Opera in the Park puts on a performance of Madama Butterfly

The Israeli opera steps out for its annual al fresco airing in Tel Aviv.

Opera In the Park has become a Tel Aviv tradition. (photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)
Opera In the Park has become a Tel Aviv tradition.
(photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)

Madama Butterfly is one of the most popular operas of all time. Since it was first unveiled, by Puccini, at La Scala in Milan in 1904, it has been performed thousands of times the world over to sellout crowds at all kinds of venues. So it makes perfect sense to roll it out for the annual Opera in the Park shebang which takes place at Hayarkon Park in Tel Aviv on August 3 (doors open at 7 p.m.).

The Israeli Opera is providing a stellar cast for the occasion, along with some younger musical personnel. Musical Director Dan Ettinger will be on the podium with the main singing berths taken by soprano Alla Vasilevitsky in the title role, American tenor Joseph Dennis as Pinkerton, baritone Oded Reich as Nagasaki-based US consul Sharpless and mezzo-soprano Shay Bloch in the role of Butterfly’s maid Suzuki. 

The concert, supported by the Tel Aviv municipality, which forms part of the company’s Outreach and Education program, is not only a free grand affair, it is now a longstanding tradition having taken its al fresco bow a full two decades ago. It is also an opportunity for diehard fans of the art form and first-timers to revel in the sumptuous sonics and drama that are the core of operatic fare.  

Mayor Ron Huldai waxed lyrically about the event he initiated. “Opera in the Park is a 20-year Tel Aviv tradition, that allows tens of thousands of local and international opera lovers to experience the beauty and magic of the opera beneath the starry sky in an accessible way. I created the tradition inspired by the belief that every person in the country deserves the opportunity to enjoy art, and opera in particular.”

Huldai says the idea was to spread the word as far and wide as possible. He clearly feels the objective has been achieved. “I am immensely proud that this event attracts a diverse audience every year, drawing in everyone from avid fans of the opera to first-timers.” 

With that in mind, the organizers go for works with broad appeal, and which lend themselves to grand portrayals. Madama Butterfly, the mayor believes, fits that bill. 

“This year, theatergoers will undergo an emotional and artistic journey as they enjoy the timeless beauty of one of the most renowned operatic masterpieces ever composed,” he enthuses. “I implore everyone to come and enjoy the show with us this year!”

Taking an operatic production from its natural home in an opera house or concert hall and placing it on an outdoor stage presents all sorts of logistical, technical, and technological challenges. All of that, and more, has been encountered and successfully managed by opera director Gadi Schechter since the off.

 Gadi Schechter (credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)
Gadi Schechter (credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)

From the opera house to the park

He says the venture had some choppy waters to navigate from the get-go. “Yes, it was a tough move from Rabin Square to the park,” he declares, before proudly reeling off a roster of enduringly-popular works he and the rest of the Israeli Opera team have presented for our listening and viewing pleasure over the years. 

“We started with [Verdi’s] Nabucco, then we did Samson and Delilah [by Saint-Saens], and after that Rigoletto [by Verdi] which we did a few times in the park, and we did [Donizetti’s] L’elisir d’amore and La Traviata [by Verdi] on more than one occasion too.” There was also Bizet’s Carmen, always a crowd-pleaser. 

Schechter splits the list of his Park performances into two directorial categories. “There are operas I directed from scratch and there are operas we performed at the Opera House and I adapted them for the park.” The latter sounds like a far easier project to take on. The director begs to differ and enlightens me about some of the technicalities that the uninformed, such as I, would not normally consider. 

“Things have happened in the seven years that have passed since we put on Madama Butterfly [outside],” he notes. Quite a few it transpires. “This is the first time for everyone, except for a couple of singers who perform at Sultan’s Pool [in Jerusalem]. And we have a new conductor and, really, everything has changed. And I don’t want to simply do copy-paste from the Opera House.”

All the above and other factors come into the directorial purview. But there are some advantages to the move outside. 

“There are no acoustic logistics to be taken into account,” Schechter chuckles. “I use microphones so there is no struggle with that.” They allow him generous room for maneuvering on the stage. “On the contrary, because of the microphones, I can have a singer sing with their back to the audience. I can have the vocalists anywhere because they will be heard well wherever they are on the stage.”

And not just on the stage. 

“One of the special elements of this production is that the opera stretches out towards the audiences,” Schechter continues. “We built a stage that, in fact, surrounds the [Israeli Rishon LeZion Symphony] orchestra completely. The vocalists will be in front of the orchestra, and behind it, and there are parts where the singers come down right into the audience.” 

That sounds delightful, and eminently user-friendly for one and all, and is part of Schechter’s “ulterior” motive to entertain and get everyone on board.  “That is one of the things I try to achieve with Opera in the Park. I try hard to get that connection [with the audience]. At the end of the day, why do we do Opera in the Park? The main idea behind doing this is to take opera and offer it to people that shy away from it. That can be for all sorts of reasons. They may be scared of it, or it simply doesn’t speak to them, or the sound doesn’t appeal to them.”

Part of the sex-appeal thinking takes in the location as a leisure spot and an opportunity to spend a few hours soaking up the verdant ambiance – as, over the road and the river, the urban hustle-and-bustle continues unabated – and basically, just have a good time. 

“We say to people, come over in the evening, take a blanket, chairs, and have a picnic. They have the whole lawn at their disposal.” 

Schechter says the proof of the pudding has been duly noted. “Every year, at 7 p.m. when the gates open to the public, I stand on the stage with the vocalists and we watch how the members of the public gallop in to find a good spot. That is great to see.” Anyone who has, for example, attended a concert at Ravinia Park in Chicago or Hampstead Heath in London can attest to the convivial vibes that abound at outdoor venues.

There was just one thing that I thought might offset the fun factor. Holding an outdoor cultural event in Tel Aviv, slap bang in the middle of summer means the humidity is going to be right up there. Schechter seems to have accounted for that too. “The music will take everyone’s mind off that,” he laughs. 

The show starts at 8:30 p.m. For more information: https://www.israel-opera.co.il/eng/?CategoryID=1208.