What do French opera composer Georges Bizet, Masada and a Spanish village have in common? They’re all part of the most ambitious cultural event ever staged in Israel—five performances of Bizet’s popular opera Carmen performed in a specially designed arena at the foot of Masada.
The spectacular setting in the Judean Desert has attracted wide attention amongst international opera-lovers. The performances, billed as the “Third Opera Festival at Masada” are scheduled for June 7- 11 and are almost all sold out—7,500 seats per night with ticket prices between $120-$400.
Logistics of the event are staggering. Some 2,500 workers are involved in building the enormous opera village that lies a few hundred yards from the entrance to Masada National Park. Apart from the massive 4,000 square-meter stage, a huge backstage area containing the 30 tons of equipment needed to mount the production, the 7,500 seats and orchestra pit, and 161 top-of-the line restrooms, the area also includes a Spanish Village that will serve as a foyer and reception area. The marquee village, complete with tapas and wine bar, rises out of the sand to accommodate the 400 performers and stagehands who will bring Carmen to life in front of the extraordinary backdrop of Masada.
The festival required the cooperation of three bodies in Israel, all of which have a vested interest in the success of the venture: the Tamar Regional Council, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Israel Opera. According to Eitan Campbell, long-time director of Masada National Park, the agreement to put on the event at Masada required a good deal of compromise. Opera producers wanted the Opera Village to be closer to the national landmark, but he and the Parks Authority insisted that within a month after the event, the site should be restored to its original natural state. “We want there to be a buzz throughout the year when Masada visitors say ‘where was the Opera Village?’ If that happens, we’ve been successful,” Campbell explains.
For Ofra Gazit, marketing director of the local Tamar Regional Council and a resident of nearby Kibbutz Ein Gedi, the opera festival means an increased focus on this unique and ecologically fragile area of the country. “The festival helps position the Dead Sea area as a natural theater,” Gazit enthuses. “There’s a fabulous natural echo here, and the moon over Masada is dramatic—this year the waning moon will be part of the set,” she adds. Gazit was instrumental in distributing tickets for the dress rehearsal to thousands of Israelis from communities in the area. “People are very enthusiastic to be part of the experience; we get many people who have never been to an opera, so it’s a way to bring a top-notch cultural event to local residents,” she says.
Uri Hartman, Production Director of the Opera Festival, explains to visitors ahead of opening night that conditions for the performers are “highly unusual.” The four-act opera is scheduled to start at 9:30 p.m but temperatures can still be in the upper 70s and the arid desert air is harmful to the vocal chords of professional opera stars. The heavy layered costumes will also be a challenge, notes Hartman. Unlike at major European opera houses, the principal singers at Masada will be wearing microphones concealed on their foreheads under their wigs to compensate for the potential wind that can interfere with the acoustics. Because of the heat, rehearsals start at around 7 p.m and continue until 1 a.m, but the workers building the sets and the village have been working around the clock for several months. “Altogether, everything is more complicated with this kind of unique production,” Hartman says.
Tenowned Israeli opera conductor Daniel Oren will lead internationally-acclaimed performers, including mezzo soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera playing Carmen, tenor Marco Berti playing Don Jose, soprano Maria Agresta playing Micaela and baritone Marcin Bronikowski playing Escamillo. Carmen is directed by Giancarlo del Monaco- Zukerman with set design by William Orlandi.
The Ankor Children's Choir, flamenco dancers from Spain and the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion will also take part in the performance.
What role will the great fortress cliff of Masada play? The number one most visited site in Israel, which has become a symbol of Jewish resistance due to the terrible events that occurred there as Jews died rather than submit to Roman slavery, is kept alive and dynamic by all the events that happen in and around it, explains director Campbell.