The opera scene and scenery

The Israeli Opera is putting Masada on the international culture map.

Carmen opera at Masada 370 (photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
Carmen opera at Masada 370
(photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
When Carmen beckons, few can resist her charms.
That’s the premise behind Georges Bizet’s most popular opera, and it proved itself this month in a setting far from Seville when the Israeli Opera brought a Spanish flavor to its annual open-air production at the foot of Masada in the Judean Desert.
This was the third time the Israeli Opera has staged a full production at the spot. And the majestic mountain – a UNESCO World Heritage site – again worked its special charm.
Masada has its own stirring story, of course. The rugged clifftop was home to palaces built for King Herod more than 400 meters above the desert floor, on the shores of the Dead Sea. Its ancient grandeur can still be seen in the archeological remains, mosaics and frescoes, but the special fascination of the site lies in the legends surrounding its bitter downfall during the Great Revolt when Jewish rebels held out against the prolonged Roman siege under conditions that are still considered challenging today.
As the historian Josephus Flavius recounted, in 73 CE when the besieged Jewish defenders of the mountaintop fortress, led by Elazar Ben-Yair, realized they were doomed, they decided to destroy their garrison and end their own lives rather than be taken alive by the Romans. When the assailants finally managed to ascend the steep cliff, all they found were smoking ruins and the bodies of nearly 1,000 men, women and children.
Unlike Verdi’s Aida, performed there for the Israeli Opera Festival last year, or Nabucco the year before, it is hard to find an association between the plot of Carmen and the story of Masada; but the natural landscape suits the wild Gypsy nature of the tragic temptress, and the smugglers’ route did not look out of place on the desert paths.
Masada itself, disappointingly in the opinion of many, played less of a role as a prop this year, although as Carmen died, the mountain was floodlit in a chilling blood red, giving the impression that it was bleeding in sympathy.
The production, staged by director Giancarlo del Monaco, was dramatic and colorful as befits the story: According to Hanna Munitz, the general director of the Israeli Opera, it was the largest production in Israel, involving hundreds of participants.
Some 50,000 people were expected to attend the festival in the specially erected Spanish-themed opera village with a 7,500- seat amphitheater. It reportedly cost NIS 30 million, but its value is priceless according to those involved.
“The image that it creates for Israel is important. The event has such an impact that it has an effect even on tourists who don’t come for it but come on a more classic trip. People ask about it all the time,” Pini Shani, director of foreign tourism at the Tourism Ministry, told journalists who were brought to the site for the dress rehearsal on June 6.
Part of the magic is the fact that while the mountain is famous for the motto “Masada shall not fall again,” the opera village there is very temporary, constructed anew every year. After the festival’s two-week run, the entire site is restored to its former condition.
(The Masada sunrise concerts by performers such as David Broza are held on a stage on the other side of the mountain.) The Tourism Ministry markets the Masada festival (comprising five performances of Carmen and a special performance of the Idan Raichel Project) through travel agents specializing in opera and similar cultural events, such as those at the Verona Arena or the opera at the Egyptian pyramids, popular in less turbulent times.
The overseas visitors come mainly from Western Europe – Germany, France, Italy – according to Shani.
“Most visitors include a visit to Jerusalem and sleep overnight either at the Dead Sea resort or in the capital,” he says.
Arkia CEO Gadi Tepper says the Israeli airline was among the production’s sponsors because it “sees tremendous tourism potential in the Dead Sea region.”
When Dov Litvinoff, head of the Tamar Regional Council, talks about the opera festival, it is with a particular passion; he has a lovely refrain about “the high notes of opera meeting the lowest spot on Earth [the Dead Sea].”
He points to a stone sign that reads “Heichal Hatarbut shel hateva,” “Nature’s Cultural Center” – the only permanent sign of the opera’s presence there.
“Opera here is a holistic experience,” he says. “It’s not the same as buying a ticket to the Opera House in Tel Aviv and sitting in an air-conditioned hall.”
Part of the pleasure is the journey. Coming from Jerusalem in the early evening, we were treated on the way to the spectacular red hues of the Edom Mountains on the Jordanian side of the Rift Valley, reflected on the blue waters of the Dead Sea. As the daylight fades and the stars begin to twinkle above the mountains, the natural scenery upstages the static architecture of an ordinary theater hall.
Litvinoff praises the opera for “flooding” the area with extra tourists, “which provides employment and income for thousands of people for at least a threemonth period and has an ongoing impact after the season has ended.”
Eitan Campbell, manager of the Masada National Park, sings the opera company’s praises for raising international awareness of the site.
“There is a connection, and I think it is a healthy connection, between culture and the arts and music and heritage. This is what keeps Masada alive and vibrant today. It’s not only about archeology,” he says.
The opera village is outside the nature reserve but is in the “buffer zone” of the UNESCO heritage site which requires extra care, he notes.
The logistics of creating an operatic arena from scratch – and then dismantling it – are a nightmare. But since everyone realizes that only by preserving the nature of the unique site will it remain attractive, the construction workers and production teams are very cooperative, according to Campbell.
“My primary goal is to maintain ‘landscape heritage,’” he explains. “When this is over and done with, I want visitors to go up to Masada and look out and say, ‘I was at the opera last year, but where was it? I can’t figure it out.’ You have to be able to look out and see things as close as possible to what Herod and the rebels saw 2,000 years ago. That is the beauty of this area.”
Campbell, a resident of Arad, also says the opera is creating jobs for local people, “all of us, in Beersheba, Dimona and Arad, as well as closer. It’s something we talk about all year long.”
THE CHALLENGES are not faced only by the production staff and the environmentalists struggling to work in harmony with nature. Performing outside in the open desert surroundings takes its toll on the singers, too.
Carmen at Masada is likely to go down in local opera history. On the night of the dress rehearsal, with just a few hours’ notice, 27-year-old Israeli Na’ama Goldman, the understudy, covered for internationally renowned Italian soloist Anna Malavesi, who had been injured during a rehearsal. Goldman stepped in again at the premiere when the “first” Carmen, Nancy Fabiola Herrera, felt unable to continue after the first two acts of the three-hour performance, due to the effect of the dry air on her vocal chords. The show must go on, as we all know.
Before the dress rehearsal, as we mingled in the VIP reception area, Israeli singer Hila Baggio, who plays the role of Carmen’s friend Frasquita, joked that all they could do to cope with the arid heat was “drink and drink, although we of course then need to go to the bathrooms all the time.”
(Fortunately, the Masada opera festival site is equipped with the fanciest mobile toilets you could hope for, complete with mirrors and flower arrangements by the sinks.) Carmen’s cast of hundreds at Masada ranges from excited participants from the Ankor Children’s Choir to Spanish dancers (and 10 horses and a few donkeys).
A far larger cast can fit on the 3,500-square-meter outdoor stage than in the confines of a regular hall, and this was put to good use in the crowd scenes, such as when the metaphorical curtain rises on the square in Seville as the opera commences.
The music was provided, as always, by the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon Lezion, conducted by worldfamous Israeli maestro Daniel Oren, his kippa looking as natural as can be in an orchestra pit at the foot of Masada.
And while the story of Carmen does not have a particular attachment to Israel, a Jewish link is not hard to find: Georges Bizet was married to Genevieve Halévy, whose cousin Ludovic Halévy co-authored the libretto with Henri Meilhac.
It was sung in the original French, with Hebrew and English subtitles projected on screens for the audience (and more than a few joined in when it came to songs like “Toreador”).
“The festival has proven to be a wonderful ambassador for Israel,” says Munitz. “It is helping put Israel on the cultural-tourism map.”
It’s fun to dress up and enjoy a night at the opera. But remember: The desert night can be cool in more than one sense; so bring a jacket. And women should avoid the temptation to wear high heels; Masada might not fall again, but I saw more than one elegant lady teetering on the gravelly ground.
Tickets to the opera are not cheap (this year they ranged in price from NIS 300 to NIS 1,500); but as part of the Israeli Opera’s outreach program, there were free live open-air screenings at Gan Hashlosha (Sachne) National Park in the North, the amphitheater on the Netanya promenade in the center and the Beersheba Museum plaza in the South, offering thousands of people around the country the opportunity to share in the opening night.
“Opera should be enjoyed by everyone,” says Munitz.
And on that note, the stage has been set for next year’s Israeli Opera Masada Festival. Tickets for Puccini’s Turandot have already been sold, even though work on the production has not yet started. I am looking forward to being swept away next June to Beijing’s Forbidden City, a mere 1.5 hours’ drive from Jerusalem.