Mas appeal

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The Design Group returned to the foot of Masada Mountain to stage Aida with a larger production and greater infrastructure…

Eyal Lavee and his technical and site production team from The Design Group returned to Masada Mountain at the Dead

Sea where last year they had carved a 90,000 square metre purpose-built site out of the craggy, boulder strewn landscape for the Israeli Opera’s staging of Nabucco.

This year’s performances of Aida, conducted by Daniel Oren, were a co- production with Les Choragies d’Orange in France for the 2011 Dead Sea and Jerusalem Opera Festival.

Whilst the fundamental site infrastructure was built and established in 2010, Aida was even more technically audacious and physically challenging in many ways than the inaugural event. Everything was approximately 30 per cent bigger, and several new visual elements were introduced most notably The Galaxy Effect all making a unique event even more special.

Bigger, bolder, better

One thousand extra seats were added for the completely sold out programme of Aida shows, attracting 75,000 opera lovers, many travelling substantial distances into the desert to see the show. In all, the site hosted 10 performances – six of Aida, two full dress rehearsals of Aida with an audience, one Verona concert and a performance from Andrea Bocelli.

Aida’s stage and backstage working areas were increased to 150 metres wide by 100 deep; the overall site expanded by a third; more lighting equipment was used to illuminate the mountain including the bespoke Galaxy Effect, a piece of light art rigged off Masada itself, created as a one- off “wow” factor just for this production; Larger side stage lighting gantries were installed; the foyer area was increased; the toilet count was upped and the units upgraded with posher more eco-friendly versions. High-powered projections onto the stage were also new for this year, adding to an already incredible kit list.

The Galaxy Effect was a visual effect conceived by the show’s lighting designer Avi Yono Bueno, which graced the face
of Masada Mountain and involved the first ever descent of its face by human beings for its installation… two groups of crack climbing teams from Rescue 1, all ex Israeli Special Forces. This followed some serious negotiations with the Israeli Antiquities and National Parks authorities.

The Galaxy Effect was made up of 900 pixels, each one an individual 20 x 20 cm LED panel, which were mounted on a total of 32 x 300-metre long strings. These were then hung off Masada’s 600-metre face by the climbers using the rappelling technique to descend from the top. The Galaxy strings were designed by LEDIM, the Design Group’s LED specialists. The strings appeared for three minutes at the end of the show.

Setting the scene

Like Nabucco, Aida was another international production collaboration, with The Design Group asking rental companies HSL and Britannia Row from the UK onboard for the second year running to provide lighting, audio equipment and crews.

Design Group’s set specialists Irgunit built the Egyptian stage set designed by Emmanuel Favre, who was part of the French production team.

The set included four 6 x 2 x 4 metre sphinxes and two 18-metre high obelisks, the latter of which were hydraulically raised and lowered. A 12-metre high Pharaoh’s head was a majestic centrepiece, lined up precisely with the middle of Masada that overlooked the site, 1,500 metres in the background.

Ten heavy duty bespoke flame dishes were designed and built as part of the set brief, complete with integral burning effect that had to run for 35 minutes. The set build started in early April in Irgunit’s Tel Aviv workshop, and all the main pieces were finished in the same desert sandy beige colours of the natural Masada environment.

The Design Group also supplied the seating tribunes and site-wide trussing and scaffolding infrastructure. Irgunit additionally built the foyer’s detailed scenic elements, complete with a set of Egyptian entrance portals specially for Aida. This area was again designed by Giyora Porter, whose grounded creation from 2010 was expanded and imbibed with a strong Egyptian style and feel, setting the mood.

Sharon Hazan handled the other mountain – that of all the health and safety requirements for the entire event.

Says Lavee: “The opera are never afraid to embrace new ideas and Aida certainly ‘pushed the envelope’ in terms of what we could deliver technically. Whilst everyone rose to the new challenges, the whole experience was offset by a familiarity with the site, the environment, working conditions and the climate. All these combined to make a smooth, harmonious and thoroughly enjoyable event.”

Mountain task

Improved parking, traffic and crowd management facilities were planned and executed this year. A car and coach parking lot was established on an airstrip three-kilometres away and then guests were shuttled to the site, via a one-way system for efficient drop off and pick ups circulating in front of the venue. The optimum aim was to have each person transported from the parking lot to the venue within eight minutes of their arrival.

The stage and mountain lighting supplied by HSL included over 200 moving lights, which were mainly Robes, along with 54 new Martin Professional MAC 3s bought by HSL for the occasion and 60 Panther 5K xenon searchlights from Stage Design – plus over 500 generic lights. The Robe moving lights in particular stood up well to the tough desert conditions including being exposed to wind and dust for over a month.

It was freighted from the UK in four sea freight containers with one sent by road. Ian Stevens was HSL’s crew chief on site,

while Mike Oates project managed back in Blackburn. HSL’s crew were Charlotte Stevens and Rob Starksfield, and once on-site, they teamed up with an Israeli lighting crew of Tzafris “Saffi” Dagan, Itay Hafner and Ido Derei, plus two techs from Panther. Lighting was programmed by Alon Cohen (who also ran the show) and Ronen Ben Harush.

New dimension

Projections on to the stage were new for this year and an idea initiated by director Charles Roubaud. This was achieved using four new Christie 18K HD machines, and brought a noticeable new dimension and depth to the visual design.
Apart from the knowledge and experience of last year, a delay to the onset of summer was a natural bonus, reducing the temperatures by about 10 degrees to the high 30’s during the build period, which sped up the work rate and reduced the exhaustion factors.