Forgotten Opera Singers

Forgotten Opera Singers

Nov 21, 2014

Selmar Cerini (Tenor) (Poland, Wólka 1861 - Poland, Breslau 1923)

His real surname was Steifman. He left home at the age of eleven because he rebelled against the intolerance of his fanatically religious parents and went to neighboring Pultusk, intending to study the Talmud. While singing at the Sabbath service, the cantor heard him and became interested in his voice, putting him in the choir and giving him his first music lessons. At the age of 12 he went to Plonsk, and in the synagogue there he sang  the prayers, alternating with the choir and gaining much admiration. However, with his change of voice at the age of 15, Cerini was forced to return home, where his family was totally opposed to him becoming a singer. However, he tested his voice secretly for about a year, and when he found that his voice had developed into a beautiful tenor, he made his way to Warsaw. He stayed there two years, singing in a synagogue choir and studying music. His obligatory  military service of 5 years was shortened to only one because of favor from his superiors, who recognized the boy's talent. In 1882 he accepted the position of cantor in the town of Zagorow, and stayed there three years. He then went  to Lodz, and his singing in the local synagogue brought such crowds that police had to be stationed around the synagogue. However, Cerini still desired a career on the stage, and after many hardships was given a scholarship at the  Royal Music Academy in Berlin. He also sang as the soloist in the major synagogue in Berlin, where he was heard by the director of the Victoria Theater, who gave him a solo sung behind the scene in a minor opera. He was a tremendous success, but his name wasn't even listed in the program, and critics demanded to know who the wonderful tenor was. Since at that time beginners were not allowed to perform in public without a contract, the director had the name of a well-known Italian tenor, Cerini, printed in the program as a pseudonym so that the singer would not incur a penalty; Cerini retained that name throughout his career. After three years of study in Berlin, Cerini made his stage debut in Halberstadt in 1890, where he sang in  Il Trovatore and Flotow's Alessandro Stradella. He then appeared as guest in Stettin, which led to an offer of a five-year contract at the Leipzig Opera. He declined the offer because of racial hatred in that city, but accepted a three-year contract in Breslau in 1891. His performances there were sold out, and and he was a great box office success. At the Breslau City Theater he sang such roles as Eleazer in La Juive, Raoul in Les Huguenots, Arnold in Guillaume Tell, Radames in Aida, Manrico in Il Trovatore, and Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana. His fame soon spread all over Germany and he was invited to sing at many different German houses, including the Kroll Opera in Berlin. However, the life of an opera singer soon palled. Because of his religious convictions he would not sing on the Sabbath, nor ride on a train; if he could not find a place where Jewish dietary laws were observed, he made do with dry food. He also confronted anti-Semitism, and was even advised to convert, which he refused to do. Although he was in great demand and could have sung at any of the major houses, he decided to give up the stage and accepted an offer to become the chief cantor of Breslau in 1895. Judging from the reviews of the times, and from his recordings, Cerini may well have had one of the greatest  tenor voices of his time, and yet sadly, his stage career only lasted 5 years. Cerini was one of the first cantors to record, and it should be remembered that his records were made about 10 years after he had last sung on the stage.

 Chronology of some appearances

1890 Halberstadt Opera House
1890 Stettin Opera House
1891-1894 Breslau Opera House


G&T, Breslau 1904
Juive (Halévy): Gott erleuchte meine Sinne 2-42961

Odeon, Berlin 1905-02?
Aida (Verdi): Holde Aida X34526
Barbiere di Siviglia (Rossini) Sieh' schon die Morgenröte X34525
Guillaume Tell (Rossini) Du meiner Väter Hütte  X34480
Kaddish zu Tal und Geshem X.38810
Kol Nidre (arr. Lewandowski) X.38801
Mach auf! (Spanische Serenade) (Dessauer) X34522
Alt-Heidelberg, du feine, op. 34 (Jensen)  X 34541

Beka, Breslau
Uwaschofor Godol (Lewandowski) 10513
Socharti loch (Lewandowski) 10512

Anker, Breslau
Maoz Zur (arr. Louis Lewandowski)  896

Berlin, Zonophone 1906
Guillaume Tell (Rossini) Du meiner Väter Hütte X-22355

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