Sinai’s Cantor Colman Ready for New Orleans Opera Debut

Fresh off a 13th anniversary celebration of his time at New Orleans’ Temple Sinai, Cantor Joel Colman is set to conquer another endeavor. This month he makes his opera debut as Old Hebrew in the New Orleans Opera’s presentation of “Samson and Delilah.”

Based on the Biblical story from 1150 B.C.E., the production stars Richard Cox as Samson and Edyta Kulczak as Delilah.

Performances are March 15 at 8 p.m. and March 17 at 2:30 p.m. Music critic George Dansker will lead a “Nuts and Bolts” lecture an hour before curtain. The performances, at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts, are in French with English supertitles.

The original production, which debuted in Weimar in 1877, was in German.

There are three acts, set in Gaza during the Philistine occupation. Old Hebrew’s prophetic role comes when Samson returns from killing Philistine commander Abimelech.

Colman noted that anyone who comes late and does not get seated until the second act would therefore miss his performance, which is entirely in the first act.

Colman is a member of the New Orleans Vocal Arts Chorale, which a year ago was augmenting the chorale for the New Orleans Opera’s presentation of “Carmina Burana.” During the show’s run he made sure to say hello to a congregant, Rachel Van Voorhees, principal harpist for the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. She introduced him to Robert Lyall, artistic director for the opera.

Colman figures that later, Van Voorhees mentioned to Lyall that Colman was a bass-baritone, as Lyall was starting to cast for the Spring 2013 season. At the final performance of “Carmina Burana” Lyall pulled Colman aside and asked to hear Colman audition a couple of weeks later. He auditioned and got the role of Old Hebrew.

This isn’t Colman’s first time on stage. He has performed with the Tulane Summer Lyric Theater, most recently in a run of “Fiddler on the Roof” last summer. But opera is another animal.

For starters, Colman is not fluent in French. “Thank goodness my organist (at Temple Sinai), Marcus St. Julien, is fluent with the French opera repertoire.”

Also assisting his language skills has been Gisele Schexnider, a local French academic whose daughter, Margaux, had her Bat Mitzvah at Temple Sinai in January 2012. A year after being the Bat Mitzvah student, Margaux is now the teacher, and Colman said “I think she enjoys getting back at the cantor.”

He added that “last time I sang for her, last week, she wasn’t laughing as much,” so he took that as a good sign.

The other major challenge is that the other three principals are all professional opera performers. “That’s what they do, that’s their life. They’ve all sung at the Met in New York.” He compares it to being asked to play on an NBA team.

The local performers have been rehearsing since January, and he said the opera’s chorus is “top notch.” The principals arrive in town on Feb. 27 for an intensive set of rehearsals leading up to the show.

He calls Lyall a “mensch” who is sensitive to Colman’s obligations at Temple Sinai. The Vocal Arts Chorale is also flexible, with members signing on as to which of the four programs per year they can fit into their schedule. “Temple Sinai keeps me very busy,” he said.

Having these additional musical outlets “stretches you vocally and challenges you,” he said, “and strengthens my role as a cantor.”