HOHENEMS, Austria, Nov. 15 (JTA) — In October 1944, a rabbi in Brooklyn turned to the Jewish Theological Seminary for advice on an unusual problem. His cantor had received an offer to star in the Metropolitan Opera. Was there anything in Jewish law that would prevent this? Would it be contrary to Jewish tradition? Would the cantor be able to hold down both jobs? The reply from the JTS was Solomonic. There was no actual prohibition for a cantor to perform on the opera stage, so there were no real obstacles. But the move shouldn’t be encouraged or sanctioned, either. If the cantor did take the offer from the Met, though, he must be “even more meticulous” in observing Jewish law in his personal life. “He will undoubtedly be open to criticism and should be more careful than ever before,” wrote Louis Finkelstein. It would, he added, be “intolerable” if he should violate the Sabbath. The cantor in question was Richard Tucker, who went on to have an illustrious career at the Met before his death in 1975 — and at the same time remained a committed Jew. Tucker’s story is one of the fascinating tales presented in a exhibition called “Kantormania,” now on at the Jewish Museum in Hohenems, a small town in the far western tip of Austria. Jews once formed an important minority here, but the community was destroyed in the Holocaust. Over the past 15 years, however, there has been a growing interest in local Jewish history. The Jewish museum opened in 1991, and the old synagogue and other buildings in the former Jewish quarter are being restored. “Kantormania” is part of a series of events marking the bicentennial of one of the town’s most famous sons — the 19th-century cantor, Salomon Sulzer. A plaque already marks the house near the synagogue where Sulzer was born. And a new billboard wishes him “Happy 200th Birthday” on behalf of the town government. Born in 1804, Sulzer served for 63 years as the cantor of the main synagogue in Vienna. During his long career, he revolutionized the role and image of the cantor and, with his compositions and choir arrangements, left an impact on synagogue music that is still felt today. “He was not only a cantor,” said Jewish Museum director Hanno Loewy, the only Jew who lives in Hohenems today. “He was a composer; he was a public figure; he was a teacher. He had his own school, and he led probably the best chorus in Vienna in the 19th century.” Sulzer, said Loewy, was also the first cantor who appealed to a non-Jewish audience. He was celebrated by the top musicians of the day, many of whom came to the synagogue to hear him sing. What’s more, Loewy added, Sulzer became the center of a personality cult to the point where people even copied his famous long flowing hair-do. “Kantormania” examines the development of cantors and cantorial style and music from the Sulzer’s day to the present. It presents biographical material, memorabilia and recordings from a score of cantors. “Such an exhibition is naturally not only an exhibition about art and life but also about vanity and career and ambitions,” Loewy said. “And if your ambition is to have the most beautiful voice in the world, to be able to be the connection between God and his people, you tend to exaggeration. These cantors always tried to overdo it a bit, so they were sometimes full of mannerisms, exaggerations, vanities — and this was part of their life.” Loewy described the exhibition as a “virtual cantorial show,” and visitors are greeted by a cacophony of sound from film clips and audio tracks showcasing operatic voices and interviews. Headphones provide examples of cantorial singing dating back nearly 100 years. “Kantormania” opened with a sold-out concert of real-life cantors including Shmuel Barzilai, the current chief cantor of the main synagogue in Vienna, and Naomi Hirsch from Philadelphia. Cantors presented in the exhibition included those renowned for their sacred singing as well as others, like Tucker, who crossed over and became stars in the secular world. They included several famed voices from the pre-World War II heyday of cantorial singing. One of them, Zawel Kwartin, competed with more than 60 other cantors to become cantor of a synagogue in Vienna in 1903. He went on to have an illustrious synagogue and concert career in Europe, the United States and pre-World War II Palestine. Another, the great Gershon Sirota, was known as the “Jewish Caruso,” after the famed tenor, Enrico Caruso. He toured the world and sang in New York’s Carnegie Hall before he — like several other cantors in the exhibition — was killed in the Holocaust. The exhibit provides sometimes poignant insight on the conflicts and rivalries cantors experienced with their families, with other cantors, with their communities and sometimes with society at large. A major section focuses on the American singer Al Jolson, who was the embodiment of the painful dilemmas some faced in reconciling religious tradition with their own artistic ambitions. The Russian-born son of a cantor who immigrated to the United States, Jolson is famous for his role in the first talking movie, “The Jazz Singer,” which came out in 1927. The movie in fact is loosely based on Jolson’s own life, recounting the story of a young man who breaks with his religious family to make a singing career on stage. Only at the end of the film does he achieve reconciliation when he returns again to the synagogue to chant Kol Nidre for his dying father, before finally going back to Broadway. A fascinating video loop combines scenes from half a dozen film versions of the Jazz Singer story — including one in Yiddish. Salomon Sulzer died in 1890, and, as the exhibition shows, half a century later the devastation of the Holocaust ended the golden years of cantorial singing in much of Europe. “Kantormania,” however, also demonstrates how Sulzer’s pioneering work in composing new prayer melodies, arranging them for choirs and cultivating a glorious, solo cantorial voice lives on in contemporary cantorial tradition. Though there are some standout cantors in Europe, said Loewy, Sulzer’s impact today is particularly felt in America. It is in America, he said, that the active Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism carry on the European reform tradition that Sulzer championed. “In Europe after the Shoah,” he said, “this whole Reform tradition almost vanished.”
Ruth Ellen Gruber is JTA’s senior European correspondent. Based in Rome, she travels and writes extensively on Jewish affairs in Italy, Central and Eastern Europe and other European countries. A former UPI reporter, she has also written for The New York Times and the Encyclopaedia Judaica. She is also the author of several books: Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe, Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to East-Central Europe and Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today.