Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

Verdi's Aida - Dramatic Open Air Opera Amidst Israel's Historic Settings

Aida at Masada, photo by Mike Keenan
Aida at Masada, photo by Mike Keenan published in National Geogaphic Traveller Magazine

A smartly-dressed middle-aged man sits in front of me, arm draped snugly around an attractive and jewelled lady, clearly half his age. He and his jet-set friends have purportedly paid 2200 Shekels per seat. ($640 US). 7,500 opera fans have arrived here deep in the Israeli desert. 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, William Littler, a North American music critic sitting beside me 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 flown in from abroad again as with 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 Carmen.

Large crowd, photo by Mike Keenan  Opera fans arriving, photo by Mike Keenan  Part of Aidas massive stage, photo by Mike Keenan

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!

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 archaeologist 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 doesn't fare much better.

Entrance to opera, photo by Mike Keenan
Entrance to opera, photo by Mike Keenan

Israel Music History Verdi Aida at Masada Israel Rehearsal

Aida at Masada

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