TEL AVIV, Israel - As red-cloaked monks swung a censer to the accompaniment of bells and Hebrew prayers against the backdrop of a crucifix, Madonna shouted “Tel Aviv, are you ready?” and launched into “Girl Gone Wild.”
The crowd of about 33,000 roared back at Ramat Gan stadium. Thursday night, the 53-year-old queen of pop started her 2012 MDNA tour with a two-hour show that combined deafening techno-beats, a dizzying video-projected mix of sexual, violent and religious images, and a plea for Middle East peace.
The tour, which will play at least 65 cities around the world, has already sold $240 million in tickets, according to its promoter Live Nation Entertainment. That, along with sponsorship deals and other ancillary income, will probably earn Madonna about $500 million this year, the Huffington Post said.
“The show was provocative, sexy and I had a blast,” said Noa Brumer, 22, an Israeli army officer. “Musically a little disappointing: The songs didn’t really build up as they should have. But you can see that she has special feelings for Israel.”
Tickets in Israel range from $45 for the cheapest seats to a $620 “VIP package” that includes a meal and admission to a private party.
“People spend $300 on crazy things all the time, things like handbags,” Madonna told the Daily Beast in January, defending her ticket prices. “So work all year, scrape the money together, and come to my show, I’m worth it.”
In terms of stagecraft, concert-goers got their money’s worth. The show was so elaborately designed with continuous video projections and scene changes, so tightly choreographed with a succession of acrobatics, wire-walking and sexual poses, it resembled a techno-pop Cirque Du Soleil.
With extensive use of audio playback, including whole songs when Madonna disappeared from stage for costume changes, it wasn’t easy to know when one is actually hearing her live voice.
One of the more effective moments was one of the simplest, when Madonna eschewed special effects to deliver “Like a Virgin” as a dirge-like waltz.
Madonna’s decision to play in Israel contrasts with other musicians over the past two years who canceled performances after protests by pro-Palestinian groups, including Elvis Costello, Santana, Gil Scott-Heron and Cassandra Wilson.
That an Italian-American Catholic named for the mother of Jesus would end up among the Jewish state’s biggest supporters in the global pop elite is one of the stranger twists even in the extraordinary career of Madonna Louise Ciccone.
In mid-concert, she waded into Middle East politics.
“I chose to start my world tour in Israel for a very specific and important reason,” she told the crowd. “If we can all rise above our egos and our titles and the names of our countries and our religions, and treat everyone around us with respect, then we are on the road to peace.”
The singer drew scattered cheers, concluding with “If there is peace in the Middle East, there can be peace in the whole world.”
Madonna’s remarks came after she held a private meeting the day before with Israeli and Palestinian peace activists, and provided them with 600 free tickets.
“Madonna said peace was the only solution and encouraged us to pursue it,” Ron Pundak, head of the Israeli chapter of the Peace NGO Forum, said in a telephone interview.
The peace message seemed incongruous coming in a concert in which Madonna acted out the scenario of shooting a lover to death during “Revolver” and “Gang Bang” before turning her pistol on the audience to the sound of gunshots against a projected backdrop of gushing blood. Such glaring contradictions have been the meat-and-potatoes of her entire career.
The core of her connection with Israel is Madonna’s passion for Kabbalah, a once-obscure branch of Jewish mysticism that has drawn wider interest in recent years, including from non-Jews.
In a 1997 television interview Madonna said her own attraction began with classes at the Los Angeles headquarters of the Kabbalah Centre, a chain of learning outlets that dilutes esoteric religious tenets into an easy-to-digest self-help spiritual philosophy that has proved popular with celebrities including Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore.
During her last visit to Israel, in 2009, Madonna proclaimed from the stage, “I truly believe Israel is the energy center of the world.” Her trip included a pilgrimage to the tomb of the 16th-century Kabbalah sage Rabbi Isaac Luria in the northern town of Safed, and lighting ceremonial candles to welcome in the Jewish Sabbath on Friday night in the home of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sarah.
This trip, she restricted her movements largely to her hotel suite or rehearsals in Ramat Gan, leaving local paparazzi to scan the Tel Aviv beach front for sightings of Madonna’s three children, including teenage daughter Lourdes who appears as a dancer in her mother’s show.
Madonna was also accompanied by Rabbi Eitan Yardeni, her personal spiritual tutor, who told Israel’s Channel 2 news that the star should be credited with helping to popularize Kabbalah throughout the world.
That view is not shared by more traditional kabbalists like Israel’s Rabbi Yitzhak Batzri, who criticized Madonna during her last visit for engaging in studies that he said should be limited only to those who undergo a full Orthodox conversion to Judaism.