If you’re looking to take in a little culture this Hanukkah, might I suggest dropping in on a new opera-in-progress being premiered at the MFA on Wednesday, Dec. 17? “The Seekers of Light” previews music from an upcoming opera by composer Matti Kovler and Theodor Tezhik. It will be running throughout the evening in the museum’s Shapiro Family Courtyard, for free. I asked Matti, the first composer-in-residence with the Elie Wiesel Center at Boston University, about his inspiration for the piece and for his work in Jewish musical theater in general.
Tell me about your new opera. Parts of it will be released throughout the evening of Dec. 17?
It’s a very early preview, as I’m still in the process of writing it. The full version will be premiered in Prague in 2017. It’s my take on the false messiah Shabtai Tzvi, who was forced to convert to Islam. It’s about people seeking and bringing forth light. The MFA piece is not a performance, but a musical installation. People can go in and out. It will be very loose, a happening of sorts, similar to the Armory aesthetic in New York City. This is our attempt to do it in a Jewish world, a bit more avant garde than what people are used to. It’s written in ancient Hebrew, Farsi, Italian and Ladino. People won’t understand a word! The performers will be in costumes. It’s purely experimental—to take part in the miracle, to take part in the strange.
Walk me through the process of writing. For a lay person like me, I don’t even know where you would begin!
I usually start from thinking what I would like to hear as an audience member. I want to be moved. I want the emotional experience. Sometimes I start with text. Sometimes I start with a melody. It should always be original. I don’t want people to think about their grocery list when they’re at a performance. It should be something immediate. Something you can touch. Something visceral.
You say you want to make Jewish theater beyond “Fiddler on the Roof”? What’s the issue?
I love “Fiddler” too. The problem is us. I have this argument with my students. When I come to the subject of Jewish theater, they always ask, “When do we watch ‘Fiddler?’” It was written 60 years ago, and it may not be as relevant today. The issue is that we’re focused so much on preservation. Any culture needs to focus on creation. People talk about the Pew report from last year and the changing identification about culture and religion, but the truth is, not much is being done about Jewish culture. This isn’t about people in their 60s, but people in their 20s and 30s. It’s not just about being connected to the shtetl. I did a contemporary Jonah in this same vein. Or perhaps it’s time to do something with Shabtai Tzvi.
I’m curious if you have any dark secrets when it comes to the music you listen to.
Well, I’m not just interested in high-brow music. I love Simon & Garfunkel. I listen to a lot of world music. There’s some great contemporary Brazilian and Israeli music I listen to. My new production is a good example; it’s not just high opera.