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Arts and Culture: Minister’s Son Plays Role of Rabbi in New Staging of Kurt Weill Opera

February 28, 2000
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Roy Smith grew up speaking in tongues. Next week, he will be wearing a yarmulka.

Smith, the son of a Pentecostal minister from Virginia, is not converting to Judaism. But he is going to lead a congregation of his own — on stage as the rabbi in the revival of the Kurt Weill opera “The Eternal Road,” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

“My father was very excited about this,” said Smith, 34, who was scheduled to perform the role in Brooklyn on Feb. 29, March 3 and 5. “I actually am able to take some of the things I have seen my father do and put it into my characterization of the rabbi — in the way he teaches and speaks to the congregation, the way he tries to calm the people down, even the way he walks.”

The role is a central one in the opera, which tells a fictional story of frightened German Jews during the 1930s.

Hiding in their synagogue, they watch biblical scenes of faith and betrayal depicted before them.

The opera was revived last spring in Chemnitz, Germany, launching the international Weill centenary with a work whose only previous run was on Broadway in 1937. Weill had fled Nazi Germany along with many other artists.

Smith, who now lives in Chicago, will perform the role again in Tel Aviv on April 22, 24 and 27 during Passover and just after the Easter holiday.

“I have never been to Israel before,” said Smith.

His parents will come to hear him sing. “They were in the Holy Land about 15 years ago, and they think it might be their last chance to go again.”

As a student at the University of Tennessee, Smith was planning to be a contemporary gospel singer. But when he was 18, Smith experienced an epiphany: His voice teacher took him to hear a rendition of “Faust” at the Knoxville opera house.

“I was taken by the costumes and the singing, and the whole concept of good and evil” in the opera, Smith recalled. “Growing up in the church, I had heard about that a lot.”

His interest became his professional goal. Today, he has many serious roles under his belt, including Rodolfo in Puccini’s “La Boheme,” Cavaradossi in Puccini’s “Tosca” and Alfredo in Verdi’s “La Traviata.”

Smith has sung at the Chicago Lyric Opera and in opera houses in Tennessee, Italy, Austria and Germany.

He got the job after interviewing with conductor John Macieri, principal conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in Los Angeles.

During the audition for the opera, Macieri “asked how my father would feel, because of him being very fundamentalist,” Smith recalled. “My father was really very excited.”

Though Smith has performed in concerts in synagogues in Chicago, and once even helped in a service at a church that used a Torah scroll, “nothing ever prepared me for this part,” he said.

“I did some research on Orthodox Judaism, trying to get an idea of how things would take place in a synagogue, how to hold a Torah and how to read from it,” he said.

Elementary facts were important for him: “I found out that you really don’t touch the Torah pages — you use a pointer,” he said. “When I got to the opera, I already knew that the Torah was going to be read from back to front. And there is also a book that the rabbi uses, and I had to ask the director if it was read the same way — back to front. He told me it was true.”

Smith, who is single, has three sisters and two brothers, who are all married and have children

Though his father could not read music, he taught Smith how to play the piano. “He did it all by ear,” Smith recalled. Musically, his father was influential. But spiritually, Smith began to distance himself from his roots.

The Pentecostal church is “very fundamentalist,” said Smith. “We were taught that women should not wear pants and shouldn’t have short hair and that men should not have long hair.”

Smith “had questions, especially when I went off to college and started seeing different parts of the world, and visiting different religions and going to different churches.

“I think my father has come to realize” that the most important thing is “living a good life, asking forgiveness for your sins and doing good, treating others the way you would want yourself to be treated.”

“That is the common denominator in all the religions that I have found,” he said.

For his rabbinical role, the young singer will wear a yarmulka and occasionally a hat over it; a vest and fringes; and “I wear something like a scarf that comes around my neck.” A tallis? He thinks so.

“I understand they are going to change the beard because I look too young to have a white beard. So I will be a younger rabbi,” reading from a “mock Torah” laid out on the pulpit.

“The role is not demanding vocally, but dramatically it is very demanding,” said Smith, describing the fate of the Jews in the imaginary German town. “It is amazing to me that Kurt Weill foresaw” what would happen to European Jewry. “Just imagine, five or six years after he wrote this opera, what started happening. It is just incredible.”

“The Eternal Road” comes to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Feb. 28-March 5; to the New Israeli Opera in Tel Aviv, April 20-28; and to Expo 2000 in Hanover, Germany in July.

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