For the first time I have experienced the phantasmagoria that is the Edinburgh Festivals. Yes, Festivals is plural, because it's truly impossible to experience only one. You may be a committed classical music fan, a devotee of serious theater, focusing on the original granddaddy of them all, the Edinburgh International Festival, but inevitably the Fringe Festival creeps in.
As the month-long festivals draw to a conclusion this weekend, a surprisingly robust LA connection gains an even higher profile. Angel Blue, a soprano who attended the LA County High School for the Arts, earned a Masters in Voice from UCLA, and is a former Domingo-Thornton Young Artist at L.A. Opera, makes her Edinburgh Festival debut in the title role of the Scottish Opera's American Lulu, a jazzy Civil Rights era re-working by Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth of Alban Berg's unfinished 1934 masterwork. This is a huge career step for Blue, and the gorgeous African-American singer and former beauty queen can be seen on posters all over town.
Just last night, Peter Oundjian conducted the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in City Noir by John Adams, a work inspired by Los Angeles, and premiered a few seasons ago by the LA Phil; Violinist Midori, who holds the Jascha Heifetz Chair and directs the Strings Department at the USC Thornton School of Music, gave two separate recitals of Bach mixed with contemporary music, and Benjamin Millepied has leapt into town with his LA Dance Project (oops--that's right--he reportedly didn't hire actual LA dancers for the troupe.)
Several prominent LA arts leaders have also dropped by: Christopher Koelsch and John Nuckols, top brass at LA Opera, were drawn to the sensational double bill presented by the Frankfurt Opera: Dido and Aeneas and Bluebeard's Castle, both in fresh, eye-opening productions by the Australian director Barrie Kosky, whose Magic Flute will be given by LA Opera this coming season. Judging by the glorious singing, acting and provocative staging of this uncanny concoction of Purcell and Bartok, you'd be crazy to miss Kosky's "Flute" in LA. Daniel Bee, a recent, quite brilliant acquisition to the administrative staff of the Colburn School, comes by his attachment to these Festivals honestly: he grew up here, and gets to stay with his mum and dad when he visits.
The Edinburgh International Festival began in 1947, an antidote to war, and the proudly un-juried Fringe grew up around its edges beginning that very first year, to the point where today it has almost swallowed the original festival. Almost, but not quite. True, all the buzz, all the kids from all the world who congregate on the streets, in the pubs and street fairs and cubbyhole theaters and picnic areas and pop-up outdoor carnivals in this ancient and scenic city on the East Coast of Scotland---they're here for the Fringe.
The Fringe is the world's biggest arts festival by itself, but that hardly does justice to how vast it is. It's too soon to crunch the numbers for 2013, which is still in its final throes of un-curated ecstasy, but in 2012 the Fringe flashed 2,695 separate productions from 47 countries in nearly 300 venues. Half of the shows were world premieres. Theater and comedy reign supreme, but there is also music in every church and in many pubs, and on almost every street corner, and dance in every nook and cranny. The range of offerings defies description, but here's just a sampling of shows we saw at the 2013 Fringe:
Baby Wants Candy: an improv musical featuring the Chicago-based troupe that takes one audience suggestion and runs with it for a solid hour. In our case, a weak idea leading to a hilarious results: the baker who couldn't stop himself from forming "jazz hands".
Nirbhaya: Yael Farber's gripping, documentary-style drama that explores why the brutal rape of an Indian woman on a public bus in New Delhi late last year sparked international demonstrations and just possibly caused a sea change in Indian society. Many in the audience wept freely. I managed to hold it together until I found out just after the show--chatting with one of the actresses in the lobby--- that the stories they told were their own.
Positive: a charmingly humorous and surprisingly upbeat play about a young HIV-positive gay man and his straight, female, HIV-positive roommate, both struggling with romantic challenges and both, against all odds, finding dreamy, supportive partners. Playwright Shaun Kitchener, who also played--beautifully--one of those dreamy partners, is a talent to watch.
The Edinburgh International Festival, the one with the pedigree, today boasts its own fantastic array of arts offerings: world-class orchestras, the aforementioned opera companies, chamber groups, recitalists, theater, dance troupes, films, and some Fringe-flavored avant-garde, including the world premiere of Leaving Planet Earth, during which audience members were bused to a remote, hyper-modern indoor climbing arena, which doubled as New Earth. I was one of those audience members, and not since catching one of the late Andy Kaufman's early performance art pieces, in which the entire audience was bused to milk and cookies after the show at Hollywood's not so little Little Spaghetti Factory have I allowed myself to be kidnapped in the interest of theater. Leaving Planet Earth is an elaborate, expensive piece by Edinburgh's Grid Iron Theater, known for helping pioneer the concept of site-specific theater. There were many weird, haunting effects, including video submissions by audience members of what they'd most miss on the old earth (baseball, in our group); but it ended too abruptly, and tried to be too many different things. I couldn't help think that a much less ambitious version could have been sensationally effective---mounted in the Fringe.
Where I must commend the original Festival is in its music programming, a serious classical lover's dream come true. Tenor Ian Bostridge gave a recital of Ives, Schumann, and Brahms. After a lifetime of attending lieder recitals, I'm not sure I had heard a single one of those songs performed previously. They were---he was---revelatory. The rigorous French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard juxtaposed Debussy Preludes and Ligeti Etudes. He had melded them together briefly at Ojai a few years back, but this was an entire recital. It almost defied belief, it was so technically demanding, yet also so probing, mesmerizing, so very unusual.
Finally, the Sixteen, a stunningly good London-based choral group specializing in early music, brought us unknown Tallis hymns, and works of MacMillan and Carver, among others: breath-taking. This is a Festival that not only respects its audience; it trusts it. One can only love such a Festival back, with open arms, so glad that it exists and thrives on this earth.