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Opera, Cantors, and Yiddish Language Culture

Mon, December 19, 1:15 to 2:45pm, Sheraton Boston Commonwealth 3rd Floor (AV)

Session Submission Type: Panel Session


In the early twentieth century, opera was embedded in the Jewish cultural experience in both America and Europe in myriad ways. Even Jews who were not big opera fans would have had some familiarity with its musical conventions and most famous arias – and they certainly knew about star opera singers, who were massive celebrities during this era. Jews gained this knowledge from sources as diverse as the Yiddish theater, popular song, and opera companies, as well as from cantors’ performances in the synagogue, in concert, and on recordings. The Yiddish and mainstream press were especially important sources of information about opera for Jews.

Opera’s presence in these contexts points to the ways it permeated both mainstream culture and Jewish enclaves. Scholars Judah Cohen, Mark Slobin, and Jeffrey Shandler are among those who have studied overlaps between the cantorial and art music arenas, and Daniela Smolov Levy has examined Yiddish speakers’ involvement with opera in America. But there has yet to be an exploration of how opera simultaneously intersected with both the cantorial and Yiddish theatrical spheres, as well as with the wider social and cultural concerns of Yiddish-speaking circles.

The three papers on this panel all uncover different ways in which opera came into contact with other facets of Yiddish-speaking Jews’ religious, cultural, and social experience in the early decades of the twentieth century. The first paper examines the European and American career of the Russian-Jewish opera singer and cantor Joseph Winogradoff, showing how his performances in a diversity of cultural contexts – high and popular, sacred and secular, Yiddish-language and mainstream – highlights a compatibility and commonality of musical aesthetics among them. The second paper analyzes the significance of the musical activities of Irish Jewish cantors and community organizations, exploring how opera and Yiddish theater feature prominently in their activities. The third paper scrutinizes how the New York Yiddish press deployed opera caricatures, including connections to the cantorial and theatrical spheres, as vehicles for social and cultural commentary. Collectively, these papers shed much-needed light on the significance of opera’s presence in Jewish circles during this period.

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