Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Our Sherry


I started hearing about Sherry Zannoth back when I was studying at New England Conservatory. Sherry had been the prize pupil of Helen Hodam, the renowned voice teacher who commuted for years between Oberlin, where she had taught Sherry some years earlier, and NEC, where I was her Saturday 11am lesson and then her ride to the airport. Years later Miss Hodam was a bond that Sherry and I shared: respect, admiration, frustration (at the ways our voices defied Miss Hodam’s method), and amusement (at Miss Hodam’s memorable mannerisms, which spark smiles of recognition decades later).

I actually met Sherry in the late ’90s when I sang a few times at Asti, the now long gone opera singer restaurant. By that time she had already been through City Opera, the Met, Germany, and the return to America and was cobbling together a typical singer’s life: dayjob, church, temple, and gigs (see http://articles.nydailynews.com/2001-02-26/news/18175021_1_professional-singers-synagogues-churches). She was the definition of trouper, fierce and determined. Steve Vasta used to say that she could field any aria requested at Asti (where she was on the singing staff and had to deal with whatever the clientele wanted) – if somebody asked for Casta Diva or Voce di Donna she’d ask for five minutes, study it at a table in the back, and then stand up and deliver it as promised! She truly lived to sing.

Shortly after that meeting I engaged her for the professional octet at the Synagogue where I conduct. We sing for the High Holy Days and at various other services and occasions. Sherry had a HUGE voice and faced the standard “dramatic soprano singing in a chorus” dilemma: sing soprano and stick out or sing alto and blend. She sang alto with me. There was an infamous tale about her being hired to sing chorus in the Beethoven Missa Solemnis, a work where her strong soprano range might be considered appropriate: after one rehearsal she was moved down into the alto section. One of the other singers joked that she could rejoin the soprano section, as long as she stood in the cafeteria!

She still did opera. I saw her twice in full length performances. She played Elektra in Christ and St Stephen’s Church, on the Sunday before 9/11. The events of that Tuesday have obliterated any detailed recollections I had! And I saw her as the Walküre Brunnhilde – my God how her posture evoked the warrior maiden! – at Riverside Church a few years later. Not only was she a riveting tragedy diva – she was an expert comedienne. I inveigled her (it didn’t take much asking) into a couple of Gilbert & Sullivan concerts at the NY G&S Society. She was totally hysterical as Lady Blanche in Princess Ida. Let’s face it: Sherry was a born stage animal, una creatura di palcoscenico, and she ate scenery for breakfast!

Singing at the Synagogue she rapidly became beloved. Her solos were highlights of any service she sang at. She owned the Janowski “Avinu Malkeinu.” So when she faced health challenges she found a wealth of support from people in the congregation.

Of course there had to be a small world story about Sherry: I was on tour with The Western Wind (the vocal sextet with whom I sang for 11 years) and we were giving a concert in Michigan. At the post-concert reception a woman walked up to me and said she was Sherry’s sister! We had a lovely chat.

I wish there were more Youtube clips of Sherry, from the earlier and central portions of her career. I have two recent clips which I have uploaded, from a concert given in honor of the Cantor’s 25th anniversary with the Synagogue. The first is “Un bel di” – Sherry sang Butterfly over a hundred times, all over the world. The gestures were taught to her by a geisha. The fil di voce attack on the first phrase of the aria is magical. There is one point where she added more time than either the music or tradition allow, and it may have been an early hint of the trouble that was to come.


That trouble became more noticeable (to me) in the duet she sang (is “sang” the word for this style?) with star congregation member Fyvush Finkel, who also eats scenery for breakfast, even now at 90 (he was 87 at this performance).


Sherry learned the scene for this occasion, and had a few difficulties with memorization in the rehearsal. I was surprised – Sherry was a terrific and dependable musician and actress. But something was going wrong inside her and nobody knew. She did veer into the wrong stanza at one point but rescued herself like a pro and without a trace of anything the audience could pick up (unless they were checking the rhyme scheme!).

When Fall came – and the High Holy Days with it – Sherry was not herself. She was always a true diva, dressed and coiffed, holding herself with the air of total self respect. But her hair didn’t look quite right and her gait was off – and she was having trouble reading music. She said she would go see a doctor. She made it through the Selichot service. But on the day that Rosh Hashana began she left a message on my cell phone: “Richie,” (she is one of two people I allow that liberty and don’t start!) “I’m in the ER, there’s a mass in my brain, and I don’t think they’ll let me out in time for the service this evening but I’ll make it tomorrow.” She had that kind of gumption! I stared at my cell phone, thinking, yeah, right, and rode up Third Avenue in a taxi while phoning substitute altos. From then on the choir became two gigs: the music we sang and the relationship with Sherry. Through the terrifying and tough process of her diagnosis and treatment (and her struggles with the health care system) we gave her emotional support and several doctors in the congregation steered her to medical options and solutions. We were but one spoke in the wheel of her relationships – the worlds of family, close friends, opera, church, students, and other regular gigs. We did what we could. And she bounced back. Miracle drugs gave her new life and she was right back up on the bima for High Holy Days the next year. And she made it through 2012 as well, though moving slowly and using a cane. She sat throughout the services. The new Rabbi gave her a quizzical (but kindly) look at one point: I asked the Cantor to fill her in on all the history. This was Sherry’s last hurrah: I don’t know whether it was the strain of dragging herself through it all or the post-show letdown but she began a rapid decline immediately after Yom Kippur.

I visited her in the hospice. She was still her peppery self…but bed-ridden like Violetta in La Traviata… and there was a Traviata score on the windowsill! Why was I not surprised? She was talking about getting better and someday singing Salome. That is the attitude that keeps you going!

Sherry asked me to do a duet program with her at a restaurant last year. But I have been going through a rough patch with my voice and wanted to wait until I felt ready. I wasn’t ready in time and missed my chance. That I regret – but I am glad to have had a dozen years of working with, talking with, joking with such a down-to-earth yet exalted artist and human being.

Farewell dear! (and I hope when you call “Oh, nurse!” that they get it)

10 comments:

Charlotte Surkin said...

She encouraged me to study with Judith Coen and learn about the Singing and the Brain technique which continues to inspire me and my students. She was one of the bravest human beings I've ever met. She could barely walk this past High Holiday and yet sang beautifully through the entire service. Through all of the pain and discomfort, she never lost her sense of humor. She was one of the smartest, quick witted person I've ever met. Just a couple of months before her death, she sang Aida excerpts magnificently at Rutgers church. The High Holidays will never be the same.

Beth Childs said...

I had the great privilege of studying with Sherry, singing with her at Rutgers, and - most importantly - of calling her my friend. For me, the piece she "owned" is the Pie Jesu from Rutter's Requiem, which she sang this past Good Friday as our soloist. To see and hear this tiny woman - in the health battle of her life, singing with a tenderness I have never before heard, and will never again - was profound. While I will miss her for the rest of my life, I will be forever blessed for having known her.

Christina Ascher said...

I am very sad to hear of Sherry's passing. We met back in the 60's at Oberlin where we both studied with Ms. Hodam, our paths crossed again later in Europe and in the last few months we had again started corresponding. Thank you, Richard, for your beautiful article about Sherry. And thank you, Sherry, for having been such a wonderful, gracious, courageous lady!
Christina Ascher

Robert Devereaux said...

Mine too a connection via Oberlin G&S, late sixties. I recently lost my wife of 17 years to ovarian cancer, so this is all familiar territory to me. Thanks so much for this wonderful remembrance of this spirited singer, woman, human being.

ekdeutsch said...

I directed Sherry in my play Turkey Day at the Strawberry Festival in the summer of 2009. She was funny, always on time and always professional, and we became friends. I saw her in concert in 2012, and she seemed to be holding her own. I just learned of her passing when I tried to contact her when the play went into print. I will miss her so, so much. Eileen Deutsch

Jochen Sievers said...

Dear Richard,

almost one year after Sherry passed away I was thinking of her. I was checking google, if there are any traces of her left in the internet. And I found the lovely article in your blog, which made me cry again for the loss, we all had in the last year.

I met Sherry in 1988. I was 21 years old, and a young student at the University of Bremen in Northern Germany. I wanted to become a teacher for music and german, and I wanted to learn, how to sing.

Sherry was the leading soprano at the opera house in Bremen. A very good friend of mine, who was a dancer in the ballet group introduced me to her, because he knew, that I was looking for a teacher. I knew Sherry from stage and respected her for her singing: Aida, Lady Macbeth, Ellen Orford (Peter Grimes). I admired her most for the interpretation of the soprano part in Verdi's Requiem. I had the chance to accompany her to a series of concerts with this marvelous piece of music. She always said to me, that she thanks god to be able to sing this particular piece of music.

She became my teacher, and I learned so much when studying with her. I had teachers before, but none of them had this overwhelming warmth. I never since had a teacher, who gave such positive feedback, inspiration and motivation. I benefit from this time. Sherry changed my life.

We became friends. We spent a lot of time together in Bremen. We had fun together - she was crazy, I could tell stories. So we spent a couple of years close in friendship. She taught me, we went out for drinks, spent time with cooking and gave each other support.

In 1994 she went back to New York. She wanted to be home with her family and friends. I was very sad, but I could understand. I missed her a lot, and for a couple of years we lost connection.

I moved to Berlin in 1996 . And then there was coming up this new kind of communication: email!! Suddenly we were in contact again, and it was like we were close together - I enjoyed her mails. She told me about her life in New York. About her students (which I envied a lot), about some opera projects (Aida, Elektra), about her singing in a restaurant, about her day job and her engagement in the synagog.

She came over to see me in Berlin in 2005. We were so happy to get the chance to meet again. This was the last time, I saw her in person.
We went on changing mails, we called each other.

I was very sad, when she told me about the tumor thing in her head. I knew about her ups and downs and prayed for her.
She last called me in June 2012 for my birthday. She was full of energy and trust that everything would go well.

I heard of her passing through a mail from her friend Bonnie, who answered a mail, which I sent to Sherry, and didn't get an answer. I cried a lot. I was so sad, that I couldn't say good bye. For a long time, I couldn't even hear the recordings, that we did in the early 90s.

Thank you so much for your article, which gave me some new insight, especially about her last weeks. I can not appreciate this enough. And also for the two youtube-clips. You can imagine: I was very moved to see her after all these years. I still love Sherry a lot. I think of her very often. In Germany we have a saying: "Ein Mensch wird nicht vergessen, solange ein Anderer sein Bild im Herzen trägt" - "You will not forget a person, as long as you carry his picture in your heart". Thank you for helping me refreshing my memory.

In your article you said, that you wished, there were earlier recordings or clips of her career. I put some recordings to youtube, and hope, that you and your friends enjoy to hear some of the recordings I have - I like them very much. Theres even more, but I start with these few films.

Thank you again - best regards from Berlin

Jochen

Jochen Sievers said...

Dear Richard,

almost one year after Sherry passed away I was thinking of her. I was checking google, if there are any traces of her left in the internet. And I found the lovely article in your blog, which made me cry again for the loss, we all had in the last year.

I met Sherry in 1988. I was 21 years old, and a young student at the University of Bremen in Northern Germany. I wanted to become a teacher for music and german, and I wanted to learn, how to sing.

Sherry was the leading soprano at the opera house in Bremen. A very good friend of mine, who was a dancer in the ballet group introduced me to her, because he knew, that I was looking for a teacher. I knew Sherry from stage and respected her for her singing: Aida, Lady Macbeth, Ellen Orford (Peter Grimes). I admired her most for the interpretation of the soprano part in Verdi's Requiem. I had the chance to accompany her to a series of concerts with this marvelous piece of music. She always said to me, that she thanks god to be able to sing this particular piece of music.

She became my teacher, and I learned so much when studying with her. I had teachers before, but none of them had this overwhelming warmth. I never since had a teacher, who gave such positive feedback, inspiration and motivation. I benefit from this time. Sherry changed my life.

We became friends. We spent a lot of time together in Bremen. We had fun together - she was crazy, I could tell stories. So we spent a couple of years close in friendship. She taught me, we went out for drinks, spent time with cooking and gave each other support.

In 1994 she went back to New York. She wanted to be home with her family and friends. I was very sad, but I could understand. I missed her a lot, and for a couple of years we lost connection.

I moved to Berlin in 1996 . And then there was coming up this new kind of communication: email!! Suddenly we were in contact again, and it was like we were close together - I enjoyed her mails. She told me about her life in New York. About her students (which I envied a lot), about some opera projects (Aida, Elektra), about her singing in a restaurant, about her day job and her engagement in the synagog.

She came over to see me in Berlin in 2005. We were so happy to get the chance to meet again. This was the last time, I saw her in person.
We went on changing mails, we called each other.

I was very sad, when she told me about the tumor thing in her head. I knew about her ups and downs and prayed for her.
She last called me in June 2012 for my birthday. She was full of energy and trust that everything would go well.

I heard of her passing through a mail from her friend Bonnie, who answered a mail, which I sent to Sherry, and didn't get an answer. I cried a lot. I was so sad, that I couldn't say good bye. For a long time, I couldn't even hear the recordings, that we did in the early 90s.

Thank you so much for your article, which gave me some new insight, especially about her last weeks. I can not appreciate this enough. And also for the two youtube-clips. You can imagine: I was very moved to see her after all these years. I still love Sherry a lot. I think of her very often. In Germany we have a saying: "Ein Mensch wird nicht vergessen, solange ein Anderer sein Bild im Herzen trägt" - "You will not forget a person, as long as you carry his picture in your heart". Thank you for helping me refreshing my memory.

In your article you said, that you wished, there were earlier recordings or clips of her career. I put some recordings to youtube, and hope, that you and your friends enjoy to hear some of the recordings I have - I like them very much. Theres even more, but I start with these few films.

Thank you again - best regards from Berlin

Jochen

Nancy Davis said...

I met Sherry back in the 70's when she performed Madame Butterfly in a little theatre in Ohio. I was 15 years old and was part of the props department. She was so kind and thoughtful to me. Afterwards, we wrote to each other for a long time. She had given me one of her roses before she left and I still have it today in a book. I will never forget the effect she had on me. I am sad we lost touch.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, I learned of Sherry's passing around 15 months after the fact.
Our association with Sherry goes back to the mid 1950s. We moved from
Detroit to Waterford Township, out in the middle of nowhere. My younger
sister and Sherry were in grade school and junior high together. Sherry's
mother, Dawn, and our mother were great friends.

Sherry's 'gift' became obvious when she was quite young. She and her
mother often sang solos or the occasional duet in church services at the
Bethany Baptist Church, in Pontiac, Michigan. I don't know when her actual
professional voice training began, but I will credit her mother for
getting things started.

Sherry sang at our wedding in June of 1962. My wife, Barbara, had just
finished her first year of teaching English at Waterford High, and was lucky
to have Sherry as one of her students.

In looking though our Wedding Album, we realized that there were no photos
of Sherry. In the hustle and bustle of getting all of the 'standard shots',
the photographer didn't think to get Sherry in any of them. There was
a modest 'cookies, coffee and punch' Reception in the basement of the church.
I hope that Sherry and her mother, (probably her transportation) were able to
be there at least for some wedding cake.

We reconnected about six years ago. I located Sherry in New York, and was
able to make a surprise phone call to her. She sent us a CD of some music
from AIDA and we treasure it. The two YouTube links in Richard's blog are
real treasures to us. We never did get to see Sherry perform professionally.
But there was little doubt anywhere that she would someday have her name 'up
in lights' and would be famous for her great talent.

Ralph (& Barbara) Irish
February 2014

Leonard J. Lehrman said...

Sherry was a beautiful singer, the teacher of my first wife, Karen Campbell Lehrman, and in 1979 was one of the first to sing (excerpts from) the title role of Hannah in my anti-war feminist Chanukah opera that has just received its US premiere this month.
(Please see
.) She also sang at our wedding in Ithaca July 27, 1978. I remember her very fondly, and sadly as she died of the same disease - melanoma - that killed Karen in 2005. I also remember the wonderful line she used when between husbands: "I'm auditioning!" - Leonard J. Lehrman