A smartly-dressed middle-aged man sits in front of me, arm draped snugly around an attractive and be-jewelled lady, clearly half his age. He and his jet-set friends have purportedly paid 2200 Shekels per seat. ($640 US).
I sit alone but free, courtesy of Israeli tourism, and what a seat it is! I'm ensconced at the base of Mount
Masada, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where the Israeli Opera company is dramatically producing
Giuseppe Verdi's famous
Aida, the Italian maestro's masterpiece amongst his
28 written operas.
In 2010, their 25th anniversary, the Israeli Opera inaugurated this spectacular outdoor festival, and it has secured
Israel a place on the map of world opera festivals alongside the likes of Italy, France, Switzerland and Finland.
Aida's scope is stunning! Never have I encountered so large a stage, housing such colossal scenery, 40 tons of equipment arriving by land and sea including - 22-metre obelisks, temples, four sphinxes (two on each side), competing armies (Egyptian and Ethiopian), high priests, prisoners, 7,700 seats, spectacular lighting effects (10 kilometres of electrical cables) and massive Mount Masada itself serving as a majestic natural backdrop to a production which also features international soloists,
Daniel Oren, renowned Israeli conductor, the Israeli Opera Chorus and Orchestra as well as some fifty dancers and even a few camels thrown in. Yes camels, but when they appear, a North American music critic boasts, "In Toronto, we had elephants!" Nevertheless, I sit under starry heavens, amidst the Judean Desert's warm landscape, overlooking the
Dead Sea, 423 metres below sea level, distinctively the lowest spot on earth, which has cleverly spawned a multitude of tourist hotels, spas and expensive health and cosmetic by-products. Coincidentally, the Dead Sea is a finalist in the current New Seven Wonders of Nature online campaign.
Opera draws well-heeled tourists, four thousand opera fans from abroad last year, and the Ministry of Tourism highly regards this extravaganza. The festival originated here with Verdi's
Nabucco concerning the Babylonian captivity of the Israelites; next year, it's
The desert venue is not without logistical problems. A gargantuan stage was carefully constructed, a huge fleet of buses ferries spectators, and
during an aria, I notice gusts of sand sweep across the stage. And despite far from pristine outdoor acoustics, for this spectator, not really an opera buff to begin with, it's nonetheless an unforgettable experience!
For those unable to visit Masada (100 kilometres from
Tel Aviv), The Opera Festival in Jerusalem opened this year with thirty chamber concerts in churches and unique sites throughout Jerusalem as well as an appropriate opera,
I attended a performance by the talented Italian
Arena di Verona Orchestra in the
Sultan's Pool across from the Old City walls, as well as two other musical events, one in the
Citadel's Tower of David Museum and the another in the Austrian Hospice in the ospice in the Old City's Muslim Quarter, interrupted at the beginning by a nearby minaret's call to prayer, lasting several minutes.
The Sultan's Pool, once a source of city water, is used now by the municipality to host summer concerts and festivals. The evening's music featured
Rossini, Verdi and
Puccini, totally accessible as I recognized most pieces they played while viewing the lit surrounding walls of the ancient city - a treat!
Back in the desert prior to Aida, I explore
Masada National Park, Israel's first World Heritage Site. At the visitors center, I sample the history and then ascend 400 metres in a packed cable-car to roam up top. I also visit the new
Yigael Yadin Masada Museum with its hundreds of archaeological finds. Masada was rated the best tourist site in the world in its class by readers of Condé Nast Traveler. Since
Yadin revealed its story in the 1960s, people have streamed here. Masada is on the itinerary of virtually every tour group from abroad and continues to be a prime destination for Israeli youth groups and school groups, and for Israeli army units, some of which take their oaths of allegiance in ceremonies atop Masada.
As I tour, I'm amazed at
King Herod's excess, his three lofty palaces, stone terraces that hang precipitously over the abyss and his huge sunken bath houses constructed so high above the Dead Sea. The rugged slopes, steep cliffs and barren surroundings provide perfect natural defences that first attracted Herod, but ultimately he abandoned Masada. Rebels from Jerusalem sought it out and took it over. The great chambers of Herod's palaces
became command posts and public buildings. A structure next to the northern wall, a stable in Herod's day, became a synagogue, one of the earliest synagogues ever discovered in use while Jerusalem's Temple still stood. The remains of the Roman siege system can still be readily observed around Masada's base, the most complete remains of
Roman siege works anywhere in the world.
The Romans had finally finished constructing a long, sloping path to reach the mountaintop after a three- year siege in AD 73. The night before their ultimate defeat, Jewish leaders decided that they would rather commit suicide than succumb. I will forever remember the discovered remnant shards of clay used to draw lots to determine who would remain until the end to fall on his sword after other leaders had perished, having sacrificed families first. Standing here at the top of the fortress gives me an eerie feeling. Masada epitomizes the unremitting struggle of Jewish people for freedom since captivity by
King Nebuchadnezzar. Who could remain unmoved at the sight of the remnants
attesting to their bitter end?
Alas, Aida doesn't end much better. The Ethiopian slave and her secret lover, an Egyptian military leader, both suffer similar fates as the Jewish rebels. Unfortunately, I recall that next year's Carmen (spoiler alert for those attending Masada in 2012) doesn't fare much better.
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.