Inside the Abu Dhabi Festival

Courtesy of ADMAF

Julian Sancton reports from the cultural extravaganza that included a showstopping performance by soprano Renée Fleming.

My hotel, the Rosewood Abu Dhabi (Sowwah Square, Al Maryah Island; 971-2/813-5550; rosewoodhotels.com), built on the manmade island of Al Maryah, is so new that, according to Apple Maps, I am technically in the water. This may say more about Apple Maps’ lingering glitches than anything else, but it’s also a reflection of the staggering pace of change in this city.

The sand on my tenth-floor windowsill is the only reminder that just 30 years ago, this was mostly desert. Now, instead of red dunes, there are cranes as far as I can see. A few hundred feet from the Rosewood, construction on a new Four Seasons hotel is well under way. In the distance, if I squint, I can make out Saadiyat Island, where an enormous white crane—a tourist attraction in its own right, I’m told—is installing the dome on the first outpost of the Louvre Museum outside France, designed by Jean Nouvel and set to open in 2015. Saadiyat is expected to become a sort of cultural (and architectural) wonderland, with the Zayed National Museum to open in 2016 and a new Guggenheim the year after that.

Fueled by profits from oil and gas, Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, is growing at an astounding rate, and culture is integral to the government’s plans for the city (certainly more so than in neighboring Dubai, Abu Dhabi’s extravagant little sister). The most prominent manifestation of that vision, at least until the Louvre opens its doors, is the Abu Dhabi Festival (abudhabifestival.ae/en), which runs throughout March. The festival is organized by the Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation, which, though technically unaffiliated with the government, nevertheless plays into its cultural mission.

The festival has come a long way since it launched in 2004. This year it has attracted such name-brand artists as Bill Fontana, who created several new installations for the occasion; conductor Gustavo Dudamel; soprano Renée Fleming; Herbie Hancock; Vladimir Ashkenazy (leading the wonderful European Union Youth Orchestra); and the American Ballet Theatre (performing Coppélia on Friday, March 28). Concerts take place in the auditorium of the Emirates Palace, a gilded behemoth that looks as if it could swallow the Plaza hotel whole. (There is a machine in the lobby that dispenses gold bars like they were Snickers.)

Renée Fleming Says Thank You

By some estimates, expatriates make up 80 percent of Abu Dhabi’s population—so it’s no surprise that the audience for Fleming’s recital on Sunday was mostly European, with a few white gotras (the traditional headdress of Emirati men) visible in the front rows. The repertoire was cannily symbolic. Backed by the Dresden Philharmonic, under the direction of hyperanimated Austrian conductor Sascha Goetzel, she began what was otherwise a survey of opera’s greatest hits, with a little-known Mozart aria called “Nehmt meinen Dank,” which the composer wrote for his sister-in-law when her contract with the Vienna opera expired, in 1782:

Accept my thanks, kind patrons! / With all the ardor felt in my heart / Men could find the words to speak / But I’m a mere woman and cannot. / Yet believe me; never in my life shall I forget your generosity.

Fleming seemed to address these words of gratitude directly to Hoda Al Khamis Kanoo, the festival’s founder and artistic director. The encore was just as significant. After a program that included Verdi, Massenet and Gershwin (and also featured German Canadian tenor Michael Schade), Fleming returned to the stage with a young Emirati soprano (actually, the only Emirati soprano for now, according to the program) named Sara Al-Qaiwani. Fleming went back to Mozart, with the sublime duet from The Marriage of Figaro, in which the Countess (Fleming) dictates a letter to Susanna. Al-Qaiwani, as Susanna, more than held her own, inspiring Al Khamis Kanoo to rush the stage in proud applause. The moment came off—perhaps as intended—as a passing of the torch.

Pictured above (from left): Sara Al Qaiwani, Michael Schade and Renée Fleming