People tend to think of opera as either an Italian phenomenon or possibly French or German and don’t consider that there is a real connection, and has been for centuries, of a Jewish culture that intertwines,” said Jerry Kalstein of Boheme Opera NJ.
From Jewish composers like Felix Mendelssohn to biblical themes in works by Handel and others, Kalstein sees a venerable conversation between Judaism and opera.
He will share this perspective at a concert on Sunday, Oct. 26, sponsored by the Monroe Township Cultural Arts Commission and Kalstein and his wife, Joyce. The concert, at the Monroe Township Senior Center, will feature opera singer Cantor Benjamin Warschawski of Chicago, Metropolitan Opera baritone Daniel Sutin, and soprano Eve Edwards.
They will sing arias from operas that explore Old Testament subjects, are composed by a Jew, or were among numbers performed by three iconic Jewish opera singers at the Metropolitan Opera: Jan Peerce, Richard Tucker, and Robert Merrill.
The show will open with an aria from the oratorio Elijah, by Mendelssohn, who was born a Jew but later converted to Christianity. Opening the second half will be “Flatt’ring tongue” from Esther, by George Frideric Handel, who was not Jewish but wrote oratorios and operas on biblical themes and about strong Jewish women. There will also be an aria from Le Juive, by French-Jewish composer Jacques Halevy, which premiered in Paris in February 1835, about a Jewish woman who falls in love with a non-Jewish man.
The close of the show is “This Land Is Mine” from the 1960 film Exodus, which gains operatic legitimacy because it was recorded by Tucker in 1973 and performed by him several times. The composer was Ernest Gold, but the big surprise to Kalstein was the lyricist for the movie — not Jewish but certainly famous: Pat Boone.
Of course, Jewish involvement in opera continues to the present day, said Kalstein, citing Arnold Schoenberg’s Moses and Aaron. Kalstein also noted the recent decision by Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, to feature John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer (whose librettist, Alice Goodman, is Jewish), a 1994 opera about the murder of a wheelchair-bound Jewish passenger on the Achille Lauro cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists. Protesters charge that the production is anti-Semitic, hostile to Israel, and sympathetic to terrorists.
Kalstein, calling Gelb’s decision “not a good idea,” distinguished it from the goals he has for the Oct. 26 show: “One of the things we’re hoping for this performance is it shows there is a way to celebrate the Jewish contribution to this art form and not be against Judaism,” he said.