Tribune Print Share Text

Schmaltz Opera

The cultural program with a kick

Created date

April 27th, 2010

Schmaltz is a Yiddish term for chicken or animal fat. That s right the stuff that s used to add flavor to food. Not the picture one would associate with opera. And that is exactly the point of the Schmaltz Opera group, which LJ Herman started at Ann s Choice almost three years ago, hoping to turn preconceived ideas about opera on their heads. [caption id="attachment_11668" align="alignright" width="280" caption="The Schmaltz Opera group aims to break down preconceptions. In addition to watching opera in a new light, they celebrated Mardi Gras in October to shake things up a bit."] We re not overly intellectual or high-brow, she says. We re not low-brow either more like down-to-earth, middle-brow.

How the group got its name

When Herman and her late husband, Bill, used to go to the opera, at the end of the program, Bill would say, Oh, what schmaltz! What did he mean by that? Even Herman didn t know. So she asked him. Bill explained that when he was a kid during the Depression, his mother would give him a slice of homemade bread spread with a thin layer of schmaltz [animal fat], she recalls. As times got better, she spread it on thicker. And that s what schmaltz is all about it s sentiment spread on thick! The word seemed to fit; it s commonplace for one to shed a tear and laugh out loud in the same breath during the opera.

Spreading the schmaltz

Herman has 300 videos of opera, ballet, and musicals dating back to the 1930s, plus a collection of old Voice of Firestone programs. She wanted to share these with others, so she began the Schmaltz Opera group at Ann s Choice, and boy did the schmaltz fly! She s even had her staff of volunteers walk down the aisles handing out tissues, like during La Boh me. The opera is one of the few places in life where men can cry and get away with it! she says. At the beginning of each weekly screening, Herman will talk anywhere from two to ten minutes to provide an introduction for what they are about to see. It s important for you to understand that I am no expert far from it, she claims. I m simply sharing my collection. These are not classes. Instead, I like to call them sessions get-togethers of folks who are open-minded to hearing and seeing some new things as well as enjoying some old favorites. In attendance at the sessions are anywhere from 30 like during an obscure selection, La Juive, an opera about religious persecution that she showed during Passover to 200, when she showed the well-known Rockettes. But it s likely there are more people in attendance than less. She keeps a card catalogue of everyone at
Ann s Choicewho is interested in the sessions, and so far, the catalogue contains more than 175 names. There are many purposes the program serves, but Herman says the most important ones are to have everyone laughing and so touched by sentiment that they re crying with joy. We re all so serious, Herman says. We need to learn to laugh at ourselves. There are two things that keep you young: trying something new and being silly. Being silly is not a problem for the Schmaltz crew; they even had a Mardi Gras party in October instead of March to shake things up a bit. Herman is all about defying conventions and laughing all along the way. Herman loves it when people who have walked away from opera in the past for whatever reason decide to give it another look, and they end up loving it and coming back every week. These are the ones who are trying something new and learning from it, she says.

Group logistics

After nearly three years of sessions with no opera repeated, last month, the cycle began anew. She s even made a diary of every program so her talks will not be the same. There is a charge for the sessions, $1 or $2 for each showing, which is donated to the Student Scholars Fund. Herman s goal is $5,000 every year, and she had already met 2009 s by the beginning of December. The Schmaltz Opera program meets every Saturday in theAnn s Choiceperforming arts center at 1 p.m. Herman also does an encore two Thursdays a month in the evenings. So if you want to laugh, cry, try something new, and be silly, don t miss it!