As dramatic settings go, particularly as an operatic venue Masada has got most of ‘em beat. True, Verona with its 1st century BCE amphitheater isn’t half bad, and the floating stage they set up for the Bregenz Festival, which takes place at the Austrian end of Lake Constance, has a lovely aquatic backdrop.
But the distinctive outcrop in the Judean Desert, with its dramatic military history and unparalleled view of the lowest spot on Earth, and the Moab Mountains on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea, give the Israel Opera House’s Masada Opera Festival a head start in the aesthetics stakes.
Bulgarian soprano Svetla Vassileva certainly appreciates the environs in which she is due to perform the title role of Puccini’s Tosca four times in the coming fortnight (June 4, 6, 11 and 13, all at 9:30 p.m.). This will be her second professional stint down at Masada, and her debut there, in Verdi’s Requiem, could hardly have been more emotive or dramatic.
“I find Masada really mystical,” she exclaims. “When we did the Requiem, everything was very quiet and hot – normal. Then, when we started to sing ‘Dies Irae’ [the second section of the work], which means ‘the anger of God,’ such a strong desert wind started to blow.
It really seemed like the gods were angry.”
Vassileva is, of course, the supreme professional and she and the rest of the cast kept on going, blustery conditions notwithstanding, but is she at all wary about returning to Masada? “No. I am going back to sing.
This is not a time to be scared,” she declares. “I am very excited that I going to be singing at Masada again.”
The Tosca audiences will, no doubt, be relieved and happy to hear that.
If anything at all might bother the soprano it is the al fresco location.
As any opera artist will tell you, singing inside and outside are two very different propositions.
“There are a lot of difficulties [outside],” she admits. “But they are always special events when you perform outside, especially at a place like Masada. I like this.”
Even so, performing outside does involve some logistics and technical aspects with which Vassileva is having to get to grips.
“It is the first time I am using a microphone,” she notes. “I have sung outside several times before, but always without a microphone.”
Actually, that is not entirely accurate.
“I have performed with people like [renowned tenor] Placido Domingo, in stadiums with thousands and thousands of people, so you need a microphone. But the microphone was far away from me.
This time it will be on my head, so it will be different.”
While Vassileva says that having a personal amplification kit attached to her will not make a difference to the way she goes about her business, she notes that the sonic augmentation means she will not be entirely in control of what the audience hears.
“You have to trust the technical people for the acoustics,” she says.
“You can’t only rely on yourself.
There are other people doing something with your voice. That is a little different.”
It is safe to say the Bulgarian vocalist will be in good hands down in the Judean Desert, not only when it comes to the sound system but also with regard to her fellow professionals.
Vassileva is, naturally, delighted to be performing the title role of the opera.
“Every female Puccini character is special for me,” she says. “Tosca is not in a good situation. It is a very dramatic and awful situation.
Her life is messed up. In this opera you have love, passion and strong characters.”
The singer also feels that the composer was a dab hand at conveying the storyline and the personalities involved through the score alone.
“If you only hear the music you can catch every color of the characters, even without the libretto.”
That is not to say that Vassileva would be just as happy if Tosca were performed without the words.
“For Puccini the words were very important and he tried not to change even a single one.”
Vassileva never had any quandaries about her career path.
“I started wanting to be an opera singer when I was four years old,” she recalls. “I don’t know why. I don’t think there was any opera on TV. My friends thought it was a bit strange.”
But she stuck to her infant guns and by the time she was 15 she had enrolled at the local conservatory of music, and started playing piano and developing her vocal talent.
Singing, and especially developing operatic skills, can be hard graft, particularly at such a young age.
Vassileva says she was never deterred by the requisite elbow grease input.
“If you work down a mine, that is hard work,” she notes, although noting that being an opera singer is not quite the life of Riley either.
“You have to be very dedicated,” she says. “Yes, you travel around the world but, for example, if you don’t feel well you don’t go out of the hotel, and you stay in bed to make sure you feel strong and can sing in the performance.”
Vassileva has collaborated with the conductor of Tosca, Daniel Oren, on several previous occasions, and says she is delighted to be joining forces with him again.
“I love Daniel,” she says unreservedly.
“I think he is a kind of genius.
He has a big soul, and he has so much energy and passion. Even if I don’t see him I can feel the energy, and so we are together.”
Vassileva and Oren may be together at Masada this week and the following, but they will hardly be alone. Acclaimed French opera director Nicolas Joel will certainly have his say about how the performances pan out in the desert, and Vassileva will be joined on stage by an all-star international cast including Italian tenor Fabio Sartori, Argentinian tenor Gustavo Porta, American baritone Scott Hendricks and Russian counterpart Sergei Murzaev, and Italian bass Carlo Striuli, with the local singing lineup including Soviet-born bass-baritone Vladimir Braun, tenor Joseph Aridan and baritones Oded Reich and Noah Briger. They will be suitably supported by the Israeli Opera Chorus conducted by Eitan Schmeisser, the Moran Children’s Choir and the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion.
For tickets and more information: http://opera-masada.com/, Bimot *6226 and Arkia *5758.