Murder and mayhem take center stage at Masada

Hila Baggio of the Israeli Opera said the singers had to contend with desert sandstorms and being too far from the conductor to see his eyes.

Performing opera in the desert is so taxing, it’s small wonder that both sopranos who were to sing Carmen at Masada were unable to appear in the dress rehearsal last Wednesday. With just a few hours’ notice, understudy Na’ama Goldman, 27, had to take over for Anna Malavesi. And the following night, at the premiere, Goldman had to step in again, this time for the last two acts, after the desert aridity left Nancy Fabiola Herrera unable to continue. It was the first time an understudy had taken over from a lead soloist in a premiere of an Israeli Opera production. But Goldman even took her death by stabbing in stride.

Hila Baggio, who played Carmen’s friend Frasquita, in an interview before the dress rehearsal named some of the difficulties of performing in the desert.

“The atmosphere is amazing, [but] we had a desert storm with sand. It’s very dry. We’re drinking like crazy. That’s the only thing we can do,” she said.

“The acoustics are not good [and] we have to rely on the sound system,” she added. Each singer must be “wired,” with a microphone hidden in the hair.

Moreover, because for this outdoor production the stage is three times the size of an opera-house stage, the singers are too far from the orchestra to be able to see the conductor’s eyes, she said. That particular problem was evident when conductor Daniel Oren stopped the action in the second act, as the robbers were plotting, and called out to an eyepatch-wearing robber, “You with the one eye, you need to watch carefully with your other eye.”

And yet, the performance of Carmen was enjoyable, and Goldman rose to the occasion in the most remarkable way. The flamenco dancers from Spain clapped, tapped, and stamped, providing plenty of color and movement, and the children’s choir was excellent. Maria Agresta sang the role of Micaela with heart-melting sweetness.

And now for the Jewish connection: Georges Bizet’s wife was Genevieve Halévy, at whose popular salon in Paris members of high society could rub shoulders with writers and intellectuals. Later her salon hosted supporters of Dreyfus, including Marcel Proust. Her cousin Ludovic Halévy co-authored the libretto for Carmen.

Opera at Masada, near the Dead Sea, is now in its third year, and I’ve had the pleasure of seeing all the productions, including Aida and Nabucco, so comparisons are inevitable. The very different style of those operas, in which everything is on a grander scale, seemed more suited to the monumental setting than Carmen. And whereas in the previous productions Masada was used as a foil to the stage set, this time the mountain simply melted into the set—a kind of Wild West with rocky hillocks.

And yet it was exciting to be there, along with the audience of 6,500. Opera at Masada is almost like a mirage, appearing suddenly in this UNESCO World Heritage Site in the desert and disappearing after two weeks, with its many tons of lighting and sound equipment, bleachers, dressing rooms, catering services, costumes, stage sets, and horses (there were 10 in this production).

Eitan Campbell, director of the Masada National Park, said it was not easy to decide to have the opera there. But he realized that a 20-acre space that had been primarily a garbage dump and a drilling site, in the buffer zone between the national park and its surroundings, could be transformed into a reception area with all the services needed by the audience and the cast.

“My primary aim was to maintain the landscape heritage,” he said. Proof that this has happened, he said, is that visitors return to Masada and say, “I was at the opera, but where is it?”

If they come back next year, they will find that the mirage has reappeared, this time in the form of Turandot.

Text and photo copyright 2012 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photo may be used without written permission of the author.

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5 Responses to “Murder and mayhem take center stage at Masada”

  1. David Bennett Says:

    Very enjoyable. (Are there perhaps two words missing from “Georges Bizet’s wife was than Genevieve Halévy..”)

  2. estherhecht Says:

    I mean I meant to delete three words, but deleted only two. Now it’s fixed.

  3. Genevieve Signoret Says:

    I looked up Masada in Wikipedia. I canNOT picture CARMEN (the story) in that environment! Surreal. Sounds like a lot of fun for the audience. Thanks for the post! Great photo.

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