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?
Anthony Russell: I knew a little Yiddish — incidental stuff. Just the Yiddish everyone knows: mamele, tatele, shmuck.
Is singing in Yiddish different from singing in, say, German or Italian?
In a sense I was set up well to start learning how to sing in Yiddish — how to create the sounds — because being an opera singer is all about diction and clarity. Luckily I already had those values.
But the difference between singing foreign languages in opera and singing Yiddish is that in opera there’s not a large bank of Italian people ready to meet you outside the stage door to tell you that when you sang, say, “il fatto,” you didn’t say it right.
In Yiddish it’s like the audience is your family. They’re there to tell you “Oh, you made a little mistake. Next time you better make sure [to get the pronunciation right.]”
How did your operatic experience prepare you for singing Belarsky’s repertoire?
Opera has a reputation for being very emotive. It’s big; it’s dramatic. And yet in a way it’s not, because the strictures within which it is dramatic are very specific. It’s always laid out ahead of time. No one ever really goes off the deep end; they’re just giving a facsimile of going off the deep end.
When I was an opera singer I always wanted to strive for certain dramatic effects. If I felt like a character was in pain, I wanted to express that, but I didn’t want to express that necessarily in a conventional operatic way. I wanted it to be a quality of softness, of vulnerability.
And it turns out that after 10 years, I found that opera doesn’t really want vulnerability, at least not from its men, and definitely not from its basses. Basses have a very specific profile vocally and dramatically that they’re supposed to express from the stage. Softness and vulnerability are not really a part of that profile, at least in my experience.
Yiddish for me is the ultimate medium for expressions of vulnerability, of pain, of love, hurt, sadness, joy. The language is unparalleled for expression. It’s a really juicy language. The words are juicy. It’s a joy to sing them. There’s so much meaning in the collection of vowels and consonants — in the words — that it feels like the songs sing themselves.
You write in your artist statement about a connection between Yiddish art song and the work of African American recitalists like Marion Anderson and Paul Robeson. What’s the link?
At a certain point in America there’d become a critical mass of people who were not white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, but who’d lived here for a while. There was this movement toward almost classical artistic expression through music, art and drama among those groups, and the interesting thing is that it was happening almost exactly at the same time in the African-American community that it was happening in the Jewish community.
The reason I feel like there’s a relationship between African-American classical music — by which I mean, say, spirituals that have been arranged for performance — and Yiddish art song, is that it’s an ethnic music. It’s very directly an expression of the lives, the loves and the struggles of the people who are in the songs.
My affinity with Yiddish vocal music is my affinity with ethnic expression. It really is about a people, as opposed to a set of ideas.
Is there a place for Yiddish art song on the classical recital stage?
It’s funny—when I was in college I was really fond of a Brahms song cycle called Zigeunerlieder, or Gypsy Songs. It was very similar to what I’m singing now. These were songs about gypsy life. Some were dance-based, others romantic or melancholy, and it was all about ethnic expression — in this case gypsy.
I think that Yiddish art song is as rich and as dramatic and varied and has as many aesthetic variations as classical art song. I think that more people should know about it. You can fill every theater, every room in New York with people who are willing to hear someone sing chanson or lieder, and I think those are potential audiences for Yiddish art song. I think it’s an unusually rich medium for artistic expression and it certainly has been for me, personally. The connection between a person and a song is played out in the realm of performance. Music can’t choose who it’s going to appeal to. With Yiddish music is just happened to be me.
After the Belarsky songbook, what’s next?
Sidor Belarsky recorded Hebrew songs, pioneer songs from Israel. It’s a whole other repertoire of his that I’m fascinated with, and it has a lot of the same aspects of his Yiddish repertoire that I find attractive. So that might be the next frontier. However, if Wes Anderson is interested in directing a small feature film on Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell, black Yiddish opera singer, I’m ready for my close-up.
Listen to Anthony Russell sing from the Sidor Belarsky Songbook: