential sociopolitical minefield involved in presenting a work that, for some, conjures up shades of the Holocaust.
“That’s why we’re not playing Wagner,” Nasimova responds with alacrity, when I mention that daunting sticking point. “The only connection to Wagner is the one character. We took just one character, the most controversial character, and we gave it new life. I think that is what contemporary art is.”
The figure in question appears, in Parsifal, in the guise of a less than attractive character. She is portrayed as a wild woman, unkempt and downright unappealing. But there is also an alter ego, with a lot more sex appeal. The role has been played by the likes of legendary Greek vocalist Maria Callas, now celebrated 84-year-old Welsh soprano Gwyneth Jones, and Grammy Award-winning German dramatic soprano Waltraud Meier, who is known for her Wagnerian renditions. Muirhead now joins those illustrious ranks, but in a very different operatic vehicle.
After a lengthy gestation period, Nasimova is looking forward to finally putting all the planning work into staged execution. She says she is particularly delighted to complement the arts scene in Tel Aviv, and owns up to having a vested interest in getting the new international event up and running.
“Even though I don’t speak Hebrew, not yet, this is my country,” she says. “Tel Aviv deserves to have more international [arts] events.” The metropolis very recently became her home, after making aliyah from Moscow earlier this month.
In fact, Nasimova and Tel Aviv are not strangers. She spent many a vacation here as a kid, when she visited her grandparents who had already made the move from the former Soviet Union.
The new kid on the block is clearly intent on taking a dramatic and enduring curtain call, as Regarding… moves up through the gears. The festival blurb sets out the incipient event’s stall by declaring: “We aim at surprising and engaging audiences in a new and surprising way.”
With future editions scheduled to focus on such universal and thought-provoking themes as shame and faith, evidently there are, indeed, some artistic and philosophical discoveries to be made along the Regarding… way.
For tickets and information: https://regardingfestival.com.