When I was a child, shortly after the war, I remember asking why so many famous violinists were Jewish and being told that Jews had often been on the run and that you could always take your fiddle with you. There was some truth to this. The Yidl Mitn Fidl, like the fiddler on the roof, was the stuff of Jewish legend, and it became reality when (for example) three of the future members of the Amadeus Quartet fetched up in London from Nazi Vienna with no special aptitude other than the ability to play the violin.
But if the violin was portable, surely the voice was even more so? When my parents took me to my first opera, and to Gigli concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, I wondered why there were so few famous Jewish opera singers. Sixty-odd years later, it's about time I tried to answer the question.
Think of a famous Jewish "classical" musician over the past century or two. Hordes of names spring to mind: pianists such as Rubinstein, Horovitz, Schnabel and Barenboim and violinists from Joachim, Kreisler and Heifetz to Menuhin, Stern, Perlman and beyond. The list is endless, as is that of celebrated composers and conductors with Jewish backgrounds (Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, Offenbach, Mahler, Walter, Klemperer, Gershwin, Bernstein etc).
But what about top opera singers? A handful of starry names suggest themselves: a few recent Americans (Merrill, Peerce, Tucker, Sills), some Central and Eastern Europeans from a little earlier (Kipnis, Schorr, Schmidt, Tauber) and one or two from further back still. Opera history has of course been graced by far more Jewish singers than this. But among the absolutely stellar figures those from Jewish backgrounds form an appreciatively smaller cohort than those excelling in other forms of musical performance. Caruso, Gigli, Patti, Melba and Callas were not Jewish, nor Sutherland, Pavarotti, Domingo, Fleming or Flórez.
In the Jewish Pale a couple of centuries ago, a talented young man's sense of identity would have been wrapped up with his Jewishness. If he was blessed with a good voice, the place to use it would have been the shul. Here, chazanut flourished: a vocal genre that drew upon many elements but was little touched by opera.
Later, as Jews moved west to cities such as Vienna, Prague and Berlin, or further (London, New York), some went on to become doctors, lawyers, scientists and writers. And musicians: by the later 1800s, music was widely regarded as something of a sanctified art. Especially "absolute" music: Beethoven quartets and the like. Listening to these was ennobling, morally uplifting, and playing them more so. By contrast, popular operas by Rossini or Verdi were highly crafted entertainments.
Many Jews shared this romantic view. It was one thing to enjoy a night out at the opera; but you wouldn't want your son (much less your daughter) to enter the profession. Nor would many Jewish singers have found it comfortable working with the one figure who tried to unite these disparate worlds into a transcendent combination of the arts: the notoriously antisemitic Richard Wagner.
Perhaps there was something, too, about the institutional nature of opera production that discouraged Jewish entry. The 18th-century Romanov or Habsburg courts were hardly natural magnets for Jewish singers. By the late 19th century, when it was easier for a talented Jewish violinist or pianist to choose when and where to perform, an opera singer was in effect an employee of a large factory, with work schedules handed down from management: not the kind of ambience in which it was easy to ask leave of absence on Shabbat or Yomtov!
In the 20th century, as many Jews became assimilated into the wider culture, opera houses came to include on their roster a number of singers from Jewish backgrounds. Tragically, most in Central Europe lost their jobs, and many their lives, with the advent of Nazism. But now opera has become an attractive and welcoming profession to Jewish singers. So next time you go to the opera you may see (and hear) a Jewish superstar in the making!