BOSTON — Surrounded by a rotating crowd of 2,200 onlookers in a museum courtyard Wednesday evening, Israeli and Iranian musicians premiered scenes from “Seekers of Light,” an opera written by Boston-based Matti Kovler.
Kovler, the founder of Jewish Music Theater, first envisioned the libretto in 1999 while preparing to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces, he said. Drawing on ancient Jewish and Persian religious texts, the opera also nods to contemporary Israeli poets including Yehuda Amichai and Rachel. The work fits with Kovler’s longtime goal of bringing the perception of Jewish music “beyond klezmer and out of the shtetl,” he said in an interview with The Times of Israel.
Like other Kovler projects, “Seekers” is a mash-up of Jewish sources through the millennia, with a healthy dose of other Mideast musical heritages to spice up the mix. Fortunately for the composer, dozens of Mideast-born music students set up shop in Boston each year, drawn to schools like the Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory, where Kovler earned a doctorate in composition last year.
The local pool of Israeli and Iranian talent, combined with an invitation to stage a musical installation at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston’s first Hanukkah festival, proved irresistible to Kovler, who decided to premiere seven scenes from “Seekers.”
Focused on the infamous Sabbatai Tzvi — a Sephardic kabbalist who claimed to be the Jewish messiah — the work is a sequel to Kovler’s 2009 opera, “Here Comes Messiah,” commissioned by Carnegie Hall. Written in half a dozen languages, “Seekers” emphasizes the mystical aspects of Tzvi’s life, as well as the role of Nathan of Gaza in manipulating Tzvi and his wife, said Kovler.
“I was fascinated by how strenuously Jewish history has tried to repress the memory of Sabbatai,” said Kovler.
“The Sabbateans, the movement he inspired, was the biggest messianic revival of the past 1,000 years, and I was never taught about it growing up,” said the musician. “I was interested in the ways [Sabbatai] incorporated women into ritual, and of course by his dramatic and shocking conversion to Islam,” said Kovler.
According to the composer, the full opera will premiere in 2017 at a theater under construction in Prague, designed in part with “Seekers” in mind. For this week’s teaser performance, Kovler conducted and accompanied fourteen musicians playing classical and Persian instruments, with most vocals in Hebrew and Persian.
Playing the lead role of “Sabbatai’s soul” was Iranian musician and Berklee student Parham Haghighi, who wore a full-length white robe and burgundy scarf and sash. Haghighi’s own journey from Iran to Beantown was also an epic of sorts.
The singer was one of the last musicians to perform in Iran’s Mashhad, a city along the ancient Silk Road, before public performances were banned in the region. At the museum, Haghighi performed with a dozen children seated in front of him, who gazed at both the exotic singer and adjacent hanukiah, lit before the show. A long way from his original home, Haghighi chanted Hebrew while surrounded by Jewish families at an American Hanukkah celebration — something Kovler called “a miracle in itself.”
“Some of the musicians arrived from Iran just two months ago and speak just a few words of English,” said Kovler. “The existence of this ensemble is very much in the spirit of Hanukkah and the freedom to seek out light in one’s own way,” he said.
Portraying Sarah — Sabbatai Tzvi’s romantic and kabbalistic partner — was Israeli Tutti Druyan. The singer and actress has performed on television and stage since age three, and also leant her voice to “The Smurfs” and “Dragon Tails” cartoon movies. Kovler and Druyan have collaborated for several years, including performing Israeli standards at events all over New England.
“With ‘Seekers of Light,’ I want people to be open-minded and just experience these languages and music they may have never heard before,” said Kovler. “I also want people to be involved and not just sit like observers. I want the audience to have an experience and feel they are not in a concert hall,” he said.
Kovler said musical installations like “Seekers” are rarely staged in Boston. To facilitate an interactive experience for his opera, Kovler allowed for a half-hour intermission between three performance segments, during which attendees chatted, had coffee at the café, or roamed the nearby Mideast and American galleries, open gratis all night.
The opera’s premiere was one of a dozen Hanukkah-related activities hosted by the Museum of Fine Arts on Wednesday. Craft making, food tastings and lectures filled several galleries, along with tours of the MFA’s new Judaica items from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Collection.
The unprecedented Jewish celebration at the MFA was inspired by a large bequest to greatly expand the museum’s Judaica holdings, according to the museum. Event planners sought to blend music and visual arts, including with a virtual reality Hanukkah installation called “Across the Divide.”
For his part, Kovler said “Seekers” was inspired by Prague-based visual artist Theodor Tezhik, known for his design work on Cirque du Soleil. Several of Tezhik’s sketches were projected onto courtyard walls during the performance, “to give the audience the emotional color of the scene,” said Kovler.
Boston’s New Center NOW, which works to expand young adults’ engagement in Jewish arts and culture, was responsible for bringing “Seekers” and other Hanukkah activities to the museum.
“For many years we have wanted to do something Jewish-inspired as part of a public art project,” said Laura Mandel, the center’s director and costume designer for the opera.
‘I had tears in my eyes when we lit the hanukkiah and hundreds of people said the blessings, right here in the middle of the museum’
“The museum reached out to us about staging a Hanukkah festival, and that brought it all to the next level for us,” said Mandel, whose group plans to stage eight interactive Hanukkah “window installations” all over Boston next year.
According to MFA volunteer director Linda Apple, 2,200 people saw parts of the opera or joined in Hanukkah activities Wednesday evening — far more visitors than usual, she said.
“I had tears in my eyes when we lit the hanukkiah and hundreds of people said the blessings, right here in the middle of the museum,” said Mandel between opera segments. “The Hanukkah activities and premiering this opera here were about illumination and innovation, very much in the spirit of the holiday,” she said.
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