By Abigail Ruttenberg
“You have to hear the note in your head.”
What does that even mean? Growing up in a musical family, I learned the answer to this question at a very early age. Visits to my dad’s parents, my Papa and Grandma, almost always included my Papa playing show tunes on the piano. When I was younger, I remember my Papa and Grandma and Grandma’s sister, my Aunt Bessie, singing with us. I loved watching the closeness that Papa, Grandma, and Aunt Bessie shared. As we got older, it was often just Papa at the piano and my sister Janet and me singing along. How we loved to sing from the scores of “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Hello Dolly.”
When our notes did not hit the mark, Papa would say, “You have to hear the note in your head.” And then Papa would sing the note and hit the key a few times, until we “heard” it in our head and could sing it back to him. That skill definitely came in handy later as I studied music in high school and college.
While Papa had dreams of becoming an opera singer, his parents, his mother in particular, told him that he needed to have a “real” profession. Papa became a pharmacist. When Papa met my grandmother, she encouraged Papa to study to become an opera singer. And study he did. While working as a licensed pharmacist, Papa taught himself French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Russian to audition for New York City’s famed Metropolitan Opera Company, which required him to sing excerpts from 15 different arias.
The Metropolitan Opera, founded in 1883, is the largest classical music organization in North America. It presents about 27 different operas each year from late September through May. The operas are presented in a rotating repertory schedule, with up to seven performances of four different works staged each week.
Max Alperstein debuted with the Metropolitan Opera in 1939, when they performed Otello, Der Rosenkavalier, Die Walkurie, Aida, La Boheme, La Traviata, Rigoletto, and Salome.
During WWII, from 1942-45, Papa held a civilian position working in a defense plant as an inspector in NJ, and was later drafted by the US Army to serve as a Medical Technician. It was a thrill for him to rejoin the Metropolitan Opera Company in 1946, to contribute his tenor to productions of Madame Butterfly, Faust, Carmen, and The Marriage of Figaro.
His debut from the chorus to a featured role came in a production of Pagliacci that began its run on November 10, 1958
Papa sang with the Metropolitan Opera for 34 years, appearing on stage at the Metropolitan Opera House and traveling the country by train and the world “Met Jet” with touring companies. He was a tenor with a voice that soared.
Papa retired in April 1977. His final season echoed his first, with performances of Otello, La Boheme, and Rigoletto.
While I never saw Papa perform live at the grand Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, I was fortunate to have front row seats to his many concerts given at home, during commercials of a television program, and, of course, while playing piano. I can still hear his voice as he warmed up washing the dishes.
Even 15 years after retirement, when Papa took me and my sister Janet to the opera, it was old home week for him. He would take us in through the stage door at the Met, to visit the cast and crew prior to a performance. Everyone knew Papa by name. From opera stars to security guards. “Max, Max, how are you?” It was so special to be there and see the impact my Papa had over so many years, with so many different people.
Ironically, Placido Domingo made his debut in the United States with the Dallas Civic Opera, but he went on to perform with my Papa at the Met and played Rigoletto in Papa’s final appearance in that opera.
27 years after Max Alperstein retired from the Metropolitan Opera Company, when my mom called the Men’s Chorus Room to tell them Papa died, the man who answered the phone said that he was starting out when Papa was getting ready to retire. He shared that he had modeled his career after my Papa’s.
My parents, Janet, and I have all had the pleasure of listening to the classical music station and hearing a recording of the Met from years gone by, saying, “I think that’s Papa, I hear.” And, sure enough, when the announcer comes back on and identifies the performance that we just listened to, it confirms that was, indeed, Papa’s voice that we had just heard.
Papa was the Sandy Koufax of the Metropolitan Opera.
Papa was more than an opera singer. He was also a chazzan. Leading services for shuls that did not have a chazzan for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur was extremely important to him. Depending on when the Jewish holidays fell on the secular calendar, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sometimes fell before the beginning of or right at the beginning of the Opera Season. For years, when Papa asked for time off when the Jewish holidays conflicted with the opera schedule, he was not only denied time off, he was fired by the Metropolitan Opera Company. Thankfully, he was always rehired shortly thereafter.
As well as performing opera and conducting High Holy Days services, Papa loved officiating Jewish weddings, including my parents and other family members. My dad recalls the chuppah Papa kept in the closet for those times you need to perform a wedding in your living room!
Judaism and Yiddishkeit were always important to my Papa and Grandma. Founding members of their synagogue, sending my dad and his brother, my Uncle Howie, to Jewish sleepaway camp, supporting Janet’s and my involvement in Jewish youth groups, trips to Israel, and of course spending holidays with us.
Grandma died on the 2nd day of Sukkot in 1992. The following Yom Kippur, my parents and Janet (I was away at college) had the seudat mafseket (meal before the Yom Kippur fast) with Papa. My dad left for services while my mom and Janet stayed back for a bit to be with Papa. When my mom and Janet got up to leave, to join my dad at shul, Papa escorted them to the door. As they walked away, Papa, in his cantorial voice, began singing, “Kol Nidrei. Ve’esarei, Ush’vuei, Vacharamei…..” As the words carried themselves down the hallway, my Mom and Janet looked at each other. They knew where they should be for Kol Nidrei that year. They turned around and spent a very special erev Yom Kippur with Papa.
Today, the namesakes of my Papa, Grandma, and Aunt Bessie — my daughters, Shira and Aliza, and my nephew, Janet’s son Max — carry on the family tradition of being close, having fun, celebrating together, and sharing music.
I hear the note in my head.
Abigail Ruttenberg lives with her husband Yoni and their two daughters Shira and Aliza in Far North Dallas. While they never met Abigail’s Papa, the whole Ruttenberg family joins in Abigail’s show tune sing-alongs at home.