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At Masada, Opera Gets a Powerful Backdrop

Israeli Opera performs La Traviata this week at the ancient fortress

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'La Traviata' performed at Masada. (Yossi Zwecker)

Unlike a lot of Jews, Israeli maestro Daniel Oren, now conducting the Israeli Opera’s production of La Traviata at Masada, never visited the iconic national symbol as a child. He said his mother was too busy shuttling him between lessons among Israel’s most talented musicians to give the prodigy a chance to go on frivolous hikes.

“I had a Jewish mother, that’s my problem,” Oren said in his dressing room, moments before the final dress rehearsal of the week-long Verdi run last Wednesday. “She decided that I should learn signing, composition, painting, piano, violin, cello, and then when I was 13 years old, conducting. So no friends, no friends for my mother also. She didn’t want friends also because, she said, ‘It will disturb my child’s studies.’ No hikes, no school trips, nothing, only study.”

Oren conducts regularly in leading opera houses in New York, Rome, Paris, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, and Venice and he is the artistic director of the Verdi Opera House in Salerno, Italy. He visited Masada with his family for the first time about six or seven years ago, he said. In 2009, in an ambitious move meant to rejuvenate flagging audiences, the Israeli Opera began staging operas at the historic site. Oren has directed all four productions: Nabucco (2010), Aida (2011), and Carmen (2012). The hulking mountain of Masada provides an unforgettable backdrop.

The effort requires more than six months of construction in Masada National Park. It employs some 2,500 people, laboring to create an elaborate set of a full Parisian-style street, with restaurants and bars for intermission and pre-show drinks for guests. During the four performances, the show features 700 actors, singers, acrobats, animals, and musicians. The proscenium is so large it is outfitted with televisions showing a live feed of Oren conducting so the chorus can see from the depths of the stage. The $7.8 million production is expected to attract 45,000 visitors for performances. Pop singer Idan Raichal and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra will also host concerts during the days when the opera is not performing.

“It’s more authentic here in the desert than in Verona,” said Oren, who 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 tradition, part of important Jewish story. When I’m walking here through the stones, we’re making music here with a specific emotion.”

The desert poses many challenges for the performers. “It can be very dry and dusty, and sometimes people are actually allergic to the dust,” said Shiri Hershkovitz, who plays Annina and is one of only two Israelis in a solo role. “After a few days, your body gets used to it, but it’s very windy on stage.”

Director Michal Znaniecki of Poland noted that opera at Masada has unusual challenges not usually faced by opera directors, including scorpions and sandstorms. “Working with nature is amazing because every day you discover something new,” he said during the intermission. “I’m working with the actors and I’m teaching improvisation. Here we have to improvise every evening. If we have strong winds, use it, like in the beginning, Violetta is coming onstage from the side, it should be difficult for her to walk. Don’t pretend that it is no problem, use it,” he said.

To bring Masada from a dark hump on the horizon to a central character of the play, Znaniecki bathed the mountain in an ever-changing array of lights. Rehearsals ran from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m., to take advantage of the cooler night temperatures, but the light technicians stayed until 6 am, and often Znaniecki stayed with them. “Sunrise is now at 5:14 am,” he said.

Previous operas have featured multiple chorus scenes with colorful, elaborate sets. The two bourgeoisie ball scenes of La Traviata lived up to previous years, including the requisite live horses, acrobats on stilts, and pyrotechnics—the kind of over-the-top gala that is big enough to fill the massive stage.

Last year, the Israeli Opera did not hold an opera at Masada after the Israeli government failed to approve an overall budget for months, leaving the opera’s government funding, not just for the Masada show, in limbo. This year, the Tourism Ministry spent $500,000 publicizing La Traviata in international opera markets. They estimate the Masada festival will attract between 3,000 to 4,000 dedicated opera fans from abroad who planned their trip to Israel solely because of the event. The company plans to produce Puccinni’s Tosca next year.

“This is not just culture, this is Masada,” said Znaniecki. “It’s not just a mega-production somewhere in Israel. It’s mega-production in Masada desert,” he said. “Cultural tourism is the future of the opera.” Znaniecki also directs mega open-air operas in Wrocław’s Olimpic Stadium in Poland, where the atmosphere, he said, is more like a barbeque than an opera house. “In Poland, they were eating sausages and drinking beer during the production, and in the intermission people were grilling and I loved it. People were gambling, fucking, they were doing all this stuff,” he said. “It was opera. Opera is alive.”

Related: The Rock Star’s Guide to Eating, Praying, and Loving in the High Security State of Israel

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At Masada, Opera Gets a Powerful Backdrop

Israeli Opera performs La Traviata this week at the ancient fortress

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