When you think of Jerusalem, opera is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. Yet the connection is not as far-fetched as it seems: In this city, 3,000 years ago, King David built his palace. It's said that he hung a harp (lyre) above his bed and when midnight arrived and the north wind blew upon the instrument, its strings vibrated and music would ring forth. Have no doubt, here the sounds of music live on, and I attended their yearly International Opera Festival which the city celebrates each June.
On our drive from the airport to the city, our view was of earth-colored fields dotted with low shrubs. Then, in the distance, we glimpsed the City of David, Jerusalem. We peered intently out of our van's windows at a skyline filled with spires piercing the sky, minarets, churches, mosques and temples that, until now, we'd only seen in photographs.
The next day was an official holiday, Jerusalem Day, which celebrates the reunification of the city; 44 years ago there was barbed wire dividing Jerusalem and today it is reunited. There was a feeling of exuberance, joy and abandon in the air as we made our way to the Western Wall, a remnant of the holy temple and the most sacred structure of the Jewish people. There we found serene reverence, the space divided with men on one side, women on the other, all in prayer.
As I was about to make my way to the wall to insert into a crevice a tiny piece of paper bearing my personal prayer, the quiet was pierced by loud, raucous singing. Coming down the hill to the wall, a dozen youths, arms intertwined, belting out the words to the "Hatikvah," Israel's national anthem. The young men found a chair and soon it was hoisted high with a pretty teenage girl holding on for dear life as she was twirled around, the group dancing and singing "Evenu Shalom Aleichem." Celebration time was now!
Spanning the first 12 days in June, this happy mood continued as some of Jerusalem's most storied venues came alive with music. Imagine attending a gala operatic concert by the glorious voices of the Arena di Verona opera company in a settling that was spellbinding: the Sultan's Pools. This ancient site is in the valley of Hinnom beneath the west side of Mt. Zion and was part of the water supply of Jerusalem during the Roman period. What an enchanting way to kick off our first concert! The evening was warm with soft breezes keeping things comfortable. Colored lights played on ancient columns bordering the pool creating an otherworldly atmosphere as an orchestra of 100 led by Giuliano Carella performed famous opera favorites from "Il Trovatore," "La Traviata," "Rigoletto" and more. A bit of the concert is on YouTube.
During our Jerusalem visit we attended several other concerts. The next day we visited the Tower of David Museum. This complex is located at the Old City's Jaffa Gate; it spans the centuries and its very stones are part of this city's living history. The 500-year-old walls are part of the Turkish citadel, and its name comes from a tower so massive that early Jerusalemites ascribed it to their great King David although the builder was actually the much-maligned King Herod. The concert room was intimate, the chairs set up just a few feet from the performers, two sopranos and a mezzo soprano. These three young artists had voices that were strong and soaring. They performed "Opera Sancta," highlighting such composers as Bellini, Mascagni, Puccini and Donizetti. After the concert, we had the chance to meet and mingle with the singers and take photos, making this experience even more memorable.
That evening we were off to a performance of "A Meeting with Cleopatra" at the Austrian Hospice located in the Old City directly across from the Via Dolorosa. This interesting venue was officially opened in 1863 and served as the residence of the Austrian Consul as well as a protective refuge for Catholics and Ashkenazi Jews. In 1987, after years as a lively pilgrim operation, the building was completely renovated and was officially reopened in March, 1988.
The room where the concert was held was just off the Hospice garden, and on this warm evening its floor to ceiling windows were flung open to catch the occasional breeze. Just as the music was about to start, the room was filled with the mournful sounds of a muezzin singing the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer. This was Jerusalem after all and there was a minaret very nearby. Rather than close the windows we chose to wait till the muezzin had finished since his call to prayer was a beautiful and exotic concert of its very own.
The music in our concert was arias and duets from three Cleopatra operas by Handel, Mattheson and Hasse. A baroque trio directed by Eithan Schmeisser accompanied two powerful and affecting voices: Hila Baggio, soprano and Shira Raz, mezzo soprano. When the concert ended, we climbed many flights of stairs to the roof and enjoyed perhaps the very best view of the Old City, a heart-stopping sight and not to be missed.
Also heart-stopping are Holy Week events surrounding Easter in Jerusalem, and for many Christian pilgrims, the most important and meaningful thing they'll do is to walk the Via Dolorosa in the Old City, the route that Jesus took between his condemnation by Pilate and his crucifixion and burial. This route begins near the Lions' Gate in the Muslim Quarter and ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Christian Quarter, incorporating all 14 Stations of the Cross. Each of the Stations along the route is marked with a plaque and the best way to derive the most from this experience is to take a guided tour, as many sites of significance one might otherwise miss (special Easter tour, www.veredgo.com).
Before we departed Jerusalem for home, our group attended an opera in a setting unrivaled anywhere in the world. Nearly 140 years after it premiered at the Cairo Opera House in 1871, Verdi's renowned opera "Aida" was performed in the shadow of Masada in the Judean desert! Our journey through Arad to the lowest place on earth was dramatic as our van maneuvered winding roads on the banks of the Dead Sea towards Masada. The striking landscape of the desert was dun-colored and desolate with barren hills, caves, mountain-high dunes, deep shadows, Bedouin villages and even a kibbutz.
Masada was the last bastion of Jewish freedom fighters that battled the Romans. It is a symbol of humanity's continuous struggle for freedom from oppression, and as of 2001 it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. No opera house could possibly compete with the simple beauty of this great outdoors and starry night sky.
Masada, as the backdrop for the opera, was pure magic. As the first strains of music began with Daniel Oren wielding the baton for the Israeli Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion, and with the Israeli Opera Chorus and hundreds of dancers and singers from around the world, this grandiose opera was returned to its ancient roots. The production was over-the-top glorious and -- good news -- opera will happen again this year: "Carmen" at Masada will take place June 7-10, 2012. Imagine the color, flash and sheer excitement of "Carmen" presented at one of the world's most dramatic venues! Think I'll make my reservation right now. You can, too, at www.carmen-at-masada.com.
"Yerushalayim Shel Zahav," or "Jerusalem of Gold," is a beloved Israeli song. In it one sings "The mountain air is clear as wine and ... is carried ... with the sound of bells."
In the chorus the words are "Behold, I am a violin for all your songs." From the ancient strains of David's lyre up to today's popular folk songs, music rings forth. Sounds of music in Jerusalem? Of course!
If You Go:
Israel Ministry of Tourism, www.goisrael.com.
Follow Barbara Barton Sloane on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ofmeising