What happens when a Heldentenor sings from the bema for the Jewish High Holidays? You get one kickin’ Kol Nidre. This is where opera collides with religion. Let’s unpack this one; a Heldentenor applies to the few voices that can sing persuasively the great heroic tenor roles in German. Cantor Steven Haas from Temple Beth Sholom is one such voice.
With songs like Kol Nidre, it is no wonder what draws a person with the biology to sing the repertoire of opera to Jewish musical liturgy. Kol Nidre, meaning “all our vows,” has been haunting Jews for over 1000 years. First an oral recitation (author unknown), later a chant with a melody composed by a German cantor in the 16th century, and finally as an extended instrumental composition (chamber like in setting, usually played by solo cello, written by Max Bruch in 1881), even the most non observant Jews come out for this one.
Kol Nidre, written in Aramaic, not a prayer, but a declaration of emotionally charged vows, originally controversial in its medieval beginnings as oaths/promises one couldn’t keep, makes for a dramatic backdrop that the most powerful singing voices can’t resist. Haas delivers this remarkably plaintive and heartbreaking melody with singular strength and nuance.
Many Reform Jewish Synagogues include a mixed bag of traditional and modern tunes in their Yom Kippur services. Some of the modern ones sound more like Broadway or Elton John rather than Puccini. Haas prefers the latter.
During the Memorial service, remembering those who have passed away, Haas rendered the 23rd Psalm (The Lord is my Shepherd by Martin Kalmanoff) with complete command, nailing a high A that penetrated the congregation’s very core.
With a Musical Performance degree from the Curtis Institute of Music, Haas took his considerable pipes and displayed them on operatic stages in Europe, Australia, Israel and the United States during the 1970s, singing, among many roles, the parts of Alfredo in La Traviata, Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, and Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana, and on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the State of Israel, performing in concert with Itzchak Perlman and John Williams with the Florida Philharmonic.
Feasting on the notes Wagner cooked up for Lohengrin and Tannhauser, Haas honed his Heldentenor chops. He continued to travel the globe singing the coveted operatic tenor roles including Canio in Pagliacci and Don Jose in Carmen, taking to the pulpit at Temple Beth Sholom Miami Beach in 1984.
One might wonder what attracts a Jewish operatic tenor to be a cantor. Steven Haas answered, “I wanted to start a family and I wanted to also come back into the Jewish community where I could participate in Jewish life, not just musically but in all areas.” One might ask the same question of Jan Peerce and Richard Tucker.