BY DEBORAH JOHNSON
How does a singer – a cantor, no less – earn the stunning sobriquet “the Jewish Pavarotti”?
In one way, at least, Cantor Alberto Mizrahi earned it literally. As a young man pursuing an opera career, he served as the legendary tenor’s understudy in performances of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera,” at the Florida Grand Opera, in Miami. But much of the distinction has to do with Mizrahi’s richly powerful voice and charismatic performance style.
Renowned orchestra conductor Russell Gloyd said of him, “he’s a very emotional and spiritual singer …. He does not sing the music; he lives the music.”
And his reach extends far beyond the classical music world. Celebrated jazz musician Howard Levy said, “I have never met anyone even remotely like him, because his scope, musically, is so broad.” Add to this that he is the adored cantor of nearly 30 years at the historic Anshe Emet Synagogue in the Lake View district of Chicago.
Mizrahi was born in Greece, the son of Greek Holocaust survivors. His father, one of the last sonderkommandos in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, met and married his bride after the war.
When Alberto was 8, the family immigrated to the United States. With help from the Hebrew Aid Society, Alberto received a traditional Yeshiva education.
Alberto decided his career path early: He recalls attending his first movie at the age of 5, a biopic of the legendary tenor Enrico Caruso titled “The Great Caruso” and starring Mario Lanza, and feeling “hit … in the stomach so hard, and I was like in total ecstasy. The whole movie, I couldn’t believe there was such a thing. A man opens his mouth and sings like that? The orchestra, the costumes, the colors.”
He ultimately combined his twin identities as a singer and a Jew, and went on to study at the H.L. Miller Cantorial School of the Jewish Theological Seminary of New York.
For the past three years, Temple Sinai has presented an annual music series on the theme of “Jewish Music Around the World.” Mizrahi fits this bill perfectly. Not only is he a Sephardic Jew, but he is internationally renowned as an interpreter of Jewish world music with a repertoire of nine languages, making his performances unique.
Mizrahi’s program at Sinai will reflect this, ranging from Sephardic and Ashkenazi liturgical music to folk and secular music, opera and jazz. He is known as an especially talented singer of the latter. Mizrahi often merges jazz and cantorial traditions, and he believes they have much in common. He has said, “If today you brought together a cantor who never heard jazz, and a jazz musician who never heard cantorial music, when they hear each other they’d go, ‘Yeah, I hear that!’ ”
As to the breadth of his repertoire, he sees that as natural: “The story really is that Jews [are] Middle Eastern people whose music still retains elements of the Middle East …. Then we went into exile to almost every country in the world. And in this exile we were influenced by – and also influenced – the music of those countries.”
For his concert at Temple Sinai, he will be accompanied on piano by Alan Mason, director of music at Temple Israel of Greater Miami and president of the Guild of Temple Musicians, who has performed around the world.
“An Afternoon with Hazzan Alberto Mizrahi: The World of Jewish Music and More” will be held at Temple Sinai, 30 Hagen Ave., in Cranston, on Sunday, March 24, at 3 p.m. Like every concert in the Jewish Music Around the World series, it has been generously sponsored by Diane and Gary Glick. Tickets are $20, or $100 for benefactor’s tickets with preferred seating, and can be purchased at Eventbrite, hazzan-mizrahi-concert.eventbrite.com, or by contacting the temple at 401-942-8350 or Dottie@templesinairi.org.
(Many of the quotes in this article are from “Cantor Mizrahi celebrates 25 years of Jewish music — and jazz,” an article by Howard Reich that was published in the Chicago Tribune on May 5, 2015.)
DEBORAH JOHNSON is the cantor at Temple Sinai, in Cranston.