Mostly Mozart in Ramallah

A music festival honoring the Austrian composer brings opera - and a bit of cultural exchange - to the West Bank.

mozart pa 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
mozart pa 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
More than 200 years after its Vienna premiere, Mozart's "The Magic Flute" has finally made it to the Palestinian territories. The two-act production became the first full-length classical opera ever staged in the West Bank last week when it debuted before an appreciative audience at Ramallah's Al-Kasaba Theater. Mixed in among the viewers were Muslims and Christians, Palestinians and foreigners, aid workers and diplomats, as well as refugee camp residents and their grandchildren. For many, it marked their first opportunity to see an opera in person. An anxious audience waited impatiently as the orchestra finished warming up around 7 p.m., responding enthusiastically for the duration of the two-hour-plus show as the sounds of Mozart made themselves heard not far from the city's Manara Square. The Ramallah performance of "The Magic Flute" was just one piece of the 2007 Palestine Mozart Festival, a two-week event that kicked off March 31 with a recital for organ at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem's Old City. The festival wrapped up Saturday evening with a gala concert, capping 15 days of recitals, lectures and documentary screenings spread between Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. In addition to "The Magic Flute," audiences were treated to Mozart's "Requiem" and samplings of the composer's chamber music. A collaboration between a number of Palestinian and European educational and cultural organizations, the festival featured lectures on "Mozart and the Middle East" - focusing on the composer's use of "Turkish" themes - and performances by Palestinian and visiting European musicians. The acclaimed Choir of London, whose debut CD reached the top of the UK classical charts in 2006, provided a number of the visiting musicians who performed. The Palestine Mozart Festival marked the third visit to the region for the young members of the choir, who said they hoped to emphasize the beauty of classical music and the importance of musical education to their Palestinian audiences. "When we thought of this festival, we immediately thought of Mozart, because [his] music is so beautiful and bright, and his [works] include a variety of musical forms" that could serve as the basis for a two-week festival, said Clemency Burton-Hill, a violinist and producer of "The Magic Flute." "It's evident that the people here are hungry for this kind of performance, and it was very important for us to come here and to communicate a message of humanity and harmony." Clemency said she was exited to see young children in the "Magic Flute" crowd. "A cultural event of this sort is important for the development of the child, and it gives him an option to stay away from the streets," Burton-Hill said. The audience for "The Magic Flute" included a greater proportion of children than at most opera performances, with many in this particular crowd making their way to Al-Kasaba Theater from refugee camps, where reality often couldn't be farther from the magical world of Mozart's fanciful operas. A group of children sitting in the theater's first two rows - all music students at West Bank conservatories - seemed especially mesmerized by the performance. Mahmoud, a 13-year-old from Ramallah, said he practices his violin three times weekly at a local conservatory, and that "The Magic Flute" had been his first in-person encounter with opera. The performance was fascinating, he said, noting the role of the orchestra in particular and adding that he'd like to work as a professional musician himself someday. "It was important for us to come here, to Ramallah, Nablus and Bethlehem, because people here are need this breath of fresh air. They are very curious and they long for such performances," said Sam West, the festival's director and an actor in films including Howard's End, Iris and Van Helsing. "Why did we come to Palestine and not to Israel? Well, it's clear: there is an excellent opera house in Tel Aviv, and people there are used to these kinds of [performances], whereas in Palestine it's in a way a terra incognita," he said. In addition to the Palestine Mozart Festival, West said he's also working on joint projects for Arab and Jewish choirs. "If we wait for the politicians to make peace, we will wait forever," he said. "But when you play music together, you have to be attentive to one another, work together and respect the person you are playing with."