A Tradition of Talent: Jewish Opera Singers and the Patterns That Shaped Their Careers

Due to their unique mediation between the score, the stage, and their audiences, singers are one of the most indispensable elements of opera's performance and reception. Although opera singers have often inspired scholarship about their geographical, social, and ethnic backgrounds, few studies have designed methods for comparing the experiences of large numbers of singers at the same time. What is more, beyond biographies of individual performers, Jews are rarely understood as significant contributors to the American opera scene. Yet examination of their presence in the Center for Jewish History's archives confirms that there is merit in undertaking devoted study of their vocal careers. In this talk, Samantha M. Cooper (CJH Dr. Sophie Bookhalter Graduate Fellow in Jewish Culture 2020-2021, NYU Ph.D. Candidate in Historical Musicology) presents the first extended investigation into the patterns that shaped the trajectories of numerous men and women of Jewish descent who pursued careers as opera singers in New York between 1880 and 1940. Drawing on a wealth of archival resources, she unearths over 50 European- and American-born singers from Jewish families who sang in the citadel of America’s opera scene: New York City. Specifically, she attends to how the outsized frequency of name-changing, connections with the synagogue cantorate, performances for Jewish organizations, recordings in Jewish languages, networking with other Jewish musicians, impact of the Holocaust, and dedication to the State of Israel shaped these singers’ professional lives in particularly Jewish ways. Ultimately, Cooper finds that the statistically significant presence of extraordinarily talented Jewish performers in the American opera industry constituted a much more ordinary reality than scholars of American Jewish history have previously realized. This event took place on May 5, 2021.

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