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.”
His height was one of Schmidt’s problems. It explains why he rarely appeared in operas. Mimi, Violetta, and Lucia would tower over a 4-foot-11 inch tenor. (One reason Joan Sutherland sang so often with Luciano Pavarotti 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 short 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 was, of course, given the widespread anti-Semitism, his Jewishness. He had even been a cantor, in Czernowitz (now Chernovtsy, 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" or 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 at age 20. When he was 24, an uncle took him to Berlin, where after an audition (he sang an aria from “Il Trovatore”) he was promptly 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.”
A friend of his was the Jewish tenor Richard Tauber, who 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 (in 1934) and Austria (1938) banned Jewish musicians, 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 the Ukraine to visit his mother, whose husband had recently died. He then fled the Nazis via Belgium, then to 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 died of a heart attack on Nov. 16, 1942, at age 38. This year marks the 70th anniversary of his passing. He is buried in a grave near Zurich.
Schmidt has been described as “affable,” but not much is known about him.
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. There are a few wonderful CDs, too, including one from EMI.
“Una furtiva lagrima, L’elisir d’amore”
from La boheme, with Grace Moore
Last Rose of Summer (Medley)