Mother’s Day Performer Blends Israeli Independence and the Jewish Side of Verdi
This Mother’s Day, the music of opera singer Sharon Azrieli Perez will integrate the varied threads that have made up the fabric of her life.
Perez, in a Mother’s Day concert May 12 at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, will weave a musical experience that brings together intimations of Israeli independence, Giuseppe Verdi’s use of Jewish melodies, medieval Ladino music, and modern Jewish show music. These musical elements are particularly personal for Perez, whose Juilliard education has led her to an opera career, cantorial work at two synagogues, and musical detective work for her doctoral thesis.
Perez’s father, David Azrieli, was an entrepreneur and architect whose family died in the Auschwitz concentration camp. She traces her early familiarity with Israeli folk songs to her father’s involvement in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, and on Mother’s Day she will perform unique piano arrangements of songs of Israeli pioneers, or “halutzim,” commissioned from famous Jewish composers like Kurt Weill, Aaron Copland, and Paul Dessau before Israel attained statehood.
“They were simple songs and yet they are elevated to art songs because of these arrangements,” Perez tells JNS.org.
Perez will also be drawing on her doctoral musical research on Jewish themes in the work of Verdi, which she says she first noticed when singing “Libera Me” in the Verdi Requiem with the New West Symphony in Los Angeles eight or nine years ago.
“I remember thinking as I was singing that this was the most gorgeous music in the world,” Perez says. “Then I thought: wait a minute; this sounds very Jewish to me.”
When Perez checked the score, she noticed that Verdi had used two of the seven cantorial modes that form the basis of Jewish prayer.
As she continued her research, Perez found fragments of Jewish prayer modes in several Verdi operas, but in her upcoming Mother’s Day concert, she will share a different kind of Jewish melody.
“Verdi borrowed a fantastically beautiful Ladino song from the tenth century,” she says. “He stole this melody and used it in ‘La Traviata.'” To illustrate this, she will sing the Ladino “Adio Querida” and Verdi’s “Addio Del Passato” one after the other.
Perez will also be singing two opera arias; one from “La Juive,” a 19th-century French opera by Fromental Halévy, and another based on the story of Salome from “Herodiade” by Jules Massenet. The concert will end with a medley from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story.”
Perez has performed in venues ranging from the Israel Chamber Orchestra, to the Yiddish Theatre of Montreal, to opera and concert stages around the world. Her two favorite roles were Susanna in the “Marriage of Figaro,” which she calls “one of the most beautiful, psychologically clever, and funny operas,” at the Sarasota Opera, and covering for Mirella Freni at rehearsals for her farewell performance of “Adriana Lecouvreur” at the Paris Opera.
A Montreal native, Perez got the first intimation of her musical talent from the choir director at her Hebrew day school, who gave her all the solos, and her cantor who complimented her voice during her bat mitzvah studies. After doing lots of singing in the Jewish community, she listened to her parents, who did not want her to become a singer, and instead majored in art history at Vassar College, where she also studied piano.
Although her parents discouraged a singing career, her father did make a backhanded promise, telling her, “I will pay for voice lessons when you get into Juilliard.” Of course, that didn’t do her much good, since she needed the singing lessons to successfully audition. To pay for voice lessons, she created jewelry from “cool antique crystals” and sold it on Columbus Avenue in New York City, she says, because she “so badly wanted to be a singer.”
In New York, Perez continued her art studies, earning a degree in illustration from Parsons School of Design, but she also attended the Manhattan School of Music for a year, and after trying out for Juilliard three times, she finally got in.
Julliard was physically and emotionally taxing for Perez. “Every day I remember being scared to walk in,” she says, adding, “I remember people left and right being emotionally destroyed every day.”
After graduating from Juilliard in 1991, Perez was immediately hired by the Canadian Opera Company.
When she met the father of her two boys, who are now 16 and 18, she was happy because she had always wanted children. But when the youngest was a year old, her ex left her. “I had to figure out how to carry on,” she says. “It was a very dark period in my life.”
Perez’s life as a traveling opera singer, living out of a suitcase for six weeks at a time, was not working. But she realized that one possibility for earning a living was to become a cantor. The Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, however, rejected her because she would not be able to do the school’s required year of study in Israel. So Perez also explored the possibility of joining an opera company in Munich, where a friend was encouraging her to apply. “It was a little ironic for me because of my father’s experience,” she says.
While Perez was in a seedy hotel in Munich in midwinter, she got a surprising call from Rabbi Paul Steinberg, a dean at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, who invited her to be the cantor during the summer for his synagogue, Temple Adas, in Sag Harbor, NY. “That was my first cantorial job,” says Perez. “I felt like there was something poetic about it—the fact that he found me in Munich.”
For a year, Perez was part of the cantorial program at the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York, but then she decided to return to Montreal, where her parents still lived. She got a job as cantor at Temple Emanuel in Montreal and loved the work. “For a cantor, the response is immediate,” she says. “When you are on a big operatic stage, you can’t see if the audience is with you. When you are singing with your kahal (congregation), you get immediate feedback and that’s a wonderful feeling.”
When the job ended, she started to work for her father and returned to school, earning a master’s and doctorate of music at the University of Montreal. She had great fun writing her dissertation, and hypothesized that perhaps Verdi learned Jewish music by boarding with a Jewish shoemaker as a schoolboy or just walking past a synagogue and hearing a High Holidays melody.
For Perez, opera combines all the arts.
“I can draw, paint, and act; and I speak five languages; and with opera I get to do everything all at once,” she says. “It is a complete art.”
Even ballet, which requires music and movement on stage, is missing the voice component, she explains.
“In opera, you’re hearing people’s voices,” Perez says. “There’s something about the human voice—it’s so moving.”
For more information on Perez’s Mother’s Day concert, at 3 p.m. May 12 at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, click here.