This was the very first piece I wrote for an American newspaper. At the time I was living in Tel Aviv and reporting on the Gaza pullout.
In Tel Aviv, an hour away from the tumult in the Gaza settlement as its date for disengagement looms, the man who directed "The Exorcist" has turned his creative eye to a Camille Saint-Saens opera.
Academy Award-winning director William Friedkin is helming the first opera of the season by the New Israeli Opera, Saint-Saens' 19th Century biblical effort "Samson et Delila."
For many Israelis, the presence of such a noted Hollywood director in Tel Aviv was cause for great excitement. Since the second intifada began in 2000, few celebrities have been willing to visit, much less work in Israel. But for the Chicago native whose career began in the mailroom of WGN-TV, the notion of coming to Israel was like coming home.
"The idea of working here was very important to me," says Friedkin, in Tel Aviv with his wife, Sherry Lansing, also a Chicagoan who recently stepped down from her 15-year post as Paramount Studios head. "It's a privilege."
Friedkin's path to "Samson" began over lunch with his friend, conductor Zubin Mehta. For Mehta, the idea of Friedkin directing his operas seemed like a natural partnership, and in 1996 Mehta offered Friedkin the chance to direct Alban Berg's "Wozzeck" in Florence. Since his Italian debut, Friedkin has directed a number of other operas around the world.
Friedkin, whose work includes "The French Connection" and "The Exorcist," agreed to take on "Samson" for free, in part because of the compelling nature of directing an opera about a biblical tale in the land of the Bible. "The landscape itself is magical, and it's certainly evocative," says Friedkin. "I visited a number of the locations that are at least similar to where the biblical story took place. Gaza is no longer as it was, but there are many Philistine ruins, which give you a sense of the landscape. These are overwhelming [and it] gives you an overwhelming connection with the past."
Saint-Saens' opera closely mimics the biblical narrative. Samson, leader of the Israelites, is resisting the Philistines. Though he has slain hundreds of Philistines with his bare hands, Samson's weakness is still his love for the Philistine Delilah. Once she discovers that his hair is the source of his power, his hair is cut and Samson is blinded. Imprisoned and mocked, he regains his strength as his hair grows. The finale culminates at a pagan festival. Samson realizes his only chance of redemption in the eyes of his people is to tear down the pillars to which he is chained -- killing himself along with hundreds of Philistines.
In the opera, Friedkin's filmic expertise helps him on the stage. His seamless transitions between scenes make it easy for the audience to be swept away in the magic of the moment.
And with the overwhelming political crisis in Gaza in such close proximity, the obvious thing would have been for Friedkin to update the 19th Century opera to reflect modern times, particularly in light of the New Israeli Opera's contemporary bent. But when asked about the correlation between the story and the events of the day Friedkin says, "The attempt I am making is certainly not to modernize this opera. I mean it's possible for someone to do a version of this that is set in Gaza today instead of ancient Gaza, and probably set it in contemporary clothes with a young Hebrew and a young Palestinian. I didn't want to do that, and certainly not in Israel where the story is basically rooted deep in Israeli culture. I wanted to do it somewhat impressionistic because it is an opera. It's not reality. That's the power."
The story of Samson has been an integral part of Israeli culture and nationalism since the birth of the state in 1948, and religiously speaking certainly before that time. Perhaps the most famous literary use of Samson was made by Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinsky, the founding father of right-wing Zionism. In his 1926 novel "Samson," on which director Cecil B. DeMille later based his film "Samson and Delilah," Jabotinsky uses the biblical story as a parable for nationalism.
Renowned Israeli filmmaker Avi Mograbi suggests there is no way to separate the politics of the art from the land. In his newest documentary about heroism and vengeful Israeli myths versus the political reality, "Avenge But One of My Two Eyes," Mograbi uses the story of Samson to show modern day parallels between the biblical tale and contemporary Israeli culture. Mograbi's film also offers a cautionary note on the dangers of using the story of Samson to bolster Israeli national identity.
"People don't think about what Samson represents for real," says Mograbi. "They think about it in a very superficial way. Anybody who looks at the Samson story now needs to rethink it -- rethink its morals. It can't just be taught again and again as if nothing happened in the last four years."
But still, the question remains: How relevant is the story of Samson in today's Israel? Friedkin believes the ancient story will remain significant through any political climate. Yet for all its political resonance, Friedkin's staging tries to remain faithful to the artistic vision of Saint-Saens.
"I believe it is timeless," says Friedkin, "absolutely timeless as are many stories, myths and literatures. These stories last and live on because they speak to every generation, as does Samson and Delilah."