Tourel, Jennie (1899–1973)

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Tourel, Jennie (1899–1973)

American operatic mezzo-soprano who was considered one of the best recitalists of her era. Born on June 22, 1899 (she claimed 1910), in Vitebsk, Russia (some sources cite Montreal, Canada); died of lung cancer on November 23, 1973, in New York City; daughter of Solomon Davidson (a banker) and Pauline (Schulkin) Davidson; studied music privately and with Anna El-Tour; married Bernhard Michlin (divorced); married Leo Michaelson (an artist, later divorced); married Harry Gross (a cardiac specialist), in 1955 (divorced 1957); naturalized U.S. citizen, 1946.

Debuted at the Opera-Russe, Paris (1931); performed as guest in title role of Carmen, Paris Opéra-Comique (1933); sang under the baton of Arturo Toscanini in Hector Berlioz's Roméo et Juliette with New York Philharmonic Symphony (1942).

Accounts of the early life of acclaimed mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel differ widely. Tourel maintained that she was born in Montreal in 1910, while her Russian-Jewish parents were visiting that country. Other accounts, however, indicate that she was born in 1899 in the Russian city of Vitebsk. It is believed that she spent her earliest years in Russia and then moved with her parents to Paris. Though one account suggests Tourel moved there at the age of one, other reports indicate that the wealthy Davidson family fled to Paris in 1918 to escape the aftermath of the Russian Revolution.

From a very early age, Tourel enjoyed singing. Her mother, said to have had an appealing voice, sang to her in Russian, and by age two the girl was repeating many of these songs. When Tourel was six, she began formal lessons on flute and later studied piano. In 1926, Tourel began to study voice with Russian soprano Anna El-Tour , who had come to Paris to teach at the Eastern Conservatory and whose name the student adapted to use on the stage. Tourel remained with El-Tour for only two years, however, preferring to work with a coach on repertoire and to teach herself by listening to and imitating the best singers in Paris. She later named Conchita Supervia and Marya Freund as major influences, as well as Madeleine Grey and Eva Gauthier . Tourel made numerous concert appearances and by 1931 debuted at the Opéra-Russe. She first appeared in the United States with the Chicago Opera during the 1930–31 season, when she sang in Ernest Moret's Lorenzaccio and performed the role of Lola in Mascagni's Cavelleria Rusticana. She also appeared with Mary Garden in the world premiere of Hamilton Forrest's Camille.

In 1933, a member of the Paris Opéra-Comique heard Tourel singing at a party and suggested she audition for the company. The management was impressed with her ability, but did not give her a contract immediately because she lacked stage experience. Instead, they invited her to debut as a guest in the title role of Carmen. Tourel's performance elicited an ovation at the end of the second act, and she received a coveted contract for leading parts with the company. Among her roles were Charlotte in Massenet's Werther and the title roles in Rossini's La Cenerentola and Bizet's Kjamileh. She achieved particular success with her performances in Carmen and Thomas' Mignon.

Tourel's successful career was interrupted, however, when she abruptly fled Paris in June 1940, just two days ahead of the Nazi invasion. She escaped to Lisbon, where she became ill, and then had to wait in Havana, Cuba, before being allowed entry to the United States in January 1941. Hoping to resume her career by joining New York City's Metropolitan Opera, where she had sung Mignon and Carmen in 1937, Tourel found that all the roles for the season had already been assigned. The Metropolitan's conductor, Wilfred Pelletier, invited her to sing Carmen and Mignon under his direction in Montreal. Subsequently, she sang these and other roles on tour in Cuba and throughout the United States.

The event that launched Tourel's American career occurred the following year. In October 1942, she performed with Arturo Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic in Roméo et Juliette, a dramatic symphony by Berlioz. Critic Virgil Thomson, writing for the New York Herald Tribune, hailed her as a "singer in the great tradition" and noted, "Her voice is beautiful, her diction clear, her vocalism impeccable and her musicianship tops." Tourel, who told reporters that she had been "ecstatic" at the opportunity to perform under the baton of Toscanini, went on to perform with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky, with Leopold Stokowski and the NBC Symphony in the American premiere of Serge Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky Cantata in March 1943, and with Stokowski again in Bach's St. Matthew Passion at the Metropolitan Opera House in April 1943. She made her New York City recital debut at Town Hall on November 13, 1943, prompting Virgil Thomson to enthuse: "Her musicianship in every domain is so thorough that from the whole technical and intellectual aspect her work belongs clearly with that of the great virtuosos of music."

Tourel's many performances of Berlioz and Mahler are thought to have led to the renewed popularity of those composers. She was also interested in avant-garde and contemporary music, in particular the works of Villa-Lobos, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Rorem, Poulenc, Debussy, Ravel, and Nin. She created the role of Baba the Turk in the Venice premiere of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress in 1951, and became a close collaborator with Leonard Bernstein. Tourel sang in the premiere of his Jeremiah symphony in Pittsburgh in 1944; this was also the piece she chose for her last public appearance in Israel in 1973.

During the 1950s, Tourel performed with the American Opera Society in concert versions of less popular operas, such as Rossini's Otello and Offenbach's La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein. She also started teaching during this period, and joined the faculty at the Juilliard School in 1964. She began offering public master classes at Carnegie Recital Hall in 1963, attracting many professionals and amateurs. In 1971, Tourel appeared as the countess in a National Educational Television (NET) production of Pique Dame, and the following year she returned to the stage with the Seattle Opera in Pasatieri's Black Widow. Shortly before her death in 1973, Tourel appeared in the speaking role of the Duchess of Krakenthorp in the Chicago Lyric Opera's production of Donizetti's La Fille du Régiment.

Tourel became an American citizen in 1946. Fluent in a number of languages, including Russian, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Hebrew, and English, she was admired for the instinctive sensitivity with which she sang in each language. Wrote Thomson: "She moves around in each tongue as if it were a whole new landscape and climate, untranslated, untranslatable and unique." She was also admired for the technical skill and distinctive style she cultivated for her remarkable voice—a deep, rich contralto with a range from low G through high C. Tourel, who commented that she sang as an outlet for her "always burning" emotions, was also considered a singer of extraordinary feeling.

Tourel had three marriages, all of which ended in divorce. Her first marriage, in Paris, was to businessman Bernhard Michlin. She later married artist Leo Michaelson. In 1955, she married cardiac specialist Dr. Harry Gross, but the couple divorced in 1957. In addition to music, Tourel enjoyed books, museums, paintings, theater, and film. She died of lung cancer in New York City on November 23, 1973.


Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1947.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Elizabeth Shostak , M.A., Cambridge, Massachusetts