Catching up with Dudu Fisher

Traveling the globe, the Israeli cantor and Broadway star takes a break to speak about his career, Evangelical Christians and current projects.

Dudu Fisher 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dudu Fisher 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Dudu Fisher’s voice has filled the world’s greatest concert venues, from Carnegie Hall to Wembley Stadium and from Sydney’s Opera House to Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater. He has performed for heads of state and even the pope. Throughout his busy international performing career, Fisher has become one of Israel’s most renowned musical ambassadors.
I spoke to Fisher while he was in Florida, just prior to a business trip in Missouri, followed by a set of tour dates in Australia. Constantly on the move entertaining audiences with his unique blend of Broadway, Israeli, Yiddish, Ladino and traditional cantorial music, he seems to be enjoying his career now more than ever. “It’s nonstop, thank God. I’m very happy about it,” he says. “I might sound tired but I’m very happy.”
Acclaimed for his wide-ranging repertoire and classic cantorial voice, one might think Fisher would have pursued an operatic career. While he sings in Italian (besides Hebrew, Yiddish, English, Spanish, Ladino and Russian), he lacked the passion for it.
Early in his career he performed in just one opera, Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte, but he knew it was not what he wanted to do with his life. He even disregarded his Israeli vocal teacher’s encouragement to move to Italy and study voice there, learn a few roles and embark on an operatic career. Opera just did not fit Fisher’s musical interests or ambitions.
Instead, his rise from cantor of Tel Aviv’s Great Synagogue to Broadway stardom was nothing short of a miracle.
That miracle, he maintains, was Cameron Mackintosh, producer of Les Misérables.
Les Misérables was a major turning point in Fisher’s career. After first seeing the production, by chance, during a 1986 visit to London – and soon after hearing of the upcoming Israeli production in Hebrew – he pursued, with great determination and passion, the lead role of Jean Valjean, despite his lack of theater background.
Yet he auditioned and got the Hebrewlanguage role. Les Miz became the longest running musical in Israeli history.
After his success in the Israeli run of Les Miz, Mackintosh offered Fisher the chance to make his Broadway debut. As an observant Jew, he could not accept because he could not commit to the weekly schedule requiring work on Shabbat and the holidays.
It was now Mackintosh who was determined.
A couple of years later, he again asked Fisher to come to New York to play Jean Valjean on Broadway. After countless international auditions that, while promising, he would inevitably have to decline for religious reasons, he had long accepted the reality that Broadway would not likely ever employ him. Yet Mackintosh wanted Fisher on the Broadway stage and made the key concession.
“It was a once in a lifetime situation,” he vividly recalls.
When he later asked Macintosh why he had agreed to hire him for Broadway – even publishing in Playbill that “Fisher will not appear on Friday nights and Saturday matinees and Jewish holidays for religious reasons” – Mackintosh, recognizing Fisher’s talent, simply said, “Because I love you, that’s all.”
Fisher assumed the role of Valjean – now in English – both on Broadway and later in London’s West End. “He really touched my heart,” he says, speaking about Macintosh.
If Broadway schedules allowed him, he would relish the opportunity to portray Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, or perform in Man of La Mancha, or even portray the father role in La Cage aux Folles, a musical he loves and, hinted, a role he might have the opportunity to play in the near future.
However, Les Misérables remains, for Fisher, a musical that is hard to top. “After Les Miz, everything looks smaller.” He knows how fortunate he was. “God was very good to me, to send me to London and, by mistake 25 years ago, to watch this musical, to see this musical and by this to change my whole life because, otherwise, I would still be a cantor in a synagogue singing cantorial music and Yiddish songs – not that I don’t like it. I love cantorial music and I love Yiddish songs, but Les Miz changed my life.”
YET OUTSIDE of Israel, in auditions for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera or other productions, no producer would agree to hire someone else to do the show on Friday nights. The costs of production would be prohibitive.
This was always the problem. So Fisher decided that, to avoid constant professional frustration, the best path for his career was to do his own shows. He proudly says, “Some of these shows opened off-Broadway, [and] were very successful,” such as Never on Friday and Something Old, Something New.
His latest production is Jerusalem, which he is keen on bringing to America. “I think it’s very important as an Israeli to show the other side of Jerusalem,” the positive aspects rather than sensationalized negative news reports. “I think the music[al] side of Jerusalem has to be shown to the world, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
He is currently negotiating with a large US production company to try to make this a reality. He also wants to produce a DVD of the show for mass distribution. “It’s not only my passion to sing on stage, [but] it’s also my passion as an Israeli to bring [a positive] message to the world.”
Fisher has a broad audience in mind for his production of Jerusalem. It is no longer only Jewish audiences who are interested, but, he observes, “we have today hundreds of millions of Evangelical Christians who love us – I don’t know why – but they love Jewish people, they love the State of Israel, they help us with money, they help us politically.”
In fact, Fisher has become a close friend of Pastor John Hagee, among America’s most influential Christian Zionists.
“He’s amazing,” maintains Fisher, who has already done performances for Hagee’s Evangelical organization.
“I think that the Evengelical community in the world – I’m not talking only about the 70 million or 80 million of them in America, but they are all over the world” – is a sizable group of people who he feels is on Israel’s side. “I sing for them in Singapore.
I sing for them in Sweden. I sing for them in Brazil.
They are all over, and they are eager, and they are thirsty, and they want to hear about Jerusalem.”
He is passionate about their sincerity. “When there are problems, you know who comes as tourists to Israel? The Evangelicals.
Jews don’t come so much. Evangelicals are not afraid of any bombs. They are not afraid of anything. They come and they help the Israeli economy.”
He believes that Evangelicals represent a great market and would appreciate DVDs of his Jerusalem production.
But he knows his core audience well, and performs all around the world for enthusiastic Jewish audiences who enjoy his traditional Israeli, Yiddish, Ladino, hassidic, cantorial and Broadway repertoire. Since January, his current tour has taken him to Mexico, Australia, the US and Canada, with more international performances, including Argentina and a return to the US, after a brief visit to Israel for Purim.
With his career taking him away from home for about 70 percent of the year, his return visits to Israel – he was born in Petah Tikva in 1951 – are special because of his family, but also extremely busy because he is constantly working. He is about to release his 16th DVD for his very popular line of Hebrew-language children’s videos.
“It’s a big, big line. And I enjoy doing it very much,” he says enthusiastically.
“When I go to Israel... I am recording, and I’m shooting [videos]. So, I’m busy when I’m there, and I’m busy when I’m on the road, and it’s lovely.”
A CANTOR trained in the Ashkenazi Orthodox tradition, he served congregations in Tel Aviv, New York and South Africa. He still serves annually as cantorial soloist for High Holy Day services in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
As cantor for 28 years at the legendary Kutsher’s Country Club in the Catskill Mountains, he led thousands of vacationing Jews in prayer. This was the “Borscht Belt” where many entertainers earned their fame.
“The people who came to Kutsher’s were mostly Conservative,” he recalls. “They came to have a good time. They came to eat well, and to listen to a concert. For them, synagogue was like going to see a concert. That is what I was trying to do for them also. They are paying a hotel to have a good time, and you have to provide this. That’s what I was trying to do.
“It’s an era which is finished and it was great. I loved it. I loved going there every year, twice – for Pessah and for Rosh Hashana [and] Yom Kippur – and, listen, my kids grew [up] there. And I got older.
A lifetime, 28 years. But it was a great experience.”
In 2005, he also served as cantor at New York City Synagogue on the Upper East Side, but he says he had to stop after three years. “I just got tired of it because I’m working too hard during the week, and I think I deserve to rest one day, so, for me, Shabbat today is like all other regular people.
I’m resting.”
Jewish liturgical music is where Fisher’s career began, and he has never left it. Performing High Holy Day services, he feels, is “like going back to my childhood and recharging my batteries because I started as a cantor.” He credits his maternal grandfather for his inspiration. “My grandfather taught me how to sing cantorial music. He was my mentor. The music that he sang was the first music that my ears heard as a baby.” He later studied under some of Israel’s most famous cantors, including Shlomo Ravitz.
He continues to hold the cantor’s role in great esteem. “A lot of people say that ballet is the most difficult artistic way to express yourself. And I say that cantorial music is even harder because, when you dance to ballet, you still have the music and people can see your emotions on your face and in your movements. As a cantor you’re standing with your back to the people.”
In the Orthodox tradition in which he was raised, there are no musical instruments.
“People cannot see the expressions on your face. And only with the help of your voice, you have to bring these people to cry and to be happy and to smile and to think about God and about the future and about the past. Every prayer has something special,” Fisher says. “It’s a very, very difficult task to be a cantor, there’s no doubt about it. And this is something that I will always cherish and will always like to do, but unfortunately I am doing it only once a year now for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.”
Besides cantorial music, another important genre for Fisher is the Yiddish song, a personal interest for which he gives credit to his maternal grandmother.
Audience reception to his Yiddish shows varies from venue to venue. He says in Mexico, where he recently gave two concerts, people requested Yiddish songs. But this is not the norm. This “never happens when I go to America or when I go to Australia.
People [there] don’t want that much Yiddish anymore, because people do not understand this language anymore.
Israel still has, I think, a population of about maybe half a million people who understand Yiddish. I think that many of the people still remember.”
He often talks about the significance of Yiddish in his performances. “My grandmother used to tell me, ‘Don’t forget wherever you go, sing at least one song in Yiddish,’ [whether] I sing for Jewish people or non-Jewish people. But I said, ‘Grandma, [for] whom do you want me to sing?’ She said, ’Sing for me!’” He does. He makes sure to include Yiddish in every show that he gives. “It doesn’t matter really if it is for Jewish people or non-Jewish people. There always will be one song at least in Yiddish, because I really love this language, and I love this music and I think that by singing it, I’m helping to keep it a little bit alive because this language is unfortunately dying out.”
Depending on the concert, he will often include a medley of popular Yiddish songs.
Broadway is still an important source of his concert repertoire though, and a source of great pleasure to his listeners.
Asked if he has a personal favorite song from Les Miz, without hesitation he says “Bring Him Home,” because it holds considerable sentimental meaning for Fisher, both when his children served in the IDF – “I used to sing this song when they were in the army. I used to sing this song for them and their friends” – and now for Gilad Schalit, to whom he has dedicated the song.
He looks forward to the day when he can stop dedicating it to Schalit, when he is finally freed from captivity in the Gaza Strip.
But his performances rarely ignore his claim to international fame – Les Miz – especially now that it is celebrating its 25th anniversary. “Les Miz is one of those musicals that every song is amazing. There is not one song that you can say that it’s a dull song or that it’s a stupid song. In all other musicals, sometimes they have great songs and then they have songs [that are less great]. Take a musical like Cats, you have only one song from there that you can sing – ‘Memory,’ and that’s it.”
Another musical that he believes has such power, in which every song is a hit, is Oliver! “This is another role that I would love to do – Fagin – it is really an amazing role that I would love to play.”
Asked about the contemporary music scene in Israel and whether there is an emerging generational gap in musical tastes, he is both optimistic and realistic.
“Some of the singers in Israel don’t have any generational gap. Take Shlomo Artzi. Shlomo Artzi is a guy that people 70 years old and 16 years old are coming to listen to. And it is a phenomenon. He is a real phenomenon.”
Of course, there exists a generational gap as anywhere else. Rock bands naturally attract younger audiences. “Even if you take [American hassidic reggae performer] Matisyahu. The older generation would not understand what he’s doing, what he’s talking about, and the younger generation would.”
He loves this music. “We have in Israel amazing writers and amazing performers, like Idan Raichel.
He is one of the best musicians that we have and he’s known all over the world with his new World Music.
I think there is a lot of talent in Israel, and I’m very happy about it. People are expressing themselves and they know how to write great music. It’s wonderful.”
He is also becoming more involved with klezmer music. His latest CD and DVD release was The Singing Klezmer. “I love klezmer music because it shows the [virtuosity] of the voice, it gives you a chance to play with your voice more than any other music,” he says.
Lately, he has begun experimenting with Yiddish klezmer vocal music that he describes as “very lively and beautiful” but which takes a lot of energy given klezmer’s traditional fast-paced rhythms and expressive melodies.
Klezmer brings Fisher to his family’s Eastern European roots. His mother came from Latvia, while his father survived the Holocaust in Ukraine. He has given several emotional performances in each place.
On one such trip, he relates, “I took my father to see his [place of hiding during the war]. My father was saved by a non-Jewish family. He lived in the bunker of the house for 18 months.”
This was in Dubno, near Lvov. But they could not find the house. “It was destroyed probably at [the end of] the war.”
Traveling and performing remain his greatest passions.
“I love to perform. I love my work, I love my job, and I don’t care [about] the flights and the hotels. I love to meet new people every time. I love to see new cultures. I really love the stage. Give me the stage and I’m alive. And that’s what I love to do.”
Since his career-changing role in Les Miz, there have been few countries in which he has not appeared. When asked where in the world he could perform if he had the opportunity, he paused and said “China.” Although he has performed in Hong Kong, he has yet to perform in Beijing or on the Great Wall.
For now, he is happy to be returning to Israel in time for Purim, following a performance in Vancouver, Canada, which he is looking forward to as it will be a rare opportunity for him to perform alone in concert with just a pianist on stage. Once in Israel, however, he will soon be packing his bags again and setting off just prior to Pessah for yet another world tour. But that’s just the way Fisher likes it.