It’s said that whenever one of the ancient ta’ziyeh music dramas is performed in Iran, people sob, shiver, start arguments, participate enthusiastically in the action, and invariably leave in tears. Nothing quite like that happened at the Lincoln Center Festival, which presented three ta’ziyeh tales directed by Mohammad Ghaffari with a cast of eighteen native actors, four camels, four horses, and six sheep. In fact, many in the audience were no doubt made acutely uncomfortable by a spectacle that seems to celebrate martyrdom, brutality, and massacre, even though such unsavory elements are hardly absent from American entertainments. Still, it’s a poor festival that does not offer such special experiences, in this case a rare opportunity to see a type of music theater unknown in our culture and from a part of the world that we all need to know more about.
The ta’ziyeh (“mourning” in Arabic) recounts a traumatic event in Islamic history: the martyrdom of Hussein, Muhammad’s grandson, who was killed with his followers at the Battle of Karbala in 680 A.D. Each of the hundreds of dramas focuses on one aspect of the tale, which is performed in the round (here, under an air-conditioned tent in Damrosch Park). That arrangement perfectly accommodated the genre’s combination of energized spectacle, concentrated ritual, and religious fervor – a potent mixture that must partly account for the tremendous emotional impact ta’ziyeh has on Muslim audiences, even though everyone knows how the stories turn out. The minimalist musical style – expressive vocal lines made up of twisting microtonal chants and incantations accompanied by a small ensemble of trumpets and drums – also helps cast a spell.
As is the case with all music theater, charismatic performers immersed in the material are crucial ingredients, especially for audiences unfamiliar with the language and conventions of ta’ziyeh. I was particularly taken with Alaeaddin Ghassemi as the warrior Hor. His theatrical persona, commanding voice, and total identification with the idiom are gifts he has passed on to his son, already a remarkably accomplished stage veteran at age 12. Performers of this caliber could surely make a potent effect reading from the Tehran phone book.
Ta’ziyeh of the Children of Moslem
Directed by Mohammad Ghaffari, at the Lincoln Center Festival