Fighting wind with grit, opera group makes Masada into backdrop

Bringing a production of La Traviata to the desert fortress is a massive undertaking, but well worth it, organizers say

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Lights on in the Parisian square of La Traviata (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Lights on in the Parisian square of La Traviata (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Masada, the ancient fortress known as the site of a desperate battle of Jews against Romans two millennia ago, doesn’t lack for visitors.

Tourists, bar and bat mitzvah celebrants, army units marking the end of training, high school classes finishing a history class — all make their way to the flat plateau to consider the meaning of the last stand of a band of Jewish zealots against the Romans.

And now, in mid-June, it’s the season of the opera audience, when La Traviata opens at the base of Masada Thursday night.

It’s year five of the Israeli Opera Festival at Masada, and while not all of the expected tens of thousands of audience members expected over the course of four performances will actually make it up to the top of the mountain for a visit prior to the overture, they’ll still experience the proximity of  history

“People want to feel the aura of the mountain,” said Eitan Campbell, general manager of Masada National Park.

Still, this is a massive undertaking.

Porta-potties in the desert (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Porta-potties in the desert (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The production team began working in early spring, taking two full months to clear a 50,000-square-meter (538,195 square feet) stretch of desert, then building stairs, hauling machinery, creating safety supports, and setting up tents, lighting and toilets.

Once the stage was ready, they trucked in the set designed in Tel Aviv, which this year includes a massive video-screen backdrop and partial reproductions of the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe, as well as LED-lit chandelier skirts and 12 red couches that flip over and double as planters. After all, this is La Traviata, Giuseppe Verdi’s hugely popular opera about a French courtesan and her lover, and the complications and misunderstandings in their relationship.

“We don’t have animals this year, but we have acrobats,” said Uri Hartman, the opera’s production manager, referring to the horses and camels in 2010’s production of Nabucco. “There’s 700 people on stage when you add up the chorus, the dancers and the orchestra.”

There’s also the entrance to the opera, which mimics a wide, grand Parisian boulevard, complete with stands selling French snacks, leading up to the 7,852 seats set in front of the stage, the backdrop of Masada in the near distance. Beyond the entrance, attendees arrive in shuttles from the nearby parking lot at the local airstrip, as private cars are not allowed at the site.

The backstage is a village of white tents encompassing two dining rooms — one for the soloists, the other for everyone else — 12 private dressing rooms, tents for makeup and costumes and caravans for the performers and directors. The performers sleep in hotels in Ein Bokek, a nearby resort area on the Dead Sea that’s a short drive from Masada.

Hartman, the production manager, started working on preparations in early April. Now, two months later, he was still looking at two final, full days of clearing rocks and rubble from the paths and walkways around the stage and seats.

“It’s a lot of work,” he said. “But [maestro] Daniel Oren loves it.”

On this night, a hot, desert wind was blowing, making it difficult for the dancers, running through their first stage-and-piano rehearsal, to maneuver onstage. The soloists, meanwhile, were covering their mouths with masks and scarves, trying to minimize the amount of dust and dirt entering their throats.

Preparing for the first dress rehearsal  of La Traviata at Masada (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Preparing for the first dress rehearsal of La Traviata at Masada (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

It’s not the most hospitable climate, acknowledged Campbell.

“Masada was a logistical nightmare for the Romans as well,” he said. “They were waiting down here during the siege, and water was 20 kilometers away in Ein Gedi.”

Campbell should know. He’s been working at Masada since he was 17, when his family moved to Israel and his father, a former restorer of colonial homes in Wilmington, Delaware, became the chief restorer at the site. Now, more than 40 years later, he’s worked everywhere on the location, from operating the cable car to setting up electric cables underground for the sound and light show.

He’s the Israeli version of Ranger Rick, a rangy man in dusty boots and silver-and-leather bracelets who likes to quote Flavius Josephus, a Jewish general taken captive by Roman forces who became a chronicler and whose book on Masada is the only written account of the ancient event.

Masada and the desert climate are so inhospitable, that most of the national park's employees live 20 kilometers south, in Arad, a nearby development town (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Eitan Campbell. Masada and the surrounding desert climate are so inhospitable that the nearby area has never been developed; most of the national park’s employees live 20 kilometers (about 12 miles) south, in Arad, a development town (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Campbell joked that his ex-wives say his first love is this flat-topped mountain. It may be true, but now he’s added opera to the list. He even listens to it in his car.

Putting this venture together, however, wasn’t a simple matter. It took two full years for the Masada management — which includes the parks and antiquities authorities — and the opera to agree on their terms. For Campbell, there were concerns about bringing this much equipment and people to the mostly barren site.

But Masada has taken a different direction since the mid-1990s, when the UNESCO World Heritage site sought advice on how to enhance the visitors’ experience. They even brought in consultants from Orlando, Florida, to learn how to move large crowds around the site more efficiently.

Masada welcomes some 1.5 million visitors each year (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash 90)
Masada welcomes some 1.5 million visitors each year (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash 90)

A total of NIS 170 million (around $49 million) was invested in restoration efforts and facilities on the site. The annual opera production, as well as other concerts, is part of that effort to bring more people to the site.

“You have to be careful with restoration, because you could end up with Disneyland,” said Campbell. “It’s the same with the opera; you have to maintain landscape heritage.”

Perhaps because of the intensive work necessary to set up the opera — and break it down afterwards — the opera at Masada is not fully profitable, although no one will share exact figures.

The budget for the production is NIS 27 million ($7.79 million); with an audience of up to 31,0000 paying for tickets ranging from NIS 505 ($145) to NIS 1,305 ($377).

One week before opening night the opera was far from sold out; tickets were being hawked on discount site Groupon for a NIS 699 per-person package of the opera and a night at a Dead Sea hotel.

Still, said Hanna Munitz, the opera’s general director, it’s worth the effort.

“We gained 2,000 new subscribers last year,” she said. “Just because they came here and were introduced to opera.”

A hot wind was blowing but Munitz was dressed for the evening’s first dress rehearsal, a pair of flat, gold-studded sandals her only concession to the desert conditions. Like the other staff, she sleeps in Ein Bokek during the weeks of rehearsal, heading home to Tel Aviv on the weekends.

Munitz has been with the New Israeli Opera for more than 30 years and is largely credited for rejuvenating and popularizing the local company. She views the production as an important part of Israel’s international art tourism efforts, an opera festival in the tradition of other, more culturally established countries.

“Israel doesn’t have the tradition of opera, and tourists don’t come here for opera, we’re not on the opera route,” she said. “But this is the mythical site of Masada, and it’s one of a kind. That’s what attracts people.”

This year, only about 3,000 tourists will join the mostly Israeli audience for La Traviata. But the mandate won’t change, said Campbell.

“When they get noisy down here, we call them the ninth legion,” he said, referring to the Roman troops who once camped out in this very spot. “But I’m happy with it; I think it’s a good thing. It’s a window of opportunity.”

La Traviata, the New Israeli Opera, June 12, 14, 16 and 17, 9:30 pm, at Masada.

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