A cantor at the opera

By Tzvee Zahavy | Published 11/23/2006 | Arts & Leisure |

Yitzchak Meir Helfgot is not the first cantor to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House — the opera singers Richard Tucker and Jan Peerce, who were also cantors, got there first. But the internationally renowned Helfgot will be the first to perform cantorial music at the Met, the grandest stage for grand opera in the United States.

As of Tuesday, his concert, "Helfgot Sings Cantorial Classics," scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 3, had nearly sold out — and the Met seats 4,400.

Mordechai Sobol arranged the music for the orchestra and choir. Members of the New York Philharmonic will be conducted by Matthew Lazar with Cantor Daniel Gildar on the piano. The choir will be coordinated by Cantor Azi Schwartz. The invocation before the concert will be offered by the chief rabbi of Israel, Yisrael Meir Lau.

The Jewish Standard interviewed Helfgot at Lincoln Center on Tuesday. A resident of Borough Park (he spends Shabbat on the Upper East Side when he performs as a cantor at the Park East Synagogue), he had just returned from a concert tour of Australia. A chasidic Jew born in Tel Aviv and from the Gur or Ger chasidic community, one of the largest chasidic groups in the world, he was dressed in a dark suit with his pants tucked into the trademark-tall-socks that chasidim of Ger call "hoyzn-zokn." He prefers to speak in Hebrew or Yiddish. Most of this interview was conducted in Hebrew.

J.S.: Why has cantorial singing fallen out of favor in many shuls?

Y.H.: In Europe every shtetl has a chazzan. Sometimes he also served multiple professional roles as a shochet and a mohel, too. In America this type of community does not exist. People think a cantor’s singing makes the service longer. That does not have to be the case.

J.S.: What can we do to help bring back the cantor?

Y.H. People need to accept the cantor as an essential part of the synagogue. He is the shaliach tzibbur, the appointed representative of the community for leading the service. The cantor has to work together with his congregation to make certain that he makes the singing in the service last as long as the congregation wants. He needs to know when they want to finish Musaf on Shabbat — 12 noon? 12:30? The congregation needs to know that the cantor represents their needs. Those steps will help bring the cantor back into a greater role in the synagogue.

J.S.: Do you think there is any competition between rabbis and cantors? Do yeshivas tend to frown upon cantors?

Y.H.: I have always had good relations with the rabbis in the synagogues that I have served. We understand each other’s roles and have mutual respect. It is true that there is such a thing as a yeshivishe davening, which does not feature cantorial singing. But there is no essential conflict between the cantor and the yeshiva.

J.S.: Is there an inspiration aspect of your work?

Y.H.: Sometimes, actually frequently, secular Jews come up to me after I sing and tell me that they were alienated from Judaism but that chazzanut has inspired them to return. They say they now plan to attend synagogue and get more involved. That inspires me and fulfills me.

J.S.: What is your view of women cantors?

Y.H.: I am a chasidic Jew, so I have never heard a chazanit lead the service. I have no problem with women cantors. I can see that people would appreciate the drama and emotion of a soprano chazzanit and that it could be inspiring and contribute to the aesthetic of a service.

J.S.: Have you ever wanted to sing opera?

Y.H.: I have listened at times to opera to hear the voices and the melodies. But I have never aspired to sing opera.

J.S.: Do non-Jews attend your concerts? Do you think they could appreciate your music?

Y.H.: I don’t know how many non-Jews attend. I expect that anyone could be moved emotionally by our music whether or not it was sacred to them, whether or not they understood the words.

J.S.: Will you be using the Met’s facility for electronic titles to provide translations for this concert?

Y.H. No, the Met is protective of their systems. We will provide texts and translations in the printed programs. We wish to build up our relationship with the Met, to show them the stature of our music and of our audience. That way, in the future, we hope to establish this wonderful hall as a regular venue for cantorial concerts of Jewish music.

J.S.: Will you be using a microphone for the concert?

Y.H. Good question. We have not yet decided. The Met has wonderful acoustics, so it is not essential that we amplify the music. On the other hand, our audience is accustomed to the use of microphones and amplifiers. So we have a dilemma and have not yet decided.

J.S.: Why choose the Met? How did you manage to get the Met?

Y.H.: I am not American, so I did not fully appreciate the importance of this location. Our organizers want to have this concert here to make a statement. This is the best place and our music and heritage is good enough. We can perform it in the greatest of opera houses. This will make people proud and will be a great kiddush HaShem, a sanctification. As to how our sponsors managed to obtain the right to have this concert there — that is nothing short of a miracle.

For more information about this concert and other cantorial events visit www.cantorsworld.com.

Tzvee Zahavy is a rabbi and scholar who has written extensively on the history and development of Jewish prayer. He lives in Teaneck and he blogs at http://tzvee.blogspot.com.