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Preparing for the Role of a Lifetime

Move over Madonna, there’s a new music video star in the house.

The opera house, that is.

Millennial Arts Productions’ Eléazar: Portrait of a Tenor and a Role” follows tenor Neil Shicoff as he performs Fromental Halevy’s “La Juive” in Vienna and shoots a music video of the opera’s “Rachel” aria with academy-award-winning director Sidney Lumet. The documentary, which makes it world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on May 1, brings the viewer backstage as Shicoff undertakes the role of a lifetime.

“It isn’t about having fun. It’s about making an emotional stretch,” said Shicoff, 54, after one nerve-wracking scene in Vienna in which he nearly forgot the first word of an aria. “I love the work. If I wanted to have fun, I’d go to the Caribbean and scuba dive.”

Shicoff, the son of famous cantor Sydney Shicoff, was born in Brooklyn to a Conservative family and lived in Long Beach, Long Island until his early teens. When his father died unexpectedly, the family moved to Queens, he was bar mitzvahed in the Bronx and later lived in Manhattan as an adult. “I covered all of the boroughs, except for Staten Island,” he said in an interview with the Forward.

The singer graduated from Francis Lewis High School in Queens and at 18 auditioned for The Juilliard School. One day, at WEVD, the Jewish radio station formerly owned by the Forward Association, he met the legendary tenor Richard Tucker. Though a generation apart, both singers were Brooklyn-born and Jewish. Tucker, however, was religious and had loved the time he spent as a cantor. “He wrote a letter on my behalf when I applied to Juilliard [so] I thought I was a shoo-in,” remembered Shicoff. Unfortunately, he didn’t get in, and instead went to Hebrew Union College to train as a cantor. There Shicoff served in student pulpits but ultimately felt he couldn’t compete with his father and left. He re-auditioned and this time got into Juilliard. In 1976, the year Tucker died, Shicoff debuted at the Metropolitan Opera.

The singer lives with his wife and son in Zurich and performs worldwide. Living and traveling abroad have fueled his understanding of the role of Eleazar, the main character in the 1835 French grand opera about a Jewish man and his daughter living in the 15th century who are sent to their deaths for refusing to convert to Christianity.

“I’m scheduled to do an Eleazar [in Paris] in 2007,” he said. “With the current political situation, and all the antisemitism in Europe that seems to be spear-headed in France, there is a tremendous need to take this piece to that country. It’s an opportunity to reach people who have an open mind.”

Shicoff noted certain prejudices about the character he portrays. “Eleazar is a stereotypical character — hating Christians, taking their money,” he said. Working on the music video with Lumet, Shicoff found his interpretation evolving. The director urged him to portray Eleazar as a religious fanatic, perhaps even a suicide-bomber.

“Finding Eleazar” also reveals how intensely images of the Holocaust inform Shicoff’s characterization. As a Jew who lives in Europe, Shicoff said, he tries to “imagine what it is like to have a suitcase always packed. I think about those people who were taken out of their houses with profound sadness. As an American Jew, I was spared. If I don’t go back and make a statement and be successful, then the Nazis won. I feel too assimilated in New York. I don’t feel Jewish enough.”

But the film has its light moments as well. At a visit to his ear, nose and throat specialist, whom he sees so regularly that he has come to consider him one of his closest friends in Vienna, Shicoff seems like a character from a Woody Allen film, obsessed with the condition of his vocal chords. “I have a fascination with them — how they heat up, how they handle emotional stress,” he said. “It calms me down to see perfect ones.”

And in another scene from the film, Shicoff is seen having his hair stripped to gray for his role. “This is the most embarrassing moment of my career,” he says, as he sits in the salon about to be shampooed. Feigning horror at the prospect of being gray, he whispers that he’s been coloring his hair “practically since my bar mitzvah.”

Sheila B. Callahan is a freelance writer living in Manhattan.

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