New Research Shows Jews Made Significant Contributions to the American Opera Scene

New York, NY (April 30, 2021)

The Center for Jewish History (CJH) has something to sing about during Jewish American Heritage Month, which begins May 1. New research conducted in the archives of the Center’s Partners’ shows that Jews made significant contributions to the American opera scene.

Samantha M. Cooper, CJH Dr. Sophie Bookhalter Graduate Fellow in Jewish Culture 2020-2021, will present the findings of her extensive investigation into the lives of numerous men and women of Jewish descent who pursued careers as opera singers in New York between 1880 and 1940.

A Tradition of Talent: Jewish Opera Singers and the Patterns That Shaped Their Careers will stream live on Wednesday, May 5 at 4:00 pm.

“Despite the presence of a multitude of Jewish performers, a kind of myth persists that the categories of "Jews" and "opera" are somehow separate. The goal of my doctoral studies is to explore and dispel this misreading of the historical record,” said Cooper.

During her research, Cooper was able to unearth 80 European and American-born singers from Jewish families who sang at the epicenter of the American opera scene: New York City. One of the study’s criteria is that in order to be included, all the singers had to have performed at least one time in New York City. Of the American-born performers she studied, 20 of them were born in New York State including Beverly Sills, Robert Merrill, and Estelle Liebling, to name a few.

Cooper, an NYU Ph.D. Candidate in Historical Musicology, will discuss the frequency of name-changing, connections with the synagogue cantorate, performances for Jewish organizations, recordings in Jewish languages, impact of the Holocaust, and how dedication to the State of Israel shaped these singers’ professional lives.

“From a combined assessment of archival documents, oral history interviews, memoirs, and press coverage, we can see that approximately 75% of these opera singers performed in at least one event connected with a Jewish organization throughout their lifetimes. This percentage suggests an overwhelming affinity between opera singers of Jewish descent and participation in Jewish causes,” said Cooper.