Meet Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell, the Opera Singer Who Combines African-American and Yiddish Folk Music

As a black, gay, opera singer who was raised Christian, Anthony Russell wasn't destined to be a Yiddish folk singer, but he's pretty great at it.

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Apr 6 2015, 6:51pm


Photo by Clara Rice Photography / All photos courtesy of Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell

Anthony Russell did not grow up obviously destined to be a Yiddish folk singer. He is black and was raised in a strongly Christian military family. Although his father was stationed on several different bases, Russell spent most of his life in Northern California. His father didn’t pressure him to join the military, but he did pressure his son to be more masculine, which the latter, who is gay, found “vaguely threatening.” Russell did not, at the risk of being obvious, speak Yiddish.

Russell says he got his creative side from his mother. His stage presence and “chutzpah” came from his father. As a young kid, he was already fascinated by classical music and religion. He watched Amadeus every day and read Bible stories and became obsessed with opera. “I would use [the stories] in my mind and project myself into the story—like when you do with movie characters as a kid,” he told me. “That was pretty nerdy. When you’re a kid you’re just looking for narratives.” The classical music stuff stuck, but the religion waned. Russell’s parents got divorced, and he felt the church took sides. He lost interest in the churchgoing life.

He joined the opera at 17 years old, after auditioning for a small chorus part in Madama Butterfly with a small regional company in the North Bay area. He worked his way up to regular roles, mostly in regional companies in the Bay Area, but he never got to the level of international renown needed to travel the world as an opera singer. He eventually moved to New York to try to make it there, got worse roles, and became disenchanted with the opera world. After 15 years of trying to make it, he quit opera at the age of 32.

But music found its way back into his life in an unexpected way: Russell met and fell in love with a rabbi, and, while attending various Jewish gatherings and box socials, he became fascinated with Judaism. He’s now Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell, and he’s engaged to that rabbi. He’s also infatuated with classic Yiddish folk music, following a revelation he had upon hearing a piece of music from the Coen brothers’ movie A Serious Man.

In 2013, he began releasing Convergence, a project that synthesizes and corroborates the Jewish texts with the African-American experience. He released a concert length multimedia performance of it in 2014. It combines Negro spirituals with blues music and thematically similar Yiddish folk music. It is an ongoing project that Russell hopes to have a completed recording of this year, as it has already been funded by generous fans.

“The future of Convergence is opened-ended,” he explained. “When you're creating works on a conceptual basis, and the historical basis is still being played out (the fucked-up issues and attitudes of the 19th century are still here with us today, folks—surprise!) it seems like the sky really is the limit. The redemptive futures imagined in the past, unfortunately, are still a work in progress.”

Russell is currently rehearsing and performing in a Yiddish four-part harmony group called Julius, along with Canadian hip-hop artist Josh Dolgin (Socalled) and vocalists David Wall and Mitch Smolkin. This spring, they’ll be releasing music and touring South America—in case there weren’t enough of a cultural mélange in this story.

Noisey: What was the first time you came out like?
Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell:
We had AOL accounts. I was all over the place—in chat rooms and researching stuff. One time I forgot to erase stuff on my AOL account. And my mom saw, and I was like, “I’m gay!” And she said, “duh,” and that was that.

How did you get into classical music?
My mother was in this choir in church and she bought this tape to help learn her part. I listened to the tape so much that the pitch dropped from playing it so many times. I would sing along to it, and it’s this crazy, complicated melodramatic music. Like a single word would have 20 notes. I was in love with this 300-year-old piece of music. I was a weird, nerdy kid, and if I got interested in something I would become obsessed with it.

I was really interested in learning how to play classical piano. I took lessons for a few years. I realized that after a recital, where I saw a bunch of extremely talented Asian children play, that was never going to be as good as them. I always liked singing, so I found a voice teacher and entered my first competition within a year and won 500 bucks. I was singing this repertoire that every student sings called the 24 Italian Art Songs. If you have a very politically incorrect voice teacher, they call it the “double dozen dago ditties.”


Russell at the opera

What is the opera scene like?
It’s extremely competitive because there’s more people doing it, coming off the boat in droves. It’s a very costly thing to pursue. A voice teacher can cost you hundreds of dollars an hour to see. Then you have a voice coach that helps you sound like you speak the language, people who help you with the acting, people who help you with movement. It’s expensive and cutthroat. It was rough for me. I ended up leaving the opera. I was in this opera company. I got accepted into their apprenticeship program. This meant you would be in the chorus, and they would give you an acting role every so often. I was in this production of Tosca, and they didn’t have enough people to be non-singing role. So my endgame as an opera singer was being in non-singing roles. There was this other black guy who was in the company who was a bass. He could do no wrong. Everything he did was brilliant, and everything I did was shit. We were both up for the same role in a concert. I sang some ridiculous French aria, and he sang, “Ol’ Man River,” and you would have thought it was the second coming of Paul Robeson [a very prominent black opera singer]. I was like, “I know what you’re doing…”

Like he’s playing the cultural card?
He did a decent job singing the song, but it was more like, people congratulating the guy on externalizing his blackness by singing a very black song. It just felt like a cop-out. I thought I did a good job singing what I sang, and it felt like people just wanted me to be more like him. It was a shitty situation to be in as a singer. The final straw was that I was an understudy for the role played by that same guy. We were in a rehearsal, and he asked me if I wanted to sing his role. And of course I said yes. So he told me to pick a date that he could call out sick and for me to be a block away from the opera house so they would call me. So he called in sick, and the director of the opera called him and said, “I don’t care if you’re sick. You’d better be lying on the ground dead because I don’t want Anthony to sing this role.” So I thought, “fuck this shit,” but I’m here now. It was the push that I needed.

Are black people in the opera a common thing?
There are black people in the opera. The women tend to go farther than the men for various reasons. People still feel threatened by the presence of a black man, even in a wig and full makeup on an opera stage with an entire orchestra between them and the audience. Casting is often very problematic. For example: I was in a production of the Marriage of Figaro. There were two basses. Me and another guy, who happened to be white. He was very young, and he did not sing very well. He had a larger role than I did. He played a lawyer, and I played a gardener. So I asked the director: “No shade, why did he get cast as the lawyer?” She said, “Well, I don’t really see you as a lawyer. I see you as a gardener.” And it didn’t even make any sense in the play because the girl who played my daughter was white. Some of the best experiences I’ve had in the opera were in productions that were specifically about African-American experiences. I was in the West Coast premiere of X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, and that was amazing. I played a preacher who was supposed to be a stand-in for Marcus Garvey, so I got to go up there and sing about how we should all go back to Africa.

My big break was in San Francisco in this Phillip Glass opera, Appomattox, about the last battle of the Civil War. It was this giant group of African-American singers who were together, having a good time complaining and singing and being opera singers. I played a Union soldier. I came onstage with a bunch of creeping black men with rifles aimed at the audience. It was so weird and great. I played a freed slave and had a solo. Me and three other slaves were greeting Abraham Lincoln with a psalm. So I thought why are we using this Jewish mode of religious interaction to greet the president? It turns out that’s what actually happened.


Russell at the opera, part two

Do you have any trouble from the Jewish community because of race or sexual orientation?
Not at all. But when you have a rabbi as a boyfriend, things are different. Earlier that summer I was corresponding with someone I met online, who happened to be a rabbi. We met at the Mets game at Shea Stadium. He asked me if I ever considered putting Judaism in my life. We had been kind of dating.

Did you ever chill with Phillip Glass?
I wish. He was across the street from rehearsal. I was standing next to him. I pretended I didn’t know where the rehearsal hall was, so I asked him if that was it. I was totally fanboying out.

Is there a lot of modern opera writing going on?
There’s a lot of great modern stuff. There was recently a San Francisco production of Dead Man Walking.

How is race treated in the opera institution these days?
I think it’s a very strange dichotomy. It’s very difficult for African American males to get roles. African American women are like divas and godesses. People project all their obsessions about black femininity onto these women. So they have a very exalted space in the opera world that isn’t really matched by men. In the American mind, the African-American male is a bass voice. So it’s also hard being a black tenor. You’re not going to get cast that much, especially as a lead. People don’t want to see a white female lead with a black lead. There’s also an element of black women being treated as more exotic.

Do you think opera is becoming more progressive?
At the end of the day, you’d like to think that voices are all that matter and that it doesn’t matter who you are if you have a great fucking voice. That is the case to a certain extent. But I wish it was more so.

So how did you get into Yiddish music?
I saw A Serious Man. It’s so insane and great, that movie. And Jewish. I’m thinking, “Who is the audience for this film?” And there’s nobody else in this theater except for some Orthodox guy sitting in the back. So we hear this song in the movie. Then I decided to learn Yiddish. The song is about this guy who’s a miller. The people in the town persecute him until he’s forced to move. And the end of the song is just, “Where am I going to go? What am I going to do? There’s not going to be any Jews left if this keeps going.” And then the song ends. Pretty damn depressing. It’s curious to have a generation of these people who listen to that song for entertainment... and then in the scene in the movie for them to put a record of it on. So weird. I thought it was Paul Robeson. But it was Sidor Belarsky. So I decided to try out Jewish music. I would sing music to Jews on the high holidays, and people cried, so that was a good sign. So I tried finding this repertoire of Jewish music that Robeson did.

Is it weird performing in language that is sparingly spoken now?
It always burns me up when people are like, “What’s it like singing and speaking and studying in a dying language.” And I’m like, “Look Boo Boo, I don’t have time to work in a dying language. I’m not performing in a funeral home.” The language that people pay me to sing in is not a dying language. I go to Jewish spaces all the time. And whenever I start doing Yiddish, people start coming out of the woodwork. It becomes a catalyst. It’s oddly patronizing and oddly passive aggressive. It’s like going up to someone and going, “What is it like doing this thing that I have a low opinion of?” Who does that?


Russell with Isabel Belarsky, daughter of Yiddish folk pioneer Sidor Belarsky

So what brought you to the Convergence project?
It’s Negro spirituals and roots music: Work songs, lullabies, children’s songs. I take those parts of Jewish music and combine them. From the early 19th and 20th centuries. The music all comes from the same place: the systematic oppression of a community by culture. So much of African-American expressionism is rooted in the Bible that it tends to work very well.

I like the project as an expression of folk spirituality that comes out of experience and a certain way of life, rather than established spirituality like religion. This oppression is still happening, so we still need to talk about it... So that’s the engine that’s driving this. I’m an African-American who goes in front of people and says things. So that automatically makes me a political person.

What’s your day job?
Now my day job is running a B’nai Mitzvah synagogue. I now traffic in 13-year-old kids. Which is sometimes strange. Because I’m this black guy teaching these 13-year-old kids how to be Jewish.

Jonathan Peltz is Noisey's chief Judaism correspondent. Follow him on Twitter.