The Arty Semite

Yiddish Opera Singer Anthony Russell

By Eileen Reynolds

  • Print
  • Share Share

The first time Anthony Russell heard Sidor Belarsky (1898-1975), on the soundtrack for the Coen brothers film “A Serious Man,” he thought it was Paul Robeson singing in Yiddish. Russell, an African-American classically trained operatic bass, wasn’t yet familiar with work of the Ukrainian-American opera singer and conservator of Jewish music, but he was drawn in by the deep, dark timbre of Belarsky’s voice.

Courtesy of Anthony Russell

After devouring Belarsky recordings available through Florida Atlantic University’s Judaica Sound Archives, Russell was hooked, and the discovery couldn’t have come at a better time. After a decade performing on operatic stages in New York and in the San Francisco Bay Area, Russell was ready for a change. And as a recent convert to Judaism, he was looking for opportunities to perform for Jewish audiences.

Since then Russell has been performing Yiddish works from Sidor Belarsky’s songbook at New York City venues such as the Sholom Aleichem Cultural Center in the Bronx, the JCC in Manhattan and the Hebrew Actors Union, and even for Belarsky’s 91-year-old daughter, Isabel, at her home in Brighton Beach. In August he’ll travel to Toronto to sing at the Ashkenaz Festival.

The Arty Semite recently caught up with Russell to talk about Yiddish art song, Brahms and opera — and about what Paul Robeson and Sidor Belarsky might have in common, after all.

Eileen Reynolds: Did you know any Yiddish when you started the Belarsky project?

Anthony Russell: I knew a little Yiddish — incidental stuff. Just the Yiddish everyone knows: mamele, tatele, shmuck.

Is singing in Yiddish different from singing in, say, German or Italian?

In a sense I was set up well to start learning how to sing in Yiddish — how to create the sounds — because being an opera singer is all about diction and clarity. Luckily I already had those values.

But the difference between singing foreign languages in opera and singing Yiddish is that in opera there’s not a large bank of Italian people ready to meet you outside the stage door to tell you that when you sang, say, “il fatto,” you didn’t say it right.

In Yiddish it’s like the audience is your family. They’re there to tell you “Oh, you made a little mistake. Next time you better make sure [to get the pronunciation right.]”

How did your operatic experience prepare you for singing Belarsky’s repertoire?

Opera has a reputation for being very emotive. It’s big; it’s dramatic. And yet in a way it’s not, because the strictures within which it is dramatic are very specific. It’s always laid out ahead of time. No one ever really goes off the deep end; they’re just giving a facsimile of going off the deep end.

When I was an opera singer I always wanted to strive for certain dramatic effects. If I felt like a character was in pain, I wanted to express that, but I didn’t want to express that necessarily in a conventional operatic way. I wanted it to be a quality of softness, of vulnerability.

And it turns out that after 10 years, I found that opera doesn’t really want vulnerability, at least not from its men, and definitely not from its basses. Basses have a very specific profile vocally and dramatically that they’re supposed to express from the stage. Softness and vulnerability are not really a part of that profile, at least in my experience.

Yiddish for me is the ultimate medium for expressions of vulnerability, of pain, of love, hurt, sadness, joy. The language is unparalleled for expression. It’s a really juicy language. The words are juicy. It’s a joy to sing them. There’s so much meaning in the collection of vowels and consonants — in the words — that it feels like the songs sing themselves.

You write in your artist statement about a connection between Yiddish art song and the work of African American recitalists like Marion Anderson and Paul Robeson. What’s the link?

At a certain point in America there’d become a critical mass of people who were not white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, but who’d lived here for a while. There was this movement toward almost classical artistic expression through music, art and drama among those groups, and the interesting thing is that it was happening almost exactly at the same time in the African-American community that it was happening in the Jewish community.

The reason I feel like there’s a relationship between African-American classical music — by which I mean, say, spirituals that have been arranged for performance — and Yiddish art song, is that it’s an ethnic music. It’s very directly an expression of the lives, the loves and the struggles of the people who are in the songs.

My affinity with Yiddish vocal music is my affinity with ethnic expression. It really is about a people, as opposed to a set of ideas.

Is there a place for Yiddish art song on the classical recital stage?

It’s funny—when I was in college I was really fond of a Brahms song cycle called Zigeunerlieder, or Gypsy Songs. It was very similar to what I’m singing now. These were songs about gypsy life. Some were dance-based, others romantic or melancholy, and it was all about ethnic expression — in this case gypsy.

I think that Yiddish art song is as rich and as dramatic and varied and has as many aesthetic variations as classical art song. I think that more people should know about it. You can fill every theater, every room in New York with people who are willing to hear someone sing chanson or lieder, and I think those are potential audiences for Yiddish art song. I think it’s an unusually rich medium for artistic expression and it certainly has been for me, personally. The connection between a person and a song is played out in the realm of performance. Music can’t choose who it’s going to appeal to. With Yiddish music is just happened to be me.

After the Belarsky songbook, what’s next?

Sidor Belarsky recorded Hebrew songs, pioneer songs from Israel. It’s a whole other repertoire of his that I’m fascinated with, and it has a lot of the same aspects of his Yiddish repertoire that I find attractive. So that might be the next frontier. However, if Wes Anderson is interested in directing a small feature film on Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell, black Yiddish opera singer, I’m ready for my close-up.

Listen to Anthony Russell sing from the Sidor Belarsky Songbook:

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Yiddish, Song, Sidor Belarsky, Opera, Music, Interviews, Eileen Reynolds, Anthony Russell

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

You may also be interested in our English-language newsletters:

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.