Verdi's opera at Masada. Photo by Yossi Zwecker
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It is very instructive to ponder the origins of words we use every day and whose meaning we are certain of. Take the word "opera." Who doesn't know what an opera is? Even television viewers waiting to watch a soccer match know. When it's announced that instead of the match, the opera "Lammermoor" will be shown, they smash the screen. They know there will be music, a lot of people on stage and that "it's not over until the fat lady sings."

A look at a dictionary that gives etymologies shows the word derives from the Latin "opus" - a work of art. Yes, many classical music works feature the word opus followed by a number.

The Latin verb "operare" - to do, perform - is the source of the word operation. The right Hebrew equivalent would be mivtza.

Indeed, since its beginnings, this artistic genre refers to more than a musical work expressing the feelings of a composer and lyricist (in that order ) as presented on stage by soloists, choirs, dancers and an orchestra. An opera is an organizational operation, one involving the participation of many from related but different areas of the arts, each with its own special demands.

Such an effort entails an unusually large expenditure and usually a series of live performances with a large audience - a minimum prerequisite for covering the cost. There is little chance of turning a profit.

A suitable opera hall offers a stage allowing spectacular theatric efforts. It has to permit free movement of singers and dancers, individuals and large groups, and have sufficient depth and width and wings for preparing sets and putting them in place at the right moment. Also necessary is a pit for a large orchestra; operas can require up to 100 musicians.

The audience demands comfortable seats from which you can see and acoustics that make listening enjoyable. There's an assumption here that musically the experience is going to be wonderful; otherwise, why bother with the effort?

Also, for the 400 years or so it has been around, the genre has accumulated a few very popular works in the international stage repertoire by composers who specialized in opera. Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, Donizetti and Bizet left us several works whose plot and big hits "everyone knows."

When you go and see the operation, does your heart tremble upon hearing the love aria to the heavenly Aida? Will the tenor, who is doing his first aria, reach the high C at the end of it with the necessary softness?

Several of the famously popular operas demand a spectacle, a dramatic display more than a musical one, and "Aida," written 140 years ago, is one of them. So there is a march of the victors and captured prisoners from ancient, exotic Egypt and Ethiopia of 3,000 years ago. There's also tradition of representing the masses on stage and having animals from horses to elephants present.

Only with all of this information, can one begin to assess the production of "Aida" performed at the base of Masada as part of the Jerusalem and Dead Sea Opera Festival. It involved the collaboration of the Israel Opera, the State of Israel, the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem municipalities and the Tamar Regional Council.

And consider this: The site can absorb some 7,500 viewers a night and has the means for getting them there, far from the center of the country to "the middle of nowhere." So there a performance was created, in viewing and listening conditions that perhaps are more suitable for a mass suicide motivated by nationalist reasons than a performance of a well-known opera. So we most praise the logistical success. I can attest that even someone with limited mobility was treated sensitively (and there were many like me ). And the event, not in a Tel Aviv auditorium, but practically at the end of the world, started precisely on time - as promised.

It was an interesting, even a fascinating, evening, in no small way thanks to the fact that its parts were done amazingly gracefully, given the expectations and the conditions. So, for example, the stage whose backdrop was Masada did not have any huge sets trying to steal the show from nature with artificiality.

Emmanuelle Favre prepared a huge stage slightly inclined toward the audience. Deep in it was a giant sphinx and between its legs an entrance to a temple. On both sides of the stage were four smaller sphinxes and between them scores of actors and dancers entered the stage. On the right side, there was a platform where the king of Egypt could stand and greet the victory procession. In the first act, that platform rose to the height of two obelisks.

Also interesting and fascinating were the costumes by Denise (Katia ) Duflot. Contrary to expectations at such events, there was no outburst of bad taste and color. The colors put on stage were white and yellow for Egypt, including the soloists and dancers. The wind played a magical role in its effect on robes and dresses. Even when the chorus simply stood and sang, the wind and the light created an unexpected effect of movement - as beautiful as nature. The Ethiopian side was portrayed in black, both the soloists and the muscular bodies of Bedouin dancers from Rahat, who were the Ethiopian prisoners. Radames' battle gear was elegant, in delicate shades of white.

Political significance could be attributed to this opera mainly because it was performed in this venue, at this time, in the current political situation, and was performed on the border with Jordan, with Masada in the background. Tzipi Livni, the head of the opposition, and her bodyguards passed by me going to her seat in the VIP section. I hope she enjoyed "Aida." I enjoyed it. The Aida operation was, in my opinion, a success. What were its objectives? Mostly, it was to carry out the operation. Everything else was a bonus.