Jennie Tourel sings on Mt. Scopus
On July 9, 1967, mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel joined Leonard Bernstein for a concert on Jerusalem's Mount Scopus to celebrate the end of the Six-Day War. It was a moment that brought together several of the themes of her life: music, dedication to Israel, and work with prominent composers and conductors. Born in Vitebsk, Belorussia (now Belarus) in 1900, she trained as a singer in Paris, where she debuted at the Opéra Comique in 1933. She won acclaim for her performance of the title role in Bizet's Carmen. For nearly a decade, she was the star of the Opéra Comique, singing the roles of Charlotte in Massenet's Werther and the title role in Thomas's Mignon.
Fleeing Paris just a week before the Nazi invasion, Tourel made her way to New York via Portugal, Cuba, and Canada. Though at first she had trouble finding work, she eventually impressed a musical agent who arranged an audition with the conductor Arturo Toscanini. Toscanini, in turn, hired her to sing with the New York Philharmonic, and she soon appeared with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra as well. Later, Leonard Bernstein wrote the Jeremiah Symphony especially for her voice, and Tourel performed it all over the world.
In her late forties, Tourel became well-known as a song recitalist. Though she had received critical and popular acclaim for her work in opera, her performances of French, German, and Russian songs, including Ravel's Shéhérazade, Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death, and works by Schubert and Schumann, gained her an even wider circle of fans. At an age when many singers retire, Tourel continued to give acclaimed performances to eager audiences. She continued to perform until past the age of seventy.
In addition to performing all over the world, Tourel taught at New York's Juilliard School, and annually at the Samuel Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem. In 1949, she became one of the first internationally-known artists to visit the infant Jewish state. Following that first visit, she remained involved in the musical life of Israel, with frequent visits and master classes. Tourel died on November 23, 1973. Leonard Bernstein paid her tribute in a eulogy at her funeral, saying, "when Jennie opened her mouth, God spoke."
Sources: Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 1408-1409; New York Times, November 25, 1973, December 9, 1973, September 22, 1974.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Jennie Tourel sings on Mt. Scopus." (Viewed on June 8, 2023) <https://jwa.org/thisweek/jul/09/1967/jennie-tourel>.