It probably started on those long car rides to the Canadian Rockies.
“We would go every Sunday, and my mother would sing ‘Rumenia, Rumenia’ and songs like that,” recalls Theresa Tova, who will play two free concerts in the New York area this week.
Eventually, Tova would sing along. She discovered that she had a powerful voice. As she pursued a career as an actress, it became another helpful item in her theatrical toolkit.
But long before that toolkit got its first professional use, she was speaking Yiddish. Indeed, when Tova was growing up in Calgary, her family of survivors spoke Yiddish almost all the time among themselves.
“My parents escaped from Poland after the war,” Tova says. “I was born in Paris, France — that’s why I’ve got this French-Catholic first name. My dad’s younger brother followed his girlfriend’s family to Calgary and one by one they all emigrated. We came over in 1957. My mother speaks seven languages fluently. My dad spoke nine languages fluently. But Yiddish was the first language of the house.”
So it was probably inevitable that when her career took a more musical direction, Tova would sing a lot of Yiddish songs. The language has pretty thoroughly colonized her subconscious, she admits.
“When I was giving birth to my first child, I was screaming in Yiddish,” she says, laughing.
But being a singer never occurred to her, even though she was doing it onstage frequently.
“I got my first job in musical theater in a completely unexpected way,” she says. ”I was a little drunk at a party, someone was playing Cole Porter, and I started singing. The next day I got a call from a producer at a big dinner theater, offering me work. I was still at university, training to be an actor. I wasn’t a singer; I was an actor. I was really good comedically.”
Tova was a natural, right from the start. She didn’t take her first singing lessons until she was cast in a production of “Rose Marie” at the famous Shaw Festival. She can remember auditioning for a production of “South Pacific” for the part of Bloody Mary, listening at the door to the opera-trained voices that preceded her and then imitating them when her turn came. (She got the part.)
Some of that has changed.
“Over the years I’ve studied with a vocal coach,” Tova says. “I still don’t read music. I’m really just an actor who knows how to interpret songs and loves to tell stories through song.”
Not surprisingly, many of those stories are told in Yiddish. Tova has carved a nice niche for herself as a jazz singer who delves into the Yiddish theater and vaudeville repertoire for material. In light of those car trips, it’s not at all surprising.
“It’s not such a huge stretch,” she says. “These Yiddish theater songs, the first ones I gravitated to, are from the same era as the Great American Songbook. In the ‘30s [George] Gershwin originally orchestrated his tunes as tangos or Betty-Boop-style two-four rhythms. No one sings them that way anymore; we use the same tunes but open the changes and musically make them more relevant for today. The Yiddish repertoire was and is cut from the same ‘skhroire’ (material) and to me it naturally wants the same modern and, shall we say, sexy approach.”
Purists may cringe (she gets occasional complaints from academic Yiddishists about her “poylisher” accent), but a good many of her biggest fans are older Jews who grew up with this material.
“You have to understand in their day Yiddish was hip, so they adore hearing Yiddish [sung] in a vibrant, hip way,” Tova says. “They can see I am treating the songs they love with the utmost ‘derheretz’ (respect) and the marriage of their two loves, Yiddish and good music, is safe and accessible.”
New York-area audiences will have a chance to hear Tova in two different contexts this visit. On Sunday, she’ll be performing as one of “The Three Yiddish Divas,” with Adrienne Cooper and Joanne Borts, and on Tuesday, Aug. 21, she’ll be singing her usual solo repertoire.
“I love doing the ‘Yiddish Divas’ thing,” she says. “Between us we’ve got it all — jazz, Yiddish song, Broadway. And we have a lot of fun together.”
Theresa Tova will be performing as part of the Workmen’s Circle’s annual Yiddishfest on Sunday, Aug. 19, 6 p.m. at the Kensico Dam in Westchester as one of the Three Yiddish Divas, along with Margot Leverett and the Klezmer Mountain Boys and Zalmen Mlotek. On Tuesday, Aug. 21, 7 p.m., she’ll be performing at Cunningham Park in Queens, along with Howard Leshaw and the Golden Land Klezmer Orchestra, Zalmen Mlotek and Avram Pengas. Admission to both events is free. For information, go to www.circle.org.