My Word: The president, the Stones and the opera

Lessons from cultural and less cultured recent events.

June 12, 2014 22:09

President-elect Rivlin. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, as the saying goes. And people who want to live in the President’s Residence should realize the need for transparency. In fact, those seeking any kind of high office need to know that the higher the office, the more the public wants to be able to look up to them.

The country has seen tense presidential elections and scandals in the past. (After all, a previous president, Moshe Katsav, switched the particularly prestigious Jerusalem address for a prison cell, convicted of rape.) But this was a different ball game, or a different opera, as we say in Hebrew: opera aheret.

The twists in the plot surrounding the election of the 10th head of state didn’t end with the announcement that Reuven (Ruby) Rivlin had finally realized his dream (and his father’s dream before him) and been elected as Citizen No. 1, taking over from Shimon Peres whom he ran against seven years ago.

The musical backdrop to much of the last few days has been the sound track of the Rolling Stones, the iconic British band whose members, like the president-elect, are now in their 70s but nonetheless proved they can still rock and roll in the heat of a Tel Aviv night. Friends who bought tickets to what was trumpeted by some as the biggest cultural event this year swear that Mick Jagger doesn’t just hold his own with the best of them, he is the best of them.

Stones-related trivia has it that their alltime favorite song among the Israeli public is “Angie,” probably the least typical Stones song in their repertoire. Still, on June 10 it was “Ruby Tuesday” that was playing relentlessly on the country’s airwaves as soon as the results of the second round of voting were known. (Incidentally, Rivlin’s attempts to convince the millions of people he now represents as head of state that his nickname is Ruvi, not Ruby, fell on deaf ears. It was wonderfully Israeli that he didn’t even try to persuade the general public to stop calling him by his nickname.)

These presidential elections will be remembered for all the wrongs reasons. It was hard to keep up as the race increasingly resembled a prime-time reality show. Minister Silvan Shalom was the first to fall when allegations of sexual harassment involving a woman he worked with some 17 years ago suddenly surfaced after all this time. Police did not find enough evidence to recommend prosecution, but Shalom decided to quit. I suspect he and his media-personality wife, Judy Shalom Nir Mozes, are both breathing a sigh of relief that they got out of the way before the kangaroo courts could really kick in. Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the favorite Labor Party candidate until days before the election, found himself under investigation for possible corruption as the extent and value of his property holdings were dragged into the public eye, raising questions of why a billionaire businessman would have lent him money to purchase a NIS 9 million property. Ben-Eliezer had already been subject to stories about his health and visits to a London casino.

The Ben-Eliezer example led to a flurry of speculation about the assets (financial, not political) of the other candidates until ultimately those who remained standing dutifully published the number of homes they own and when and how they had purchased them.

In a perverse mirror image of a game of Monopoly, if the public – rather than the 120 Knesset members – had been able to elect the president, the winner might have been chosen on the basis of who had the least number of houses in the least desirable neighborhood to their name.

Rivlin and retired justice Dalia Dorner, who both live in humble Jerusalem abodes, would probably have faced off in the second round. Dalia Itzik was suddenly revealed to own a fancy Tel Aviv apartment as her third address (along with a NIS 3 million debt).

Meanwhile, police discovered a bank safe belonging to Ben-Eliezer with a large amount of cash in it. (If, during the course of any of their inquiries, the police were to locate a safe holding thousands of dollars belonging to me, I would be surprised, embarrassed and ecstatic in that order.) Sheetrit was a little late off the mark in declaring his holdings (whose value he attributed to his wife, a successful public relations consultant), but early on in the race eyebrows were raised when it became known that he had paid his former home help NIS 270,000 in compensation – after less than two years employment.

The day after he lost the presidential bid to Rivlin, speculation focused around the contents of a signed agreement between Sheetrit and his former employee. While Sheetrit denied that he had bought her silence in what could have been a sex scandal, he did not say why he paid her the sort of money that usually would have taken more than 25 years to earn.

WITH ALL this unwanted drama going on, I welcomed the chance on Wednesday to get away from it all and spend a night in Paris – or the nearest thing, which happened to be at the foot of Masada. Here, the stage and grounds had been temporarily redesigned to resemble the 18th-century French capital for the Israel Opera’s performance of La Traviata.

Masada, of course, has its own amazing story: A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the cliff overlooking the Dead Sea is a symbol of the bid for freedom by the ancient Jewish kingdom in the revolt against Roman rule more than 2,000 years ago.

This is the fourth year that Masada has provided the spectacular backdrop to the Israeli Opera Festival. Previous years featured the more apt performances of Nabucco and Aida and the Spanish-flavored Carmen.

Israel Opera general-director Hanna Munitz, when asked (countless times) why La Traviata at this particular site, responds: “The artistic reply to this pertinent question is found in the words of Violetta [the tragic heroine] as she reflects on her life in the social and cultural wilderness of Paris. We recreated this metaphor in its entirety at the foot of Masada – Paris in the midst of the desert.”

Since I get my satisfaction from opera rather than the Rolling Stones, and the stones of Masada hold a near mystical fascination for me, an open-air Verdi production under a nearly full June moon at this particular venue was highlighted in my calendar months in advance.

The Tourism Ministry’s European department director Sara Salansky told me that with Masada establishing a spot on the cultural map, between 3,000 and 4,000 tourists were flying in especially for this year’s opera festival, which includes a Mozart celebration in the old city of Acre, another World Heritage Site.

From what I saw of La Traviata (the dress rehearsal, sitting close enough to see maestro Daniel Oren work his magic), opera-loving visitors will not be disappointed. Aurelia Florian (who alternates with Elena Mosuc in the lead role) gave an electric performance, and director Michal Znaniecki, set designer Luigi Scoglio and costume designer Joanna Medynska all deserve a standing ovation – although seeing Masada lit up as the lungs of the dying Violetta is not for the fainthearted.

My message from the opera, based on the play La Dame aux Camelias by Alexandre Dumas (fils), has less to do with cultural havens or the lack thereof and more with the way the past has a tendency to catch up with you, particularly if you mix in certain social and political circles. And also with the need for transparency. It was TB that caused Violetta’s death, but much of her pain came from a secret agreement.

I’m sure other members of the audience took home their own insights, or perhaps just enjoyed it for what it was: a great performance in a marvelous setting. After all, the fun of opera is being able to be transposed to a different time and place – escapism that leaves you with a good feeling, humming a much-loved refrain.

Long may the Israel Opera bring the house down; may Masada never fall again; and long live President Ruby, in and out of his official residence.

The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.

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