Baltimore has long been an important center for the preservation and enjoyment of classical singing. Operaphiles can attend outstanding performances by the Baltimore Opera and Peabody Opera Companies and those of several other regional organizations. Local (and often fanatical) collectors relish their Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gigli and Jussi Bjoerling recordings.
However, for aficionados of immortal Jewish cantorial singing, the names and voices of of such luminaries as Gershon Sirota, Joseph "Yossele" Rosenblatt and Moshe Koussevitsky sound with equal resonance and greatness. This week, Baltimoreans will have the opportunity to enjoy firsthand some of today's foremost cantorial talent as the city acts as host for the annual meeting of the American Conference of Cantors.
In truth, the paths of the seemingly divergent worlds of the opera house and synagogue have crossed on many occasions. In one of the most famous instances, the Chicago Lyric Opera invited Yossele Rosenblatt to perform the role of Eleazar in Jacques Halevy's epic French opera "La Juive," but the tenor refused, believing that it would not be appropriate for him to appear on the stage.
The American tenor Richard Tucker first established himself as one of the leading cantors in New York at the Brooklyn Jewish Center before embarking upon a Metropolitan Opera career in 1945 that was to last almost thirty years. Even after his operatic identity was firmly established, Tucker continued to appear annually as a cantor at High Holiday Services in Chicago and the Catskills. His superb cantorial artistry is preserved on compact discs issued by CBS/Sony that include his Yom Kippur and Passover services.
None of this is particularly surprising given the similarities between the cantorial and operatic approaches to singing. Both employ a highly focused, almost nasal tonal quality, replete with the spin (or "vibrato") that allows the voice to penetrate the farthest reaches of the hall or synagogue.
Cantors and operatic performers are expected to sing with great range, power and flexibility, often negotiating seemingly impossible scales with ease. It is no coincidence that the greatest recording of the incredibly difficult tenor aria "Fuor del mar," a coloratura spectacular from Mozart's "Idomeneo," is by Hermann Jadlowker, who trained as a cantor before embarking upon a major operatic career.
A sense of improvisation pervades the cantor's prayer, traditionally viewed as a direct and personal encounter with God. He is expected to interpolate grace-notes, runs and trills that give the music a sense of variety, spontaneity and mysticism. In that sense, the cantor is one of the closest surviving relatives of the great bel canto stylists who flourished in Italy in the first half of the 19th century.
Then, of course, there is the tear or sob in the cantor's voice that expresses the yearning and suffering of his people.
Richard Tucker freely incorporated this device into his operatic singing. While Tucker was at times criticized in this country for what were viewed as overly lachrymose interpretations, reviews for the tenor's performances in Italy hailed them as the long-awaited reincarnation of the true Italian operatic style.
The daytime agenda for this week's American Conference of Cantors, which represents the Jewish Reform Movement, is ambitious and varied.
Workshops focusing on such topics as "Pastoral Counseling" and "Jewish Music Outreach: Bringing Jewish Music to the Schools" reflect the cantor's ever-expanding role as an active participant in the day-to-day workings of his synagogue and community. Programs also focus on such difficult and controversial matters as "Spouse Stress Management," "Intermarriage Ramifications" and "The Role of the Non-Jew in the Synagogue."
Of course, the cantor is first and foremost the prime conservator of the rich and constantly evolving Jewish musical tradition. The public will have the opportunity to attend several concerts that feature some of today's finest male and female cantors.
Last night, a concert of new cantorial works took place at the Inner Harbor.
Tonight at 8:15, Temple Oheb Shalom, 7310 Park Heights Ave., will be host of a program devoted to traditional and contemporary settings of liturgical music. Among the participants is Oheb Shalom's cantor, Melvin Luterman, who, like many of his illustrious predecessors, has enjoyed substantial operatic training. Stephen Richards, Composer and Cantor at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, will perform his compositions.
On Tuesday at 6 p.m., the Conference will offer a program at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington featuring several works that reflect the agony and hope of the Jewish people during the most cataclysmic period in their history. Cantor Samuel Berman, formerly of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, will be one of several performers.