On November 19, Opera Ebony, America’s oldest African American opera company, returns to Stephen Wise Free Synagogue for a dynamic interfaith concert featuring spirituals, opera, and more. Opera Ebony performers will join singers from the Jewish community in song and spirit, connecting diverse communities through a shared passion for great music. (Reserve your tickets here!)
Performers include Opera Ebony’s Helena Brown and Gregory Sheppard; Cantor Rebecca Garfein of Congregation Rodeph Shalom; Cantor Hayley Kobilinsky of B’nai Yisrael (Armonk, NY); Cantor Daniel Mutlu of Central Synagogue; Cantor Azi Schwartz of Park Avenue Synagogue; Cantor Daniel Singer of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue; and pianist Joyce Rosenzweig.
Here, our own Cantor Daniel Singer reveals some favorite songs from the program, the origins of this special collaboration with Opera Ebony, and why he loves being a cantor.
The program will feature an eclectic mix of songs from the operatic, Jewish, and African American musical traditions. Which song are you most looking forward to performing?
I’m especially looking forward to the songs that we will sing together, as an ensemble or duet. I don’t want to give away the entire program, but we will be singing contemporary gospel songs that you’d hear in many of today’s churches, like “I Need You To Survive” by Hezekiah Walker, “Total Praise” by Richard Smallwood,” “Freedom Suite” from Sacred Concert by Duke Ellington, as well as contemporary Jewish pieces like “Oseh Shalom” by Michael Hunter Ochs and Benjie Ellen Schiller.
How did this collaboration with Opera Ebony originate?
This particular musical program was born out of an interfaith mission to Israel in 2011 led by Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch and sixteen faith leaders from New York City, including rabbis, reverends, priests, and two imams (who are on the board of Opera Ebony). At the end of the trip these wonderful imams suggested that we all make music together as a sign of our unity. So we decided to let the choir preach instead of preaching to the choir, so to speak.
I only wish that more people these days would join together and celebrate our differences in unity, rather than attempting to draw lines that divide and weaken us.
What’s it like to perform with so many cantors when you’re used to being the only cantor on the bimah?
I actually hate singing alone, which is why I love being a cantor so much. Most of our prayers are written in the plural for all of us to sing together, not just the cantor. That is why I have gone to such efforts to recruit especially talented congregants and friends of all ages to participate with me at services as much as possible, and why we encourage our congregants to participate vigorously throughout the service from their seats.
For this concert, being able to sing with my incredibly talented and wonderful colleagues is quite a treat. People won’t believe the gorgeous and exhilarating voices that all of these cantors and opera singers have. To celebrate being together during this holiday season by featuring their talent from our bima, together with some of the greatest opera singers from Opera Ebony, is truly a gift for me and for our community.