Elizabeth Shammash, soprano and cantor

For an opera singer, Elizabeth Shammash has had a most unusual career. With an MA in music and voice performance from Manhattan School of Music and an artist diploma from Boston University, she was a rising star who participated in Young Artist programs at such prestigious venues as Wolf Trap, Glimmerglass and Tanglewood and appeared on stages around the country. But after twelve years of being on the road, Shammash was tired of “living in airports;” she wanted to establish herself in one place and help others in some way. Drawn by her Jewish upbringing, she undertook a rigorous program at the Jewish Theological Seminary—involving cantorial repertoire, Hebrew, theology, pastoral care, pedagogy, and private coaching—and became a cantor (in an improbable three years, instead of the usual five).

Although today many cantors are women, Shammash stands out among them because of her classical voice training and her broad musical interests. Not only does she tend to the counseling, teaching and programming needs of her synagogue in suburban Philadelphia, but she has also started a concert series there, hoping to introduce “a congregation of Eagles fans” to classical music. A recent recital, featuring a mix of Yiddish art songs alongside works by Debussy and Schumann, drew 200 people.

As much as she cherishes her musical heritage—from the lullabies sung by her Latvian grandmother to her Iraqi father’s improvisational Torah cantillation—Shammash refuses to be limited. “I definitely don’t think of myself as not an opera singer now!” she exclaims, and her wide-ranging musical career bears out that assertion. In addition to her responsibilities as a cantor, Shammash continues to perform with chamber music groups, symphony orchestras and, as she has for many years, in Bernstein on Broadway, created and narrated by the composer’s daughter. She has recorded several contributions to the Milken Archive of American Jewish music, including “Great Songs of the Yiddish Stage” and David Stock’s Holocaust cantata, “A Little Miracle.”

For Chamberfest, Elizabeth Shammash will perform several Jewish liturgical works and some of Shostakovich’s Op 79, Songs from Jewish Folk tunes.