Masada sandstorm gives Israeli opera star break
‘Carmen’ star replaced by local understudy after desert climate proves too much.
THE CAST of ‘Carmen’ performs at Masada. Photo: Melanie Lidman
The story of Masada tells of Israeli heroism over stronger forces, of
determination, of passion, of eking out a living in the harsh desert
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.
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.
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
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,
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
Usually we can see the eyeballs of the conductors,” Baggio
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
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
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.
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
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