Celebrations: Opera singer finds cantorial work a good fit

When Sharon Azrieli-Perez told her father, David Azrieli, one of Israel’s biggest real estate moguls, that she wanted to be an opera singer, he told her he’d pay for voice lessons only if she got into Juilliard.

That was all the motivation she needed.

“There was a fire in my belly,” she said.

After gaining admittance to the prestigious Juilliard School in Manhattan and after years of hard work, Azrieli-Perez would go on to a career as a noted soprano, performing with orchestras in Tokyo, Montreal, Haifa and Jerusalem.

Sharon Azrieli Perez performs “Turandot” with the New Israel Opera in 2008. photo/courtesy of sharonazrieli.com

But in her native Montreal, Azrieli-Perez may be best known for her work in another venue: the synagogue.

For a while she was the full-time cantor at Temple Emanu-El in Montreal. Now Azrieli-Perez is helping to get a new Reform/Renewal synagogue, the Shir Chadash Community Synagogue, off the ground in the city.

Azrieli-Perez, who recently performed Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” at the New Jersey Verismo Opera, said she’s always had a passion for things Jewish.

It started with her father, a Holocaust survivor who became one of Israel’s leading architects, real estate tycoons and philanthropists. He designed Tel Aviv’s iconic Azrieli Center, the largest real-estate project in Israel, and established a charitable foundation on whose board of directors his daughter serves.

But the young Azrieli-Perez focused on opera after graduating from Vassar College, making jewelry and working at a clothing manufacturer and art galleries to pay for voice lessons until she got into Juilliard.

She went on to earn a doctorate in music at the University of Montreal, where she wrote her thesis on Jewish prayer modes hidden in Verdi’s music.

“I’m not saying Verdi was Jewish, though he might have been,” she said. “He often dealt with Jewish themes in his opera. He wrote ‘Nabucco,’ and he worked with Jewish librettists.” (“Nabucco,” which established Verdi’s reputation as a composer, follows the historical plight of the Jews as they are conquered and exiled by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. Its best-known work is “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves.”)

Azrieli-Perez launched her career in 1992 in a production of the Canadian Opera Company’s “Romeo and Juliet,” then quickly went on to bigger stages in North America, Europe and Asia, working with world-renowned conductors.

But after an “unfortunate divorce,” as she puts it, her career took a Jewish turn. With two sons to raise on her own, Azrieli-Perez sought a career that would keep her close to home. She enrolled at the Academy of Jewish Religion (she never finished) and started to work as a synagogue cantor.

It was “a way of singing and supporting a family,” Azrieli-Perez said. “I was fluent in Hebrew, had been brought up with all the prayers, and I loved being a cantor.”

Performing opera and singing as a cantor are not so different, she said, citing two stars from New York’s Metropolitan Opera in the 1950s and ’60s, Richard Tucker and Jan Peerce, who did stints as cantors.

Azrieli-Perez also has found ways to make her performances Jewish. She sang the world-premiere performances of Israeli composers Ofer Ben-Amots and Tzvi Avni, and is recording works for the Milken Archive of Jewish Music. Last year she sang with the Israel Chamber Orchestra and the Festivale Sepharade in Montreal.

Next season she plans to perform a concert of Ladino music.

“Ladino is having a big upswing in world music, but I’m a classical singer,” she said. “So this will be the world premiere of classical Ladino music.”

She’s also working with Nico Castel, an operatic tenor who wrote the “Nico Castel Ladino Songbook” on Judeo-Sephardic music.

Still, her first love remains opera.

“Being an opera singer is like skipping rope, but you have 400 ropes,” Azrieli-Perez said. “It’s being an athlete; no other art form is so involved. You have to memorize words and music, you have an orchestra of 150 people down there in the pit. It’s a team sport.”