The ‘Jewish Caruso’ died 70 years ago
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The ‘Jewish Caruso’ died 70 years ago

A conductor once said to Joseph Schmidt, the singer, “It’s too bad that you’re not small.”

“But I AM small,” replied Schmidt, very much surprised. He was less than 5 feet tall.

“No,” said the conductor. “You are VERY small.”

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Joseph Schmidt’s short stature limited his operatic career. He died at 38 in an internment camp.

His height was one of Schmidt’s problems. It explains why he rarely appeared in operas. Mimi and Violetta and Lucia would tower over a 4-foot-11-inch tenor. (One reason Joan Sutherland sang with Luciano Pavarotti so often was that he was tall for a tenor, so she wasn’t all that much taller.) So Schmidt sang mostly in concerts and on the radio, although he did make a few movies – where his height could be concealed. A few films are still available, including the popular “My Song Goes Round the World” (1934), about the problems of a short opera singer.

Another problem Schmidt had, of course, given widespread anti-Semitism, was his Jewishness. He even had been a cantor, in Czernowitz (now Chernovtsy, now in Ukraine), and remained active as a cantor all of his life. He and Hermann Jadlowker may be the two most famous tenors who benefited from cantorial training before becoming secular singers. (Two famous American tenors with cantorial backgrounds were Jan Peerce [Jacob Pincus Perelmuth] and Richard Tucker [Reuben Ticker], who were brothers-in-law. A contemporary tenor, Neil Shicoff, sang in a synagogue as a child.)

Offsetting these problems was Schmidt’s wonderful voice. Sweet, expressive, seemingly effortless, and – for his size – powerful. He was called the Jewish Caruso. And the Pocket Caruso.

He was born in Romania on March 4, 1904. His father was a tenant farmer, not interested in the arts; his mother encouraged her son’s interest in singing. He gave his first concert when he was 20. When he was 24, an uncle took him to Berlin, where after an audition (he sang an aria from “Il Trovatore”) he promptly was offered radio and recording contracts. He became, someone has said, Berlin’s talk of the town.

He also sang in Vienna, and critics in both Vienna and Berlin fell all over themselves in praising his voice. One wrote, “Whether he sings Mozart or Puccini, Tchaikovsky or Verdi, everything sounds as if it had been rendered in glowing colors.”

The Jewish tenor Richard Tauber, a friend of his, spent much of his life fleeing the Nazis. He tried to help Schmidt and even conducted concerts at which Schmidt sang. Tauber eventually escaped Europe for England.

When Nazi Germany banned Jewish musicians in 1934, and Austria did the same thing in 1938, Schmidt went to sing in the Netherlands and Belgium, where he was very popular.

He toured the United States in 1936, singing at Carnegie Hall with such famous sopranos as Grace Moore and Maria Jeritza. Later he returned to Ukraine to visit his mother, whose husband had died recently. He then fled the Nazis via Belgium, then Switzerland, where he landed in an internment camp as an illegal immigrant. He complained of feeling ill after digging ditches; the guards accused him of malingering. Shortly after being released, he suffered a fatal heart attack.

He died on Nov. 16, 1942, at age 38, 70 years ago this month. He is buried in a grave near Zurich.

Schmidt has been described as “affable,” but not much is known about him. If he had lived, he could have answered such usual questions as: What’s your favorite role? What’s your most difficult role? What role might you want to play in the future? Who are your role models? What have you learned about singing, and what do you do differently now? And so forth.

The distinguished English music critic J.B. Steane, wrote about Schmidt: “His many recordings preserve a fine voice, well produced except for a certain nasal quality, with an exceptional upper range and a distinctive personality.”

Mario Lanza, the famous American tenor of the 1950s and 1960s, is said to have admired Schmidt’s voice.

Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, liked Schmidt’s singing so much that, it’s been reported, he considered making him an “honorary Aryan.” (Tauber tried to become one, without success.)

In 2004, Germany issued a postage stamp to commemorate Schmidt’s 100th birthday.

Had Schmidt lived and returned to the United States, he might have joined the Metropolitan Opera, which – because the war had kept many European artists away – was in need of fine singers.

There’s a half-hour film about him, available on videocassette from Amazon.com for $1.83 to $8.99, plus $2.98 shipping. It’s called “Bel Canto 2: The Tenors of the 78 Era.”

To appreciate the beauty, expressiveness, and power of his voice, readers can listen to these recordings on YouTube. Just google these three videos and the name Schmidt there:

Una furtiva lagrima, L’elisir d’amore,

from La boheme, with Grace Moore, and

Last Rose of Summer (Medley)

There are a few wonderful CDs, too, including one from EMI.

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