By his count, the Sephardic opera singer and actor David Serero has performed more than 2,000 shows around the world over the past two decades. “It’s not about the number,” he said by phone during a recent trip to Paris, where he was born. “It’s more about remembering these beautiful human experiences. Each performance is always an adventure and a gift. I really mean that.”
The 38-year-old Serero, who has Persian and Moroccan heritage, has also appeared in numerous musical theater and comedic productions, TV shows, and films. As a director and producer, he has adapted several classic plays and operas by adding a Jewish spin to them. For example, at the Center for Jewish History in New York this past summer, Serero staged and acted in a production of Romeo and Juliet in which Romeo’s family was Sephardic and Juliet’s Ashkenazi. The show included both Ladino and Yiddish songs and was a hit with audiences.
In addition to his artistic pursuits, Serero takes Jewish tourists to Morocco and was recently named one of the 15 most influential Moroccans worldwide by the national airline, Royal Air Maroc. ”To be on the cover of the in-flight magazine, as a Moroccan Jew, it was for me surreal,” he said. “You feel you have done something right.”
Below are excerpts from my conversation with the hardest working Sephardic man in show business.
Tell us a little bit about your background and childhood.
My great grandfather was the chief rabbi of Morocco. My father was born in Fes. My mother was born in Iran, but she moved to Israel when she was eight months old and doesn’t have the Persian culture. My parents met in Israel, and then they moved to Paris.
I grew up in HLM [public housing], but I had a wonderful childhood in the sense that my neighbors included Africans coming from Senegal right next door to a family from Algeria. I grew up very close, and I’m still extremely close, with the Muslim community because when I was a child everybody thought that I was an Arab. I had Muslim friends sitting at the Shabbat table with me and putting the yarmulke on the head as a symbol of respect to us. I attended Muslim weddings and paid my respects also. In the Sephardic tradition Jews and Muslims are together. Growing up with that spirit of embracing people regardless of your color, of your religion—I’m trying to bring that back.
How did you become interested in opera?
Music always was my path to evasion, where I felt somehow not lonely anymore but more free. I started as a pianist, then I started to sing, then after came theater. People told me that I have a voice for opera, and I thought opera is very serious, it’s in German and all the singers are 800 pounds and it lasts eight hours. After I moved to New York, one night I said, Let me check it out. So I went to the Metropolitan Opera and saw a performance and for me it was unbelievable, like my destiny finally came to me. I said, I don’t care what it takes, I’m going to do it.
I was in New York for three years studying. After that I went to Russia, St. Petersburg. I was at the Mariinsky Theatre, where I was the first non-Russian to be accepted. I had this sort of package that was unique, as a European who has the American acting experience and the Russian technique.
You’ve done Sephardic/Moroccan adaptations of The Merchant of Venice and Othello, among others. What inspires you to reimagine these classic shows?
I like to take something that people know and I add in it the Sephardic chutzpah. The Jewish theater was always presented by the Ashkenazi side. You had the Yiddish theater and then after that playwrights like Arthur Miller. It was very Ashkenazi. What I’m trying to do is to bring the Sephardic aspect into the theater and to show people something they have never seen before.
How often do you go to Morocco, and what kind of response do you receive there?
I go about five times a year. Last Passover I brought nearly 500 Jews from America and Canada to visit. Morocco is the only Arab country that has diplomatic relations with Israel. I want people to come back. I don’t want this beautiful story and this past to be lost.
When I go to Morocco and I sing opera, they’re absolutely amazed. There’s no opera in Morocco. Sometimes the national orchestra, which is not bad at all, they do an opera, but it’s very rare. I’m working very hard to bring over there the first festival of opera.
I understand you have a large Sephardic art collection…
Yes, I have one of the largest collections of Sephardic artifacts in the world, nearly 1000 items: menorahs, sefer Torahs, rimonim [Torah ornaments], clothing that the Jews had, very old books, I found many of the items at the souk [market] and at auctions all over the world. After the word gets out, people come to you and bring you stuff. When I was in Morocco in February I donated 40 items to the Jewish museum in Casablanca. It went on the national news.
What’s coming up on your performance schedule?
I have a new show called Lost in the Disco. It’s a musical that I wrote with a very important Sephardic Moroccan woman, Lisa Azuelos. We wrote a beautiful love story around all the classics of disco. It’s immersive theater, where the acting is taking place among the audience. [The final performances are on November 18 and December 3 at the Angel Orensanz Foundation in New York City.]
In December I have my annual show called Xmas for Jews. It’s an hour and a half of non-stop pure Jewish comedy standup with Jewish music. You don’t have to be Jewish to like it, but it helps. Then in January I’m going to sing at the Louvre and I have a big tour in Morocco.
Next season I’m going to be doing Anne Frank: The Musical, with music and lyrics by a French Sephardic Jew named Jean-Pierre Hadida, and I’m going to do a Sephardic version of Carmen. The original is inspired by a Sephardic woman named Carmen who lived in Seville, so I’m bringing it back to the roots.
What advice do you have for other performers?
Be aware of the rules, but don’t be afraid to break them. Follow your instincts. And celebrate your differences because this is what makes you unique.