by Leib Nadel
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund
Something that did not exist in any of the Baltic nations, that looked to many as a beautiful dream, was a fact and became a breath of life through the great devotion and daring of the Jewish cultural workers in Lithuania and they were frightened at how much money and work for such a truly colossal cultural undertaking was required. On one day on a wintry morning, the Kovno Jewish newspaper announced that a Jewish opera studio had been founded by the Jewish Education Society. The then active worker at the Education Society, Dr. Mendel Sudarksi and his wife, Alte, particularly worked energetically to accomplish this dream.
The Jewish Opera Studio was created by them and other devoted cultural workers and they established it at the desired level. The musician Zeidman, professor at the Kovno State Conservatory, was invited as the director; as lecturer of theater art the director of the Kovno State Opera, Oleka; as vocal teacher the well-known Italian professor Marini. The best young singers in the city responded on the first day, among them several who had graduated from conservatories in Europe. They went to work with such enthusiasm and devotion. A symphonic orchestra of Jewish students at the Kovno Conservatory also was created at the Opera Studio. The street where the studio operated quickly began to ring with beautiful music and song. After three months, the studio appeared at its first performance for the public in the Kovno Volkshaus [Concert Hall]. The tickets were already sold out a few days before the performance. They had to place seats in the aisles of the theater because the crowd simply would not leave. They wanted to attend the great event of the opening of a Jewish opera company. They just stood one on top of the other. The first part of the program was the prologue of the opera, Faust, performed by a graduate of the Kovno
State Conservatory, Glezer, who had a rare, beautiful basso profundo. Yakov Zaks, also a graduate of the Kovno State Conservatory, possessed a rare, beautiful lyrical tenor and had been promised a great future by the professors. The choir of the Studio performed Handel's Rhapsody and songs from the operas Carmen and Tosca during the second part. The second act of the opera, Yevgény Onégin [Eugene Onegin], was performed during the third part by the well-known female singers: Sheinzon and Zeidman. It was an extraordinary success; the audience kept applauding and the choir had to perform several numbers again. Encouraged by their great success, the teachers and students took to their work even more energetically. They studied solfeggio [educational method to teach pitch and sight reading of music], vocal education, music history, mimicry and rhythm and movement. Rehearsals began for the full opera, Faust. Several concerts took place during this time with great success, but the Studio had colossal expenditures and the financial situation was difficult. More than once, during difficult moments, the managing committee ran to the father of the Studio, to the esteemed Dr. Sudarski, for money to pay Prof. Manini because the latter did not get involved with such matters. If he were not paid first, he would not sit at the piano and did not start his work. Yet they saw what it was to overcome [a difficulty]. They prepared for a great undertaking. Alas, the Studio was forced to close because of the personal family inconveniences of Prof. Dr. Zeidman and because no other such devoted person and great musician could be obtained. A great deal had been expected of the Studio.
Later, another attempt was made at creating a Jewish opera [company] and several arias from several operas were performed.
The initiator was the singer, well-known today, Mikhail Aleksandrovich.
The Engel Choir in Kovno
One of the most active organizations that helped spread the culture of song in Lithuania was
the choir in Kovno named for Yoel Engel. Few organizations were as loved by Lithuanian Jewry as the choir. As I remember now: it was the beginning of winter when the well-known and beloved singer of Yiddish folksongs, Mrs. Ana Warszawski, telephoned me and invited me to her house at eight o'clock in the evening. When I arrived at the designated time, I found a pale young man sitting with a dreamy look, whom she presented as Blechorowicz the conductor, one of the capable young directors of Poland who had been transformed into a refugee in Lithuania. Later several others arrived: such as Alperovich (then the assistant to the well-known doctor, Benyamin Berger), Yitzhak Ratner (after the Second World War he worked as director of Keren-Kaymet [Jewish National Fund] in Germany in the camps of the Jewish refugees), Professor Beliackin (famous connoisseur, perished in the Kovno ghetto), Doctor Levitan (a well-known gynecologist) and Leon, the husband of Ana Warszawski (he was the director of Lombard and Jewish representative in the city council).
The always-happy Ana Warszawski invited us to the table and while eating she said: My esteemed gentlemen, why do you think I invited you, you should help to eat the cakes? No. My dear ones, I can do this alone, but if it would have been difficult for me, I have a husband and children, may they be healthy, and they would help me. I have very important news for you; we have here a very well-known director. I have created a plan. We should organize a choir and let it be joyful in the city. Not waiting for anyone's answer, she immediately explained how this could be carried out. Doctor Levitan would provide the premises; he would obtain the permission for rehearsals to be carried out in the premises of the Zionist organization at Lukszia [Street], which was unused in the evening. Professor Beliackin would create passive members among the intelligentsia and among those interested in Jewish folksongs and would shake their rich clients a little [for contributions]. Alperovich and Ratner would as leaders bring their comrades who have [good] voices from their student groups. And I had the task of gathering the singers who sang in the Jewish Opera Studio, which had been closed for certain reasons. None of you, my gentlemen said Mrs. Warszawski can refuse these tasks because we are going to create a thing of great cultural significance and my husband, may he live, will be so good
as to permit me to support the director until the choir has its own [financial] means. And now, LeChaim [to life], and we should live to have pleasure from our newly born child!
The choir began its rehearsals in the building of the Zionist organization, thanks to Doctor Levitan's intervention. The premises were located on Lukszia Street, on the second floor. The 2nd Police District was located on the first floor. When at first each voice studied separately, things went normally, but after a few months, when the choir began to have rehearsals together, singing entire songs, trouble began with the police. Those who had been arrested for drinking too much, who were confined in the police jail, would just listen to the choir beginning to sing and their appetite for singing would flare up (the inebriated had a particular habit of singing). They would begin shouting with the highest tones, break doors, tables and chairs and they could not be silenced by any means. It occurred often that the police came up to us in the middle of a rehearsal and told us to stop singing because they could not quiet the inebriated. After working in the building for more than a year, we were forced to move out of there and go to the more intellectual Gar kitchen on Mapu Street. Here the work was very intensive. At the first appearance of the choir in the Kovno city hall, it received the recognition of the Kovno audience. Many songs had to be performed again several times. For the most part, the choir was able to cultivate and spread the Jewish folksong even more.
It happened many times that the hearty Jewish and Hebrew folksongs that the choir would sing at their concerts and appearances at various cultural undertakings would be heard when passing a Jewish workshop. In general the choir was non-political. The managers of the choir were Gefen, a fervid Revisionist, and Kunigas, a leader of the youth group, Di Wander Faygl [the migratory bird]. Among others things, I will mention: the choir appeared at concerts when the famous poets, Bistricki, Leib Yaffe, of blessed memory, and Chaim Nachman Bialik, of blessed memory, came to Lithuania. It is worthwhile here to relate an episode. In honor of Ch. N. Bialik's coming, the choir learned his well-known song Sham B'eretz Hatzvi [There, in the Land of Beauty]. When the choir
began to sing this, Bialik called out: Beloved and dear children, I thank you for making an improvement to my song. Now I sense the essence that lies in a touchingly sung song. If only I can have the merit to hear it sung in our own land. Part of his wish came true. But alas, the great Bialik as well as almost all of the members of the choir are no longer among the living. The Lithuanian bandits along with the Germans annihilated them.
The Engel Choir also was invited as the official representative of Jewish song to the singing festival that was arranged at that time by the Lithuanian government in which hundreds of choirs all over Lithuanian took part. All of the choir members received medals with diplomas from the Lithuanian Singing Committee. The choir also would appear at concerts in the State Radio broadcasts. Hundreds of letters of thanks for the great spiritual pleasure that the choir had given would arrive from the most isolated Jewish shtetlekh in Lithuania. It is worthwhile mentioning such a case: the choir once went to a concert in Shavl [iauliai] where, because of this, the large Kapital theater was rented and they had to pay 1,000 Lit for the hall in addition to expenses for travel and for the pianist. This was a great sum then. Thanks to the fact that the choir was beloved and known to everyone, the Shavl Jewish Educational Society organized it and, when we arrived [in Shavl], artists from the Lithuanian State Opera had arrived to give a concert on the same night. Naturally, we had not known this before because we certainly would have postponed the evening. But we already had come. The organizers were very dejected. A trifle, try to compete against the State Opera. However, everyone was amazed: when we had just opened the doors to the theater and began to sell tickets, lines of people who were pushing toward the box office immediately began to form in order to buy a ticket more quickly. The theater was packed with people at the designated time. When I asked someone why the audience would come here rather than go to the opera, they answered how could one not use the opportunity to hear such a good choir?
We will be able to hear the Gentiles another time.
It really is difficult to describe the friendship and sincerity with which we were received when we visited the Lithuanian provincial cities. I remember once, after a concert in the small shtetl of Zhezmir [iemariai], the rabbi of the shtetl came to us and sincerely thanked us for our beautiful singing and immediately after him a delegation from the working class invited us to a banquet. Arriving there we found the entire shtetl, from Zanwel the Bundist to the pious members of the clergy. Everyone sat at the tables together and had a sincerely good time. The usual hate that reigned among them was forgotten. There was no large city or shtetl in Lithuania to which the choir did not travel. It went to Shavl, to Vilkomir [Ukmerge], Tovrik [Taurage] several times, not to mention Kovno where the choir would appear on the radio almost every week or at other cultural undertakings. There was no star who came to Lithuania, who did not come to visit the choir and appear together. Thus, the famous American artists Hymie Jacobson and Miriam Kressyn appeared at a music festival in memory of [Abraham] Goldfaden. Moshe Koussevitzky, the famous cantor, also was a guest of the choir during his visit to Lithuania. The choir appeared at a concert at the Lithuanian State Opera with the famous singer Sholem Blechorowicz (a brother of the director) in arias and songs from the operas Carmen and Di Yidin [The Jews].
At the end of the concert, the director of the choir of the Lithuanian State Opera, Sztarko, and the famous singer, Kipras Metrauskas, sincerely shook the hand of Blechorowicz, the director, and congratulated him on the great success that the choir had had, telling him that the Jews can be truly proud that they could create such a beautiful, good musical choir. Until the end, before the beginning of the Second World War, as long as there remained a free cultural life in Lithuania, the choir existed and helped to add ring after ring in the great chain of cultural work with which Lithuania was so rich and blessed.
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