The first time Anthony Russell heard Sidor Belarsky (1898-1975), on the soundtrack for the Coen brothers film “A Serious Man,” he thought it was Paul Robeson singing in Yiddish. Russell, an African-American classically trained operatic bass, wasn’t yet familiar with work of the Ukrainian-American opera singer and conservator of Jewish music, but he was drawn in by the deep, dark timbre of Belarsky’s voice.
After devouring Belarsky recordings available through Florida Atlantic University’s Judaica Sound Archives, Russell was hooked, and the discovery couldn’t have come at a better time. After a decade performing on operatic stages in New York and in the San Francisco Bay Area, Russell was ready for a change. And as a recent convert to Judaism, he was looking for opportunities to perform for Jewish audiences.
Since then Russell has been performing Yiddish works from Sidor Belarsky’s songbook at New York City venues such as the Sholom Aleichem Cultural Center in the Bronx, the JCC in Manhattan and the Hebrew Actors Union, and even for Belarsky’s 91-year-old daughter, Isabel, at her home in Brighton Beach. In August he’ll travel to Toronto to sing at the Ashkenaz Festival.
The Arty Semite recently caught up with Russell to talk about Yiddish art song, Brahms and opera — and about what Paul Robeson and Sidor Belarsky might have in common, after all.
Eileen Reynolds: Did you know any Yiddish when you started the Belarsky project?