By Ted Shen
“The classical cantorial art is dying off,” laments Alberto Mizrahi, the principal cantor at Lakeview’s Anshe Emet Synagogue for the past decade. “The expectations of a congregation are lower these days. As long as a cantor can teach the modes [the centuries-old rules about how phrases from the Bible should be spoken and chanted] and as long he can sing chants and folk songs, that’s fine. With so many options out there, cantors everywhere have to offer entertainment, not necessarily great singing.”
Mizrahi offers both. As a boy in Athens, where he was born in the late 40s, he yearned to become an opera singer. “There was always music in our household,” he recalls. “My mother went to the conservatory with Maria Callas, and she too had a wonderful soprano voice. One of her grandfathers was an amateur cantor. I’ve been told that she sang to me while I was still in the womb.”
His father, an Auschwitz survivor, had met and married Mizrahi’s mother upon his return to Greece. The family was very poor, but Mizrahi remembers bright spots from his childhood, such as when his father took him to see the movie The Great Caruso. “I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen,” he remembers. “Mario Lanza sang so beautifully all those Italian arias. I was hooked.”
To make sure that their only son would get a decent education, Mizrahi’s parents decided to move to Cleveland, where he says “the Jewish community gladly took us in and paid for my schooling.” At his Orthodox Hebrew academy, Mizrahi thought of opera while other kids played baseball. He started singing in earnest when he enrolled in a yeshiva in Skokie, planning to become a rabbi and then go back to Athens to serve.
“Fate intervened in the form of a longtime friend,” Mizrahi says. “He was studying to be a cantor in New York. On vacation home, he played for me a record by a revered cantor. And that was it. I would be a cantor.” In 1966, after a year of preparation at Chicago Musical College, he enrolled at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. During his four years in its cantorial program, Mizrahi learned to sing the modes and studied the migration of Jewish religious and secular music from the Middle East to western Europe. “The music invariably borrowed from the popular melodies and rhythms of the host country,” he points out. “So nowadays we can distinguish between, say, Russian and German variants. And the Sephardic and Ashkenazi traditions.”
Art music, too, entered the synagogue, he adds–first through the 16th-century Italian Jew Salomone Rossi, who composed innovative motets, then in the mid-19th century when reformers reinstated choral music into services. “Solomon Sulzer, who appropriated the Christian term of ‘cantor’ to replace the Hebrew one of ‘hazan,’ or presenter, was a great singer in Vienna who impressed the likes of Schubert. He harmonized the modes and canonized much of Jewish music, cleaning up its melodic lines and getting rid of the nasal sounds he regarded as vulgar.”
After graduation Mizrahi took a position in Albany, where he met his wife and started a family. While “getting a practical knowledge of my profession was satisfying,” he says, “the fire of opera burned deep within me.” He’d heard the young Luciano Pavarotti in New York, and his dream of singing Verdi and Puccini onstage beckoned. It wasn’t without precedent: in the early 1920s through the mid-1950s, most cantors–especially those in Europe–underwent rigorous classical training, and some easily made the switch to the operatic stage. Tenors Richard Tucker and Jan Peerce, who starred in numerous Metropolitan Opera productions in the 40s and 50s, started out as cantors.
Upon moving to Cincinnati for a new post in 1975, Mizrahi auditioned at the conservatory there. One of the judges said, “I think there’s a voice in there somewhere” and accepted him as a student. “I sang a number of major lyric tenor roles in productions there,” he says. “I felt I was ready to take on opera.” He adds that he was fortunate that the rabbi at his temple didn’t object to his extracurricular activities. Neither did the rabbi at a temple in a New York suburb, where he worked so he could apprentice at the Juilliard Opera Center.
By the early 80s a pattern had been established in which Mizrahi went back and forth between the synagogue and the stage, often within the course of a day. He traveled across the country for roles offered by regional companies. Once he was understudy to Pavarotti at the Miami Opera. Another time he played the lead in Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Idomeneo. “My singing in service was getting to be more expressive,” he says. “I started to improvise too and take on the more florid, nasal Middle Eastern sound that is the heart of Jewish vocal music. My operatic singing became more fervent and convincing.”
Pretty soon Mizrahi started to create concert programs that juxtaposed cantorial and operatic selections, a format that turned out to be a hit. He hooked up with an old friend, conductor and scholar Matthew Lazar, to perform Jewish chants from throughout the ages. Their first CD, Chants Mystiques, which came out in 1995, cashed in on the craze for medieval chants. They recently participated in a 60-CD project chronicling Jewish music in America that’s due out early next year.
But his opera career has fallen by the wayside. “My periodic absence was taking a toll on my family and congregation,” he says, “so I gave up singing opera on the road. Yes, I’ve broken the vow once in a while, but really there’s no such thing as a part-time opera singer.” Instead he’s focused on concert appearances, including soloing in a Dave Brubeck jazz oratorio and with the New York Philharmonic, and of course on his work at Anshe Emet, which is hosting a concert Sunday afternoon honoring his tenth anniversary there. He’s trying, he says, to “stem the tide of lowbrow entertainment.” Now that his voice has entered its prime, he adds, “I want to use it more effectively to show how music can elevate the soul.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.