When I was a kid in New York, Yossele Rosenblatt (1882-1933) was a figure whose memory was still fresh. There were many who had heard him sing and spoke about his voice in the same awed tones as did opera goers who remembered Caruso.
Rosenblatt was a Ukrainian born chazzan (cantor) who came from a long heritage of cantorial singing. He began singing almost as soon as he could speak and was hailed a child prodigy. His religious beliefs prevented him from studying at a conventional vocal academy. When he was 17 he went to Vienna for a few months to study with Jacob Maerz. After touring and several stints as a cantor, he moved to the US to take a position at Congregation Ohab Zedek in New York City. He served as Cantor at the OZ from 1911 to 1926, and again in 1929. He got into severe financial difficulty during the 20s which worsened during the depression.
Rosenblatt went to Palestine in 1933 to make a movie, and some money. He intended to relocate to the Holy Land, but died of a heart attack before the movie was completed
His fame was so plenary that his concert appearances were sellouts and widely covered by the press. Though he was barely five feet tall and had a full beard, there were attempts to get him to sing on the operatic stage that were unsuccessful. Apparently he did learn a few arias and included them in a some of his appearances. I have not been able to find any recording by Rosenblatt of an opera aria. For the best short bio of the tenor see The Remarkable career of Cantor Rosenblatt by David Olivestone.
Rosenblatt made many recordings. They were Hebrew chants and Yiddish songs. He wrote about 150 songs that he regularly performed. It’s difficult to tell what he sounded like in the flesh from old shellac discs. As far as I can tell he had a spinto tenor voice that managed coloratura passages with astonishing ease. He was famous for his “falsetto” register that seamlessly blended with his full voice. I put falsetto in quotes because I don’t think that the soft, high notes that he often inserts into his vocal line really is falsetto singing. Rather, it’s a species of filatura. It comes from the chest, not the oral cavity. Make up your own mind when you listen to the songs and chants below which are full of such singing.
Had he become an opera singer, as did Richard Tucker who started as a cantor, I cannot judge what success he might have had. While there are similarities between Jewish liturgical singing and opera, there are differences as well. Tucker was born in America, was not orthodox, and was separated from Rosenblatt by a generational and cultural divide. He had to intensely study and work hard on his operatic technique, even after he had arrived at the Met, to achieve the success he did. So Rosenblatt as an opera singer will forever be an unanswered question. He may have avoided opera because he didn’t feel prepared for its different requirements.
While Rosenblatt resisted the call of the opera stage, he did make a brief appearance in the first “talking” motion picture – The Jazz Singer. He was offered the part of Al Jolson’s father, but turned it down because he would have to sing Kol Nidre in an artificial setting. He had no problem singing the prayer in a recording studio, so I can’t unfold his alleged thinking. Instead he made a brief appearance as himself singing the Yiddish song ‘Yahrtzeit Licht’.
Here’s another video. Rosenblatt sings the well known song ‘My Yiddishe Mama’. It’s much like the bit in The Jazz Singer. The tenor just stands and delivers. Apparently that was exactly what he did in his recitals. It was the voice alone that sold the tickets.
Next is the song Eili, Eili that was presented in my recent article about Hipólito Lázaro. Rosenblatt’s distinctive piano singing is heard at the middle and near the end of the song. Haben yakir li Ephraim is a song based on a text from Jeremiah 31:20 Is it because Ephraim is my beloved son, or that he is such a lovely child, that whenever I mention him, I yearn for him more and more? This rendition in noteworthy because of the combination of piano singing and fioratura. Ano Avdo is a morning shabbat prayer. Acheinu Kol Beis Yisroel is another Hebrew prayer. Hamavdil is a medieval hymn commonly sung to mark the end of the sabbath. Hineni (Here I am) is a prayer recited by the cantor on the High High Holidays. It’s uniquely worded in the first person. Shir hamaalot is sung on a variety of occasions. Its text comes from Psalm 126. Finally, Kol Nidre – it is an Aramaic declaration recited in the synagogue before the beginning of the evening service on every Yom Kippur. It has been the subject of many composers who were not Jewish – eg, Max Bruch.
Rosenblatt’s fame was a product of his voice and the unique circumstances which prevailed in Europe and the US during the first third of the last century. Jewish liturgical music is still widely practiced, but it seems virtually impossible for a practitioner, even one as proficient as Rosenblatt, to gain the notoriety that he claimed. He is a phenomenon of his time.
Usually I dislike the cantorial sound. But there is so much in this marvelous voice that I barely hear it. Great loss for opera.
The great Ukranian basso Alexander Kipnis told me that when he was singing the role of Cardinal Brogny in “La Juive” at the Chicago Opera, after a performance he heard a knock on his dressing-room door. “I was still in costume when I said, ‘Come in.’ The door opened slowly,” he told me, “and all I I saw was a beard. Then came more beard, and still more beard, until I saw that it was Cantor Rosenblatt. He extended his hand and said, ‘May I kiss your ring, Your Eminence?’ We had a good laugh about that!”
For readers who may not know Alexander Kipnis’s origins, he was born in a Jewish ghetto in Zhitomir in the Ukraine. One of his most vivid memories of Zhitomir was of being beaten severely at age 12 by a Tsarist soldier for daring to take a drink of water from a fountain a few feet from the invisible border of the ghetto.