My Word: Conquering Masada

A performance of ‘Aida’ by the Israeli Opera at Masada turns into a special night at the opera.

Israeli opera at Masada 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Israeli opera at Masada 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Opera is not a take-it or leave-it affair. Driven by passion and the dramatic fusion between voice and music, classical opera is something you either love or hate. If you love it, then a good rendition of Verdi’s Aida will sweep you up; if you hate it, attending a performance by the Israeli Opera at Masada might make you change your mind.
When you take the magic of opera and place it with the majestic mountain fortress as a backdrop, the result is stunning.
As our busload of journalists attending the dress rehearsal of Aida drew near to the specially constructed site on May 29, it became clear that this was going to be a different experience. Road signs warned: “Slow down, opera ahead.” And there was no choice but to change gears.
Giuseppe Verdi’s powerful story of the forbidden love between the enslaved Ethiopian princess Aida to the Egyptian army officer Radames is being performed as part of the Masada, Dead Sea and Jerusalem Opera Festival.
“History, archeology, myths and legends, and magnificent scenery all meet together here,” says Israeli Opera general director Hanna Munitz, as she mingles with press and guests in the Egyptianthemed open-air VIP area before the dress rehearsal. “We need to make the most of those assets. We need to make people think of Israel as a cultural tourism destination.”
This is the principle on which similar festivals in Europe, such as those in Verona and Orange, are based, she notes.
Last year’s performance of Nabucco at Masada, seen by more than 3,000 international tourists, was such a success that Munitz realized Israel could become a permanent spot on the cultural tourism map. “And as we do in Israel, we took a dream and turned it into a tradition with this year’s performances – enlarging everything,” she says.
The orchestra of the Arena di Verona, conducted by Giuliano Carella, is performing Verdi’s Requiem at Masada on June 12, and renowned Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli will also offer his own favorites at the foot of the mountain.
Other festival events include concerts in Jerusalem churches and the Israeli premiere of Verdi’s rarely seen Jerusalem – staged, fittingly, at the capital’s open-air Sultan’s Pool, overlooking the walls of the Old City.
Munitz says there has been little fallout from last year’s flotilla affair, which coincided with the first festival, but the so-called Arab Spring and general unrest in the region have deterred some potential opera-goers.
Nonetheless, she hopes to expand the project in coming years. “I’d love to have operas in cooperation with our neighbors like Jordan and Lebanon, which would be the most natural thing,” she says. “But for now, we will continue with other Mediterranean countries.”
Aida at Masada is a co-production with the Orange Festival in France. Performed under the baton of maestro Daniel Oren, it is definitely big. It features 120 choristers, 40 dancers and 70 extras – not counting the camels – as well as the Israeli Opera’s orchestra, the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon Lezion.
The internationally acclaimed singers include Micaela Carosi, Marco Berti, Ildiko Komlosi and Paata Burchuladze. Special effects involve flames, fireworks, towering statues of Pharaoh, sphinxes and obelisks and spectacular lighting, which at times turns Masada into the night sky glittering with stars of the celestial kind and the stage into the glimmering Nile.
As part of its philosophy of introducing opera to broader audiences, the cast includes dancers from the Negev Beduin town of Rahat, who might lack the ultimate polish of the professional performers, but who brought another touch of local color, helping make the setting seem more natural.
Aware that the cost of tickets is high, the opera made a point of inviting residents of peripheral towns to the dress rehearsal.
American-born, Vienna-based Kristin Lewis, who sings the lead role, is particularly enthusiastic about being in Israel for the first time.
“Everybody is very jealous of me. Just being here is so special,” she says, before the dress rehearsal. “You can feel God here. It’s undeniable. When you have a country with a history as rich as this, you can’t come here and not feel something.”
She was eagerly awaiting a chance to visit Jerusalem – or even Herod’s palace at the top of Masada. Unlike many of the thousands of people coming for the performances, Lewis has been working too hard to enjoy even the on-site tourism possibilities, but she is thrilled by the scenery and praises the Israelis she’s met.
The backdrop of Masada, a UNESCO world heritage site, is a very powerful one for the opera, she notes. “Performing in a place like this, with the desert all around and so much history, makes it more real.”
Watching the opera develop – with its dilemmas sparked by war and love, slavery and freedom – the history of Masada also comes to life.
As the historian Josephus Flavius recounted, 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 on April 15, 73 CE, all they found were smoking ruins and the bodies of nearly 1,000 men, women and children.
“The story of Aida is also one of sacrifice,” says Lewis. “It is about the greatest sacrifice of all, inspired by love.”
Opera, in general, puts people in touch with their truest emotions, she says. “Love, joy and pain.”
That is why its appeal is universal, transversing time and place.
All the parties involved in the opera festival, including Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov, are also using it to promote awareness of the Dead Sea as a finalist in the New Seven Wonders of the World online vote ( or It is competing as an international site on behalf of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, all of which expect tourism to increase if it is chosen as one of the winning sites. It might also help preserve the unique environment. Among the challenges of the festival is the commitment to restore the site to its natural state without leaving lasting environmental damage.
Tamar Regional Council head Dov Litvinoff sings the praises of both the festival and the Dead Sea. “At the auditorium made by nature, we are able to enjoy the high notes of opera at the lowest place in the world,” he says.
The site incidentally has a creative version of borders, if nothing else. I was surprised to see a place of great natural beauty, in a tiny but threatened successful democracy, had been redefined: “Yushan, part of Yushan National Park, is a central mountain range in Chinese Taipei...,” reads the website of the gorgeous mountain in the country I know and love as Taiwan.
Among the wonders of the world is also the peaceful establishment of a Palestinian state, as in: “The Dead Sea is a salt lake between Palestine and Israel to the west and Jordan to the east.”
If all disputes could be solved so easily, singers of tragic operas like Nabucco and Aida might finally have a chance to perform comedy instead.
Meanwhile, I can hardly wait for another night at the very special opera next year. When Carmen calls, how can you resist?
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.