Anthony Russell at the Ashkenaz Festival Mon, Sept 3, 6pm
Lakeside Terrace 235 Queen’s Quay W Free
Some gay men are content to live vicariously through opera divas. Anthony Russell, on the other hand, yearned to be the diva.
As a child he immersed himself in classical music and opera; he went on to take voice lessons and perform in operas in New York and San Francisco. However, it soon became apparent that, as an operatic bass (and a black man), he would never play the delicate young geisha Madame Butterfly — at least in the traditional opera world.
“All of those romantic, sublime moments of beauty that I think of when I think of opera are rarely ever experienced by basses,” he says. So, he left opera and moved into a genre that offers singers with his voice type a greater emotional range: Yiddish art song.
Russell’s mother was a concert pianist, so classical music was a constant part of his childhood. At 13, he started to study piano but switched to opera five years later after watching an eight-year-old girl go to town on a Chopin piece. “I remember thinking, ‘Okay, I’m never going to be that good,’” he says.
The move proved propitious. After a year of voice lessons he won a $450 scholarship competition and enrolled in the music program at Holy Names University in Oakland. Although the medium’s emotional theatricality helped him to overcome his introverted nature, he began to feel limited by opera’s rigidly defined roles. “Ultimately, I wanted to perform in a genre that gave me more opportunities as a performer,” he says. “Something a little bit more varied in the kind of characters you can inhabit, the things you can sing and the emotions you experience. In opera, that tends to be very limited for the lower voice types.”
While watching the Coen brothers movie A Serious Man he heard a song by Ukrainian-Jewish folk musician Sidor Belarsky, whose earthy bass reminded him of one of his heroes: the black American opera singer Paul Robeson. He immersed himself in Yiddish art song and began performing the “Sidor Belarsky Songbook” at Jewish events around New York.
“Judaism is very much invested in words, and what is important is learning how to engage with those words,” he explains. “Yiddish art song requires the same amount of engagement. You really need to know what you’re singing before you get up and sing it, because if you don’t, your interpretation will be flat, it will be colourless, and it will lack dramatic verity.”
Yiddish art song — a combination of Western classical and traditional Jewish music — turned out to be an ideal creative outlet for Russell because it allows him to explore various points of view in a single song. As a black man who is Jewish by choice (he recently converted to Judaism), he relates to the multiplicity of voices. “I have a deep connection to the music,” he says. “It’s a perennial issue for minority artists trying to navigate how their own experience informs their artistic output. So, when I embarked on this project I had to ask myself, how much of myself can I put into this to make it feel authentic to my own personal experience?
“It’s a part of my calling — such a grand word! — as a singer to reveal that to my audiences,” he says. “When they see me, I don’t think they think, This person is going to get up and sing Yiddish.”
He hopes to collaborate eventually with other musicians on classical, jazz and world-music arrangements of his material and would like to perform more of Belarsky’s wide-ranging repertoire.
For now, he’s enjoying Belarsky’s works in their traditional form. “When I’m singing Yiddish art song I feel like I’m living in two distinct worlds at once,” he says. “It feels like something to be celebrated.”