'Carmen' at Masada: Requiem for a Zionist Dream

Neri Livneh missed Hanoch Levin's 'Requiem' first time round, but satisfaction comes for those who wait.

Neri Livneh
Neri Livneh
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Neri Livneh
Neri Livneh

A week ago I had the good fortune to see Hanoch Levin’s “Requiem” (“Ashkava”) at the Cameri Theater. For 13 years I have regretted the fact that I missed the premiere of this play, to which I had been invited, and which was attended by Levin, who died shortly afterward. Yosef Carmon, who starred in the initial performance, is still playing the main role. His advanced age provides added value to the character of the old man, who is about to die, filled with regret. Levin wrote and directed the play when he was already ill, and it became the requiem for his own premature death. It is hard to think of a better way for a great artist to deal with his approaching death than by writing a timeless work. And there is no more suitable way for an important and talented actor like Carmon to grow old than the way he is doing it, on the stage.

I thought about the two of them as I watched, with sorrow, as President Shimon Peres spoke to the audience at Masada before the opera “Carmen,” and two days later when I sat in the Abu Nasser restaurant in Jaffa’s Ajami neighborhood. The only thing separating me from a view of the sea was the monster called the Peres Center for Peace, the mausoleum Peres built for himself during his lifetime on the most expensive property in Jaffa (we should be grateful that it wasn’t made in the form of a pyramid). Because Peres, in contrast to Levin, cannot rely on the fact that his work will speak for him after his death. In any case, all signs point to the fact that he is banking on the possibility of enjoying eternal life.

But we forgive Peres everything. Because he is over 80 years old, and there is apparently a certain age when you automatically become interesting and are awarded lifetime achievement prizes for the very fact that you have reached an advanced age. Everyone forgets things like the construction of the nuclear reactor (according to foreign reports), stinking maneuvers, indefatigable sabotage and the establishment of the settlements. The main thing in Peres’ case, as Nina says to Kostya in “The Seagull,” is the ability to endure.

For example, let’s take Queen Elizabeth II, whose jubilee celebration at the British ambassador’s home in Ramat Aviv I skipped (although I would gladly have made the effort to celebrate with her had I been invited to Buckingham Palace). Up until a few years ago, Elizabeth was portrayed as a wooden, hopelessly charmless sort. But as soon as she passed her 80th year (she is now 86), she was suddenly found to have human qualities and has become “interesting.” Some people are now even finding signs of humor in her. It won’t be long before there are claims (as with Prime Minister Golda Meir) that in her youth she was beautiful and full of life. As for Peres, the older he gets, the more active he becomes. He seems to believe that “I make speeches, therefore I am.” As though words were the fuel that nourishes his body.

My friend Yael and I received a gift of tickets to “Carmen” at Masada from Yael’s son (NIS 1,300 per ticket). Like many of the spectators, we were invited for an overnight stay at a hotel. In our case, it was the excellent Crowne Plaza right on the shores of the Dead Sea, a package that would have cost the two of us, had we been paying, about NIS 4,000. Prices are being quoted here to support my argument that quite a few of the 7,500 spectators who made the effort to make a trip of two hours (from Jerusalem) and three hours or more (from Tel Aviv) are very wealthy people, who, we can assume, would have been less enthusiastic had the opera been staged near their homes in the lovely Opera House in Tel Aviv, for example, with excellent acoustic conditions and reasonably-priced tickets. It’s not a great love of opera that brings them to Masada, but the fact that participation in this experience has long since become a status symbol.

The nature of the audience is what attracts ministers and mayors to the site. Even our president made the effort to get there to greet, among others, the “minister of culture and the left” [Peres’ slip of the tongue, instead of “culture and sports” in Hebrew the words “left” and “sport” both begin with an “s” sound] – in other words, Limor Livnat. With this slip our president erased Livnat’s decades-long enmity for the left, not to mention offending the leftist in row 7 in the VIP section. “Soon he’ll make a comparison between Carmen and Masada,” said the leftist in seat 18 to her friend in the next seat. And in fact, while Yael was grumbling, our president announced that Masada, like Carmen, is one of a kind.

As a way of raising provincialism to new heights, they decided to turn “Carmen” into a Zionism event. The opera began with the playing of the Israeli national anthem and the director, Giancarlo del Monaco-Zukerman, had added children carrying Israeli flags to the market scene in Seville. The role of Carmen was sung by someone whose performance was less than mediocre, and who was later replaced by an excellent young Israeli singer, Naama Goldman. Why didn’t they think of giving the role to an Israeli singer in the first place? The answer is simple the rules of provincialism forbid the use of local talent, unless, as in the case of conductor Daniel Oren, they have already established a career for themselves abroad.

The same rules are responsible for the fact that none of the dignitaries who came to rub shoulders with the wealthy at “Carmen” attended the opening of the Israel Festival. Peres was absent due to illness. Livnat sent her assistant. The mayor of Jerusalem managed to miss the most important cultural event in his city. The vast majority of those attending, both secular and skullcap-wearers, are those who have made this event unlike “Carmen” one of national importance, one that ministers of culture and sports and Israeli presidents used to grace with their presence.

In the audience at the Israel Festival, there was a marked absence of people from outside Jerusalem, although the trip there is far shorter and more convenient than going to Masada, and does not require an overnight stay. All the performances I saw during the festival from the impressive opening event of Japanese drummers on Mount Scopus (a place of no less historic significance than Masada) through the tangos, the Czech circus and the heady Momix were far better than the mediocre rendition of “Carmen.”

Maybe the problem stems from the fact that almost anyone can afford to buy a ticket to a festival performance; in other words, it’s a festival for the entire nation. As we know, not only does most of the nation hate most of the nation, but the leaders, even the mayor of Jerusalem, do not want to join any club that is willing to accept them.

Illustration by Avi Ofer.



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