A few day ago, on my ride headed back home to Jerusalem after a long day of work, my colleague who was driving asked me why Jerusalem. “Well, I love this city,” I replied with the same answer I always give when asked why I left the capital of the world (New York City) for this place, “it’s a big city with a small-town, everyone-in-your business feel.”
Such was the case again last night as I walked (!) to the Jerusalem Opera festival, opening with Verdi’s famous libretto Rigoletto. People were starting to flood down into the valley, past the cinematheque, and as the streams of people rushed in, there was excitement in the air. The opera was in town! An eager secular couple waved down their dear friends, a chardali man sporting payis and a his wife with a large festive hair covering in front of us. People were asking each other frantically where exactly where the ticket booths were, late as everyone always is in this city.
The opera! The outdoors event was perfectly coordinated, and Jerusalem took the occasion to dress in its finest. The Sultan’s pool park was particularly regal, benefiting from its recent renovation. A surprising amount of flowing maxi-dresses, button down shirts, and heels were to be found in this city considering the usually strictly-flats no-nonsense dress code. Somehow, knowing that the delight of high culture was going to take place brought out the best in the city.
Yet, hints of authentic Jerusalem snuck in despite the dignity of the event. Next to the bar stands selling one of the best boutique microbrewery in Israel’s ale was a woman selling traditional beygaleh bread covered in sesame seeds and served with za’atar. The finest dressed came armed with fleece blankets, fully recognizing the power of the Jerusalem night’s wind, which blows cool air even in the dead heat of summer. As we settled in, the thousands who had gathered glowed with impatience and good nature.
The show itself was every bit a romp at the opera as you could possibly want. A tortured, misunderstood main character (Rigoletto played darkly by Boris Statsenko) a conniving duke, sinister courtiers, an innocent daughter, a love story, a murder, and revenge. The stage was cast in red and sparse, using very little set pieces to bring the focus to surprisingly good acting given the task of singing long dramatic pieces in Italian. The audience hummed along to the famous aria “La donna e mobile” surprising itself with its own familiarity with the otherwise unfamiliar opera.
Yet the undeniable show-stopper was Hila Fahima as Guilda, the innocent daughter of Rigoletto who is seduced by the duke and later is accidentally killed in a mixed up revenge plot. Shining from the moment she entered the stage, Hila’s unquestioningly Israeli features and stunning black hair radiated as she opened her mouth in perfect Italian. Voice floating above everyone’s the clarity of her soprano bouncing through all corners of the enormous sultan’s pool had the audience (and my dear husband) nearly in tears. It is no wonder she has won international awards for this role, which fits her like a glove. It was beyond an honor to hear her performing at home.
After the show, I was once again reminded that though for a few hours I had been transported to Italy, I was definitely at home. As the audience clapped, the two rows surrounding me had turned around and were clapping heartily towards a small, dark, unassuming woman in her sixties. A woman next to her shouted in explanation to all who would listen “ Ima shel Hila! Ima Shel Guilda! Ima shel Guilda!” We turned to the woman, who was absolutely glowing with pride.
It’s moments like this why I left New York and found a home in this misunderstood city. Instead of locked away in some tall imposing opera house, the beauty of music had come to Jerusalem, not to hang above it, but to sit in the humble valley below the old city walls. This city is to be able to wish congratulations to the small mother of an international opera star, who had just transformed the eternal city into her stage, and you think, only in Jerusalem.