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The Israeli Opera’s sheer determination to stage a production of Nabucco in the middle of the desert proved, literally, that no mountain is too big.  Yet despite such a technical production, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem-based Stage Design also needed camel power…

When The Israeli Opera received the green light to stage a unique production of Verdi’s Jewish opera Nabucco at the base of Masada Mountain, the world Heritage site at the Dead Sea, a massive international production operation was energised to build a 90,000 square metre site from the ground up in the middle of the desert. This included the installation of all required infrastructure to accommodate a world-class event and an audience of 6,500.

Co-ordinated by Tel Aviv and Jerusalem-based Stage Design, headed by Eyal Lavee, this was the first time in Israel that one company has delivered all the technical and most of the site public requirements. The six-day, sold-out event, the brainchild of Hanna Munitz, director general of The Israeli Opera, was directed by Joseph Rochlitz and conducted by Daniel Oren. It was the first cultural show of its kind in Israel to attract international tourists… and it was a big deal for all involved.

Digging deep

The venue’s layout was designed by Giyora Porter, who’s geometry set the scene for the performance, with the natural backdrop of Masada Mountain behind the stage and the Dead Sea stretching into the distance behind the seating tribunes.

Stage Design co-ordinated the levelling of the site – digging down a further two metres from what was already the lowest place on earth at 400 metres below sea level – and built the stage and rigging gantries, production lighting and sound, site-wide power and all necessary ancillary production facilities such as dressing rooms and offices.

It co-ordinated excavating the access roads, supplied and installed the seating tribunes and constructed the scenic elements and props for the extensive foyer areas including bars and food outlets, plus all the venue accoutrements that discerning audiences expect – posh loos, VIP areas and wheelchair access.

Sounds like a plan

The gargantuan task of staging this spectacle in such a raw location amidst a completely barren landscape of rock strewn wilderness was a feat of engineering and logistics that took five months of meticulous pre-planning and six weeks of intensive site building.

Lavee decided early on in the process to seek international technical partners to supply the stage lighting and sound, so Blackburn-based HSL won the contract to supply lighting, and London-based Britannia Row was tasked with the sound. Lavee has worked with Britro before, but it was his first time working with HSL, which came highly recommended by several contacts.

HSL’s Mike Oates project managed from the office, and on-site, its crew was headed by Ian Stevens ,working with a team of three. HSL’s equipment was sea-freighted to Israel in four containers, with another two containers arriving from China, packed with brand new Xenon searchlights purchased by Stage Design for the event.

Czech moving light manufacturer Robe lighting was also integral – it designed and supplied special reflectors and square framing gobos for its powerful ColorSpot 2500E AT fixtures, so lighting designer Avi Yona Bueno could get the very precise and tight beams he required whilst retaining the intensity needed because of the long throw distances from the lighting gantries to the stage.

The sound equipment – an L-Acoustics Kudo system – was air freighted. Yet when the ash cloud from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull Volcano closed down European airspace for six days, a rapid plan B was prepared that would have involved three trucks of kit being driven overland. Luckily, this wasn’t needed.

Local lighting crew boss Saffril Dagan who had visited HSL to prep the rig and load the containers was stranded in Blackburn for a few days during the chaos, and so took the opportunity to enjoy HSL’s northern hospitality!

Natural style

Back on-site, Giyora Porter’s lobby designs took the topography, colours and texture of the surrounding landscape as starting points, combined with the original architectural style that had inspired King Herod The Great in his constructions on top of Masada Mountain between 37 and 31 BCE.

It was vitally important to Porter that they created an aesthetic fusion with the natural environment as opposed to fighting it, and produced a space that complemented the roof canopy of stars and big night skies.

One large winding boulevard, complete with dusty, fatigued paving stones flanked by sandy coloured distressed pillars formed the central walkway with multiple bars, food outlets and seating areas to the sides. All these areas were meticulously detailed, right down to the sofas, candle holders and wall frescos and artworks, each with their own take on the style and feel of ancient local history. The foyer furniture and finishing touches were supplied via Tel Aviv-based Faza Productions Heart & Mind Marketing,

Faza Productions’ Yoran Fridelander was also responsible for co-ordinating parking areas for the many busses arriving with guests, ensuring that they had a hassle free journey via a park-and-ride to the venue, passing through security and entrance gates on the way.

Guests then enjoyed a walk-through lobby area that gently ascended the hill from the entrance towards the venue. Once seated, the upwards visual trajectory continued with the sparse but elegantly simple stage – designed by Nitzan Rafaeli. From there the audience looked up to the natural backdrop of Masada Mountain.

Camel power

Having the mountain un-obscured in the background and right centre stage, brought more left-field challenges for the lighting department in that the only viable back-lighting was 60 searchlights, needing to be positioned in the wilderness area between the back of the stage and the foot of the mountain, a distance of some 1,500 metres.

The area is covered in rocks and stones, beset with reptilian perils and impassable to vehicles or humans carrying anything of weight or substance. Yet the crew had 60 fully flight-cased searchlights to place, each weighing 170 kilograms.

Lavee and his technical director Elad Mainz thought laterally! Ironically, with all the new technology being deployed on stage, the solution came down to one of the most ancient modes of transport in the Middle East – camel!

The average camel can carry up to 250 kilograms, but after “asking around” among the local Bedouin tribes, they sourced a super-strong specimen capable of lifting and carrying over 400 kilograms – the camel could take a balanced load of one searchlight each side of the hump. It took some time – camels work at their own pace – but the task was accomplished successfully, and the cables run out by sheer manual hard labour.

Over 50 generators of varying sizes were utilised site wide, including six at the foot of the mountain, and a new 1,000 amp three-phase supply of hard power was run in to site from the national grid via a newly constructed sub-station.

The 60-metre wide by 24 deep stage with orchestra pit was constructed by Stage Design, complete with an extensive backstage complex including dressing rooms, a series of quick change areas, technical areas and sound monitor world. The heights and angles of the backstage extension were carefully calculated so nothing was visible from the top rows of the seating tribune.

Nabucco at Masada was tough on everything – equipment and people – physically and psychologically, dealing with temperatures of up to 47 degrees, humidity, dust storms and wind, with the pressure on to boldly go where none has before… but the foresight, determination and teamwork that made it happen resulted in a very special experience that added its own new chapter of history to Masada mountain.