Opera in Israel Under the Stars — and in the Shadow of History
by Buzzy Gordon
It all began with what must have seemed like a crazy idea: to stage a lavish production of a classic opera with an international cast and a world-famous soprano in the summer in a Middle Eastern desert, at least a 90-minute drive on a two-lane road from the nearest major city.
Yet five years ago, this is exactly what happened: the Israel Opera performed Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco, starring Jessye Norman, on the shores of the Dead Sea — the lowest point on earth — at the foot of Masada, the clifftop fortress that is the Jewish state’s iconic symbol of resistance and heroism.
The ambitious extravaganza was so successful that it immediately became the first season of the Israel Opera Summer Festival, now an annual event which has grown to encompass no fewer than three unique venues: all UNESCO World Heritage Sites, representing ancient historic landmarks of the Holy Land.
This year, the Israel Opera is celebrating the fifth anniversary of the summer festival by staging multiple performances of four productions: Tosca by Giacomo Puccini; Carmina Burana, by Carl Orff; L’Elisir d’Amore, by Gaetano Donizetti; and Le Nozze di Figaro, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Tosca and Carmina Burana were performed this June at Masada, followed by L’Elisir d’Amore at Sultan’s Pool, just opposite the illuminated walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. In September, Le Nozze di Figaro will be performed in the heart of the ancient fortified Mediterranean port city of Akko.
Staging and performing even one large-scale opera in challenging desert conditions is daunting enough; yet this year, for the first time, two operatic works were performed over consecutive weekends. The undertaking — the largest international cultural production in Israel — meant the mobilization of some 2,500 workers, who began preparing the site back in April. In addition to a huge stage, a vast backstage area and a spacious lobby-like entrance, an elevated seating area with capacity for 6,000 spectators had to be erected among the boulders and on the hard sands — in all, a temporary opera village spanning 23 acres.
The logistical tasks included arranging for the shipping of 25 tons of state-of-the-art sound and lighting equipment (much of it from overseas); constructing a kitchen and dining room for serving 50,000 meals and providing 80,000 gallons of drinking water; setting up 160 bathrooms; installing 40 generators as the basis of an electricity infrastructure; and staking out parking lots for 180 buses and 2,000 cars.
In order to transport the 30,000 attendees — including some 4,000 tourists who came specially for the festival from overseas — shuttle buses operated from numerous satellite lots, as well as from the hotel complexes arrayed along the beaches of the southern Dead Sea. Even 10 helicopters were pressed into service.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the budget for the enterprise approached $7 million.
Meanwhile, the climatic conditions posed extraordinary problems, especially for the performers. Rehearsals could be held only after the sun set, when temperatures dropped to tolerable levels. Dehydration, a stealthy menace in the super-dry heat, was a constant threat.
“We had to be reminded to drink every 20 minutes,” said counter tenor Alon Harari. “If we forgot, we felt it soon enough.
“I could not wear my costume for more than 30 minutes at a time,” he added. “When I removed it, I was bathed in perspiration.”
The reception area between the parking lots and the entrance to the grandstands was nothing less than remarkable: a spectacular fountain and a phalanx of faux-marble columns created the impression of Roman grandeur — a rather jarring feeling, given that this was all located on precisely the spot where Roman soldiers besieged Jewish fighters trapped on the summit of Masada, which looms dramatically 1,400 feet directly behind the stage. (Ultimately, the defenders all committed suicide, choosing to die as free men, rather than surrender and be forced into slavery.)
Masada, therefore — the rock and the symbol — makes for the most compelling backdrop conceivable for any drama. The tragedy of Tosca played out fittingly in the shadow of the mountain that was often dark and foreboding in the distant background.
At other times, however, the distinctive backdrop was bathed brilliantly in the splendor of strategically positioned spotlights; in particular, when the pyrotechnic display of fireworks (weaved seamlessly into the plot as part of the celebration of military triumph) lit up the mountain, Masada seemed like an integral part of the scenery — creating an unforgettable moment as a once-in-a-lifetime experience for any lover of opera.
In contrast, the evening at Sultan’s Pool in Jerusalem was entirely different: from the lightheartedness of the comic opera, to the splashes of green vegetation from the adjacent parks and gardens, to the fresh coolness of the air. Even the immediate surroundings outside the two venues were a study in opposites: the magnificence of the gently illuminated timeless walls of the Holy City standing as a man-made, urban counterpart to nature’s lonely, stark monument in the brown, arid desert.
The performances at Masada and in Jerusalem can only whet the appetite for the third and final production of the 2015 Israel Opera Festival, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, two months hence.
Once again, while the theme of ancient history coming to life in an open-air venue at a UNESCO-recognized heritage site is being maintained, this experience will undoubtedly be different — and unique — in its own right: more intimate, given the setting in the Courtyard of the Crusaders, as well as acoustically and architecturally distinctive.