It is somehow appropriate that Sharon Azrieli Perez should be giving a Mothers’ Day concert on May 12. She is, after all, not only an opera singer, she’s also a mother of two.
But there’s more to it than that. It was her status as a divorced mother that shaped her musical career and led her to some rather unexpected musical venues, namely the bima of Montreal’s only Reform synagogue, and a second career as a cantorial soloist.
Azrieli Perez is an effervescent personality, one that carries even over a phone line from her native Montreal. Her father, David Azrieli, is one of the most successful real estate magnates in Israel, and her parents divide their time between Montreal and Israel. By contrast, she immediately notes, “I divide my time between Montreal and New York.”
That’s where the musical action is, but now that her two sons are adults, she can go where her considerable vocal talents take her.
It wasn’t always that way. After a nasty divorce left her a single mom in the late 1990s, Azrieli needed to stay close to home in Montreal, which meant that despite her Juilliard training and significant experience in opera, she had to find work locally. She wasn’t likely to be able to support two kids on her art history degree from Vassar or her design education from Parsons. Besides, she had worked hard to shift her career goals towards music.
Coming from a long line of fiercely proud Jews, she immediately thought of the cantorate. HUC-JIR would have been delighted to have her, but she couldn’t do it’s required year in Israel. She studied at the Academy of Jewish Religion, but ultimately, she has relied on her own knowledge, study and taste.
“I love to sing the music that was written for cantors in the 1950s when you had singers who moved easily from the pulpit to the stage,” she says. “There were singers like Jan Peerce and Richard Tucker and Robert Merrill who sang at the [Metropolitan Opera] on Wednesday and in the synagogue on Saturday. Music written for Jan Peerce fits my voice as well, and there are very few cantorial singers who can perform that music today.”
As she notes ruefully, the direction of Jewish liturgical music has changed quite a bit in the past three or four decades.
“Nowadays you have the kind of singers who are more comfortable with the guitar, with folk singing,” Azrieli Perez says. “It isn’t really about the singing at all. I understand why, and there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s about the kahal, the community, and you want everyone to sing.”
But as the very vocal defendants of golden-age hazonos ardently point out, something has been lost. Azrieli Perez agrees.
“It’s a shift from the 19th century when the cantor was the voice of the people and for the people,” she says. “In the High Holy Day service, when I sing ‘Hineni, here I am,’ I’m praying on behalf of my people, my congregation, so that I can be pure enough, strong enough to let my prayer convey the hosts of prayers of my people and carry them to God. That whole concept has changed completely.”
You can hear the difference in the two CDs that she has recorded, “Friday Night Live at Temple Emanu-el” and “A Few of My Favourite Songs.”
The first album features her with a solo guitarist and members of the congregation, and Azrieli Perez displays a pretty, pleasant voice. Then you switch to the blend of opera, Broadway and Israeli folk on the second recording and BAM! Suddenly it’s a very big, powerful soprano instrument that makes your speakers vibrate.
“Maybe that’s what’s interesting about the [Mother’s Day] concert, maybe that’s what’s interesting about me,” she says. “I’ve always been able to switch channels. I’m lucky that I can. It’s really two different sets of skills. It’s like the difference between ballet and folk dance. I have to admit, though, that singing opera, singing with the whole mouth, whole lungs, your whole training, is liberating.”
She has even managed to find some affinities between her two musical skill sets in the most unlikely place. While working towards her doctorate in music at Université de Montreal, Azrieli Perez was also singing the Verdi Requiem in concert when she was brought up short.
“I was thinking, ‘Hey, this is Jewish,’” she recalls. “The sopranos are singing in the Ahavah Rabbah mode. And when I mentioned it at the university, which is a Jesuit college, they looked at me like ‘Are you nuts? You can’t say that.’ But there are fragments of these melodies where it appears that Verdi might have been familiar with these configurations of modal scales.”
The result was a dissertation on Jewish elements in Verdi for which she received her doctorate in 2011. Don’t misunderstand, though; Azrieli Perez is not claiming Verdi for the Jewish people. At any rate, not yet.
“It’s only a very limited study, and focused only on pieces I’ve sung myself: Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera, Desdemona in Otello,” she cautions. “And I had studied the modes as a cantor. I think nobody else thought of it because nobody else had sung both.”
At the moment it is as an opera-trained singer that Azrieli Perez is working most of the time. She finds the Montreal Jewish community, which she characterizes as highly conservative, less than cordial to women on the bima.
“I am the only female cantor in Montreal; there might be another one now, but I’m not sure,” she says. “There are only three female rabbis in Montreal. There are three Conservative synagogues in the city, and none of them will consider hiring a female cantor or rabbi. When I lost my job at the Reform synagogue, I still couldn’t leave the city for extended periods and I couldn’t find another job.”
So she did the logical thing and helped found Shir Hadash, the first egalitarian Conservative synagogue in Montreal. If you can’t find a job, you create one.
And now she’s back on the stage as well. In addition to her Mother’s Day concert, she is scheduled to go to Hungary to record previously unrecorded material by 19th-century French composers like Gounod and Massenet. In August she sings Aida with the National Orchestra of Canada, and in September she will appear in a New Jersey fundraising event for Hurricane Sandy relief with the Mid-Atlantic Opera Company.
In short, Sharon Azrieli Perez is keeping herself busy, thank you, still shuttling between bima and stage.
Sharon Azrieli Perez will perform “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” a Mother’s Day concert at the 92nd St. Y (92nd Street and Lexington Ave.) on Sunday, May 12 at 3 p.m. For information, call (212) 415-5500 or go to www.92y.org. Azrieli Perez’s two CDs are available from www.cdbaby.com.