The story of Masada tells of Israeli heroism over stronger forces, of determination, of passion, of eking out a living in the harsh desert climate.

The story of the Israeli Opera’s production of Carmen at Masada had many of the same elements: 2,500 people working for six months and subsisting on sheer determination to create a lavish theatrical production in the middle of the desert. Call it extreme opera, if you will.

But the desert climate proved too much for Carmen herself.

After a nasty sandstorm on Tuesday during rehearsals, Anna Malavasi, an Italian mezzo soprano, said she wasn’t feeling well and wanted to preserve her voice.

The second Carmen, Nancy Fabiola Herrera, a Spanish mezzo soprano who has reprised the role of Carmen in New York, Berlin, London and Los Angeles, could not perform because she was scheduled for Thursday’s premiere. Because of the grueling nature of the four-hour performances, there are two casts for the main roles so the singers can have a night off.

But everyone knows that this is opera, and the show must go on. The mostly Israeli crowd was thrilled when local mezzo soprano Naama Goldman took the stage. The principal Israeli opera singer was an understudy to Carmen, and was only informed at noon on the day of the performance that she would play the title role.

Hila Baggio, another Israeli, who played the role of Frasquita, said that performing outside in Masada is both magical and challenging. “The dry air is very bad for the vocal chords,” she explained.

Singers could do nothing but drink copious amounts of water nonstop and hope they would not need a bathroom break in the middle of the act, she said.

The refreshments stand expects to serve guests and performers with 300,000 liters of water over the course of the performances, or about five liters per person per night.

“It’s very hot, very warm, and there are no acoustics, so everything is from the monitors,” Baggio said. In opera houses, she noted, the halls are usually small enough that the singers do not use microphones. Here, the microphones amplify every tick and intonation, leaving the singers with no room for error.

“Here, the space is very open.

Usually we can see the eyeballs of the conductors,” Baggio added.

Indeed, conductor Daniel Oren stopped the dress rehearsal on a number of occasions to chastise the performers for not looking at him to keep in time with the music. The 3,500 square meter stage is so large that the crew mounted TV monitors around the perimeter showing Oren so choral members in the back can still see the conductor’s gestures.

Aside from the climactic challenges, the sheer size of the NIS 30 million production is mindboggling.

According to Hanna Munitz, the general director of the Israeli Opera, this is the biggest cultural production in the country and larger than most opera productions in the world. Fifty thousand people are expected to fill the 7,500 seat amphitheater for six performances (including the dress rehearsal), 3,500 of whom are international visitors.

Because the opera is located in an archeologically important area, the entire opera village must be completely disassembled each year. The creation of the set takes 2,500 people working for six months. This year, set designers brought 120 trucks of sand to create mountains and hillsides in the set.

These hills were used by 10 live horses and seven live donkeys in the background to create the atmosphere of 19th century Spain.

Each night there are more than 800 performers and technicians involved in the performance, not to mention the personnel involved in security and refreshments.

Munitz originally hatched the idea for an opera at the foot of Masada in 2008 in honor of Israel’s 60th birthday. But the complicated logistics meant it was two years before the Israeli Opera first staged Verdi’s Nabucco, in June 2010. Last year, the company staged Aida at the foot of the storied mountain.

Next year, the company will perform Puccini’s Turandot.

Munitz noted that the stage is actually 1.8 km away from the foot of Masada in order to protect the historical site. But the way the mountain is lit from the stage makes it feel close enough to touch.

The production of such an extravagant performance does not come cheap, and tickets run from NIS 350 to 1,300. But Munitz said the atmosphere of watching at such an important site is breathtaking.

“The mountain is magical,” she said. “The story [of Masada] is a myth that we all grow up on, Israelis and non-Israelis.”

Still, it makes you wonder what the Jewish rebels of Masada would think if they knew.

Rather than bringing about the end of the Jewish people in a blaze of glory and dignity as they had assumed when they committed suicide en mass around 73 CE, in reality, nearly 2,000 years later, an Israeli singer would be in the lead role of a world-renowned opera at the foot of their hideaway.

The Israeli Opera didn’t try to adapt the show to make it more relevant for their unique location, Munitz said. “Carmen is about passion, hatred and love,” she explained. “This happens everywhere – we can be in Seville or in Masada.”

One of the most magical moments came just before the opera started, as the audience held their breath and the lights went out. Above the stage, spread out like a carpet, were millions of stars. And on the horizon, just beyond the singers, was the dark, hulking shape of a silent Masada.

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