The challenge of the mountain

The Masada Opera Festival is aiming to fulfill the of dream of showcasing the greatest music in the world.

Soprano Elena Mosuc and tenor Giorgio Berruggi sing a duet during a rehearsal (photo credit: AMIR COHEN - REUTERS)
Soprano Elena Mosuc and tenor Giorgio Berruggi sing a duet during a rehearsal
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN - REUTERS)
It’s a few minutes before the dress rehearsal of Giuseppe Verdi’s beloved opera “La Traviata” and the heroine, Violetta, steps out of a tent to walk to the stage. Even with a full moon and dim light streaming from the tent it is too dark to see well in the middle of the Judean desert.
Aurelia Florian, the Romanian-born soprano, is wearing an enormous red crinoline ball gown with gold puffed sleeves and a towering white wig. As she walks, her feet encounter a pebble and, for a precarious instant, she trips but regains her balance despite the weight of the dress and wig. She laughs musically in soft soprano. After all, pebbles on the ground are the least of the problems encountered when staging a world-class opera on a windswept desert plateau with Masada as the backdrop.
This year’s Masada Opera Festival at the lowest point on earth near the Dead Sea included four performances of a spectacular, extravagant, surprising new production of “La Traviata” with some 800 singers, actors, dancers, and acrobats on a stage larger than half a soccer field.
“I don’t call this opera. I call it an event of opera,” Michal Znaniecki, the production’s Polish-born director, tells The Jerusalem Report. “This is Masada, so it is not a mega production somewhere in Israel. It’s a mega production at Masada, in the desert.”
Spectators audibly gasped at fireworks, flares of fire that shot up in beat to the music and cutting-edge 4-D video technology displaying various images of clocks in brilliant colors to symbolize Violetta’s approaching death. The imaginative set by Swiss designer Luigi Scoglio showed Paris askew, an Eiffel Tower next to an Arc de Triomphe slightly tilting, a Paris in the desert covered with sand. The libretto hints at the setting when, in the first act, Violetta sings about being a lonely, abandoned woman “in this desert called Paris.”
In the opening party scene, dancers twirled with fluorescent skirts they left behind to become part of the set design. In the country house scene, horses grazed on hay and a horse-drawn carriage took Alfredo to Paris.
The desert breeze played a role fluttering papers on Violetta’s desk as she writes a letter to Alfredo or shaking shrubs in the garden. The full moon followed stage directions beginning its arc behind the audience moving across the sky closer to the stage as Violetta dies.
One of the principals showing great presence was the hulking mountain itself – at times vanishing into darkness, or illuminated softly from below, its crevices casting black shadows and, at other times, lit in surprising ways, such as a huge lung x-ray displayed on the entire face of the mountain to symbolize Violetta’s death from consumption.
“The biggest challenge was the mountain,” says Znaniecki. “The mountain is so important a symbol in Israel that you cannot use it simply as a backdrop.”
An opera festival at the foot of Masada began as a mad idea worthy of King Herod in the mind of the general director of the Israeli Opera, Hanna Munitz.
“How many people thought you were crazy?” Munitz is asked just before the dress rehearsal is set to begin, as she walks into the reception area intended for pre-show and intermission refreshments and meant to evoke a Parisian street. There are 19th century-style street lights, outdoor cafés with white tables decorated with candelabras, flower arrangements in the bars – a desert mirage. Music by Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel set the mood.
“Everyone,” she answers. “But everything begins from an idea and this one has proven itself. It was just crazy enough to work, the miracle of an opera that makes the desert come alive. Masada is a mythological place connected to Jewish history and fraught with symbolism. The connection between that and opera creates something extraordinary.”
Now in its fourth season, the Masada Opera Festival is edging its way to center stage among the summer opera festivals held at European archeological sites – a prima donna in the making.
“It’s just a few years since they started and everything needs time, but already it’s an important event in the world,” says Paolo Gavazzeni, general director of the Verona opera festival, which this summer celebrates 101 years. “I’m sure that Masada will become a must in a few years. They are on the right path. In life, the most interesting things are the impossible ones.”
THE ROMANS arrived at Masada in 72 CE, some 42 years after completing the arena in Verona, with single-minded determination to defeat the Jewish rebels entrenched on the top. The soldiers of the Tenth Legion, auxiliary troops and Jewish slave laborers, some 15,000 in total, built eight camps, an 11 kilometer wall surrounding the mountain and a 114 meter high ramp up the western approach to Masada. Slaves carried thousands of tons of rock and dirt transported over miles of desert.
The rest of the story is well known – the eerie silence that greeted the Romans when they broke through the defense wall and found the Jewish defenders dead by their own hands, a sharp contrast to the fortissimo played at the foot of the mountain today.
“We are still here and we are singing,” says Munitz referring to Masada as a metaphor for Jewish resilience and survival.
With all that construction work at the site, the Romans did not think ahead to build an arena to make Munitz’s life easier 2,000 years later. The site of the festival resembles a lunar landscape, nothing but hard ground littered with stones, making the opera festival a colossal project that employs close to 2,000 people for several months prior to opening night. It takes another month to tear it all down and return the site to its original heritage landscape.
“When they move out you can go up to the mountain and look down and you won’t find traces that this was the site of an opera festival,” says Eitan Campbell, director of Masada National Park. Besides preparing a humongous stage, stands with comfortable seating for more than 7,500 spectators and an impressive reception area that evokes 18th century Paris, the opera must also build infrastructure for electricity, water and sewage, and tents to house and feed the artistic and technical crews. A fleet of 300 trucks transports equipment, generators, huge set designs and several tons of lighting.
Because of the daytime heat, rehearsals take place between 7 p.m. and 1 a.m., with the lighting crew often working until dawn.
The Masada Festival costs 25 million shekels to produce. Revenue from tickets sales is expected to total 19 million shekels with the rest coming from various government subsidies.
Apart from the direct income from ticket sales, there are spin-off benefits. As Tourism Minister Uzi Landau tells The Report, “The ministry continues to invest significant marketing resources in the Masada Opera Festival, which attracts a new market sector – the cultural tourist. As a result, thousands of cultural tourists are now adding Israel to their itinerary of summer opera festivals, bringing in hundreds of thousands of shekels into the economy.”
“It’s a massive project and we begin planning the logistics a year and a half before,” says Uri Hartman, chief of operations at the opera. “In Verona, they only have to build the set designs, whereas in Masada we have to build everything from scratch.
“We started exactly on time this year but there were heavy rains in Israel in May, which caused a flood and we had to pump out the water and make changes. There is the wind and the heat and the need to supply simple things like food and water. Because this place is the lowest in the world, changes in temperature create unexpected winds. We already had some things fly [away]. But I suppose the Romans had a harder time. I can’t understand how they transported all the stuff across the desert.”
The vision for staging opera at Masada came to Munitz during her summer travels to opera festivals in Europe.
“I was thinking that in Israel we have so many archeological and historical sites that are thousands of years old yet we don’t leverage these amazing assets to bring culture tourism,” she says.
She first proposed staging Verdi’s “Nabucco” at Masada in 2008 to celebrate Israel’s 60th anniversary. She was turned down for reasons of logistics and costs. Not to be denied, two years later, in 2010, the Israeli Opera staged “Nabucco” at Masada to 40,000 spectators, including some 4,000 tourists.
“We set a precedent,” says Munitz. “Tourists traditionally come to Israel for history and archeology and not for high culture.
‘Nabucco’ was the first time that tourists came to Israel for that,” she says.
Some 3,000 to 4,000 tourists came for La Traviata, according to Tourism Ministry officials.
A more modest “La Traviata” was the first opera ever performed in pre-state Israel in July 1923, in a Tel Aviv movie theater. Between 1960 and 1982, “La Traviata” was performed more than 250 times, including a memorable version in 1963 with a young Spanish singer by the name of Placido Domingo, who sang the role of Alfredo. Since the formation of the New Israeli Opera 30 years ago, “La Traviata” has been performed more than 100 times in five different productions, making it one of Israel’s most popular operas.
SOME ARGUE that “La Traviata” with its intimate duets is not suited for the epic proportions of Masada. When Violetta and Alfredo sing their love duet, they are alone on stage swallowed up in the vastness.
But the rest of the stage is dark, so there is something poignant in the scene – the two doomed lovers against the world. In the death scene, Znaniecki solved the problem by filling the stage with six other beds spread out at various heights with six other Violettas who die simultaneously. Only one sings. Znaniecki aimed to make the death more universal.
“It can be your sister, your mother. I tried to make it universal – that it can be every day and every epoch, cancer or consumption.
She’s in the bed, she’s dying. It could be Violetta with hallucinations. She’s alone but she can see the others.”
This year’s festival, which ran from June 12-17, also included a concert of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and a concert by the Israeli world music star Idan Raichel. For the first time this year, the festival moved north a week later to another UNESCO-designated World Heritage site celebrating Mozart in an excavated crusader courtyard in the ancient port city of Acre.
Maestro Daniel Oren, the opera’s conductor, is resting on a couch in his tent moments before the rehearsal. Even though he grew up in Tel Aviv and visiting Masada is a rite of passage for Israeli youth, it was only six years ago that he first came to Masada with his family. When he was a young boy, his “Jewish mother” kept him too busy with piano, violin, cello, and singing lessons, adding composition when he turned 13. “No hikes, no school trips,” he tells The Report.
Oren, who has conducted all three of the previous productions at Masada –”Nabucco” (2010), “Aida” (2011) and “Carmen” (2012) – says it is a privilege and a great emotional experience for him to stand before the historic mountain.
“This place is already a magical place.
You stand here and you tremble, and then you add the music. Making music here is a special emotion for me. It is more authentic here in the desert than in Verona,” says Oren, who also conducts at the Verona arena every summer. “I don’t need the cappuccinos or the sandwiches of Verona. I feel the atmosphere, I like the desert. I feel part of a tradition, part of an important Jewish story.”
He says he likes the fact that everyone eats together in one big tent “like in a kibbutz.”
But making music at Masada comes with its own set of technical difficulties, underscoring Arturo Toscanini’s words: “In the outdoors, one should play bocce [a kind of bowls], not sing.”
Whereas in Verona the singers do not use microphones, at Masada their voices would be lost without them. “In Verona, you only need good voices and a good orchestra.
Here, you need to do something extraordinary with amplification. Everything is very far. It’s a challenge,” Oren adds.
The cellos are 30 meters away from the contrabasses, he says, and when one gives a beat and the other syncopates, it is difficult for it and for the musicians to bring it together.
“The chorus is very far away, and with the microphones the voices come in delay.
There are more problems to resolve here than in Verona but I have a big mazal. “Because I worked in Verona for 30 years, I know the problems of conducting outdoors so, in general, I know how to manage.”
What would Verdi have said about his opera being played in the middle of the desert? “He would have been happy,” says Oren.
“He was pro-Israel. You can see it in “Nabucco” that he loved the Jewish people. He understood very well that what the Jewish people needed was to return to their home.”
Oren’s vision, which he shares with Munitz, is to transform the Masada Opera Festival into one of the most important on the opera summer-festival circuit, raising the quality of voices and production from year to year. He hopes to bring Placido Domingo.
“We want to make it so everyone will come to Masada to hear the greatest music in the world. It’s a dream, but we can realize it,” he says. “Israel was once a dream too.”