opera

African-American Opera Singer Revives the Yiddish Songs of the Shtetl

Clara Rice Photography / RNS
Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell. Photo via Clara Rice Photography / RNS

Three years ago, when Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell took the stage at a Jewish vaudeville celebration and said he was going to sing in Yiddish, people laughed.

As a 6-foot-plus African-American with one golden earring, he just didn’t look like the typical Jew fluent in the language of the pre-World War II shtetl.

Then he opened his mouth. Out came a rich bass voice in a longing lament to the isolated villages and tiny homes left behind in places like Poland and Russia.

Think Fiddler on the Roof's “Anatevka” sung by a guy who looks more like Chris Rock than Zero Mostel.

Concerts and Controversial Opera Bring Faiths Together in St. Louis

RNS photo by Sid Hastings/St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Members of the Islamic Foundation of St. Louis perform in honor of Sept 11. RNS photo by Sid Hastings/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Two years after the Sept. 11 attacks, Timothy O'Leary sat in an audience of 2,000 New Yorkers listening to the Brooklyn Philharmonic perform a concert about terrorism — the 1985 murder of an American tourist by members of the Palestine Liberation Front on a Mediterranean cruise ship. It was one of the most powerful moments he'd ever had in a theater.

Terrorism stories are rarely happy stories, and yet the path O'Leary has taken — from bringing the controversial opera "The Death of Klinghoffer" to St. Louis last year to a Sept. 11 memorial concert on Sept. 9 — ends with a hopeful, permanent pairing of faith and the arts in St. Louis.

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