In November, 2006 we interviewed Helfgot for the Jewish Standard prior to his concert at the Metropolitan Opera House...
Internationally renowned Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot will perform “Helfgot Sings Cantorial Classics,” the first solo cantorial concert at the New York Metropolitan Opera on Sunday, December 3. At press time the event has nearly sold out the 4400 seating capacity of the Opera House. Dr. Mordechai Sobol arranged the music for the orchestra and choir. The orchestra will include members of the New York Philharmonic conducted by Matthew Lazar with Cantor Daniel Gildar on the piano. The choir will be coordinated by Cantor Azi Schwartz. The invocation prior to the concert will be offered by the chief rabbi of
Israel, Yisrael Meir Lau.
Cantor Helfgot is 37 years old, married and the father of six children, ages 3-16. He is a Chasidic Jew born in Tel Aviv and from the Gur or Ger Hasidic community, one of the largest Hasidic groups in the world. Gerrer Hasidim are active in Israeli politics and supportive of the State.
The Jewish Standard interviewed Cantor Helfgot at
. He has just returned from a concert tour of Lincoln Center Australia. Helfgot was dressed in a dark suit with his pants tucked into the trademark-tall-socks that Hasidim of Ger call "hoyzn-zokn". He has a thin beard and prefers to speak in Hebrew or Yiddish over English. Most of this interview was conducted in Hebrew.
JS: Is this the first time a cantor will perform at the Met?
Not exactly. The cantors Richard Tucker and Jan Pierce performed many times at the Met. But they sang opera. So this is the first time that a cantor will perform cantorial music at the Met. We are fortunate that the Met has permitted us to use this great opera house for this concert.
JS: Will you be using a microphone for the concert?
Good question. We have not yet decided. The Met has wonderful acoustics so it is not essential that we amplify the music. On the other hand our audience is accustomed to the use of microphones and amplifiers. So we have a dilemma and have not yet decided.
JS: Why has cantorial singing fallen out of favor in many shuls?
Europe every shtetl has a chazzan. Sometimes he also served multiple professional roles as a shochet and a mohel too. In America this type of community does not exist.
People think a cantor’s singing makes the service longer. That does not have to be the case.
JS: What can we do to help bring back the cantor?
People need to accept the cantor as an essential part of the synagogue. He is the shaliach tzibbur -- the appointed representative of the community for leading the service. The cantor has to work together with his congregation to make certain that he makes the singing in the service last as long as the congregation wants. He needs to know when they want to finish Musaf on Shabbat -- 12:00, 12:30? The congregation needs to know that the cantor represents their needs. Those steps will help bring the cantor back into a greater role in the synagogue.
JS: Do you think there is any competition between rabbis and cantors? Do yeshivas tend to frown upon cantors?
I have always had good relations with the rabbis in the synagogues that I have served. We understand each others’ roles and have mutual respect. It is true that there is such a thing as a yeshivishe davenin which does not feature cantorial singing. But there is no essential conflict between the cantor and the yeshiva.
JS: Tell us about an inspirational part of your work?
Sometimes, actually frequently, secular Jews come up to me after I sing and tell me that they were alienated from Judaism but that chazanut has inspired them to return. They say they now plan to attend synagogue and get more involved. That inspires me and fulfills me.
JS: What is your view of women cantors?
I am a Hasidic Jew so I have never heard a chazanit lead the service. I have no problem with women cantors. I can see that people would appreciate the drama and emotion of a soprano chazanit and that it could be inspiring and contribute to the aesthetic of a service.
JS: Have you ever wanted to sing opera?
I have listened at times to opera to hear the voices and the melodies. But I have never aspired to sing opera.
JS: Do non-Jews attend your concerts? Do you think they could appreciate your music?
I don’t know how many non-Jews attend. I expect that anyone could be moved emotionally by our music whether or not it was sacred to them – whether or not they understood the words.
JS: Will you be using the Met’s facility for electronic titles to provide the translation for this concert?
No, the Met is protective of their systems. We will provide texts and translations in the printed programs. We wish to build up our relationship with the Met, to show them the stature of our music and of our audience. That way, in the future, we hope to establish this wonderful hall as a regular venue for cantorial concerts of Jewish music.
JS: Why choose the Met? How did you manage to get the Met?
I am not originally and American so I did not fully appreciate the importance of this location. Our organizers want to have this concert here to make a statement. This is the best place and our music and heritage is good enough. We can perform it in the greatest of opera houses. This will make people proud and will be a great Kiddush Hashem – a sanctification.
As to how our sponsors managed to obtain the right to have this concert there -- that is nothing short of a miracle.
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