On Sunday, December 25, 2011, the Yiddish singer Adrienne Cooper passed away in a Manhattan hospital after battling cancer. She was 65.
Cooper played a pivotal role in the revival of klezmer music and Yiddish culture, helping to nurture an entire generation of Yiddish singers and musicians. She not only performed and recorded Yiddish music but held key jobs at such Jewish communal and scholarly institutions as the Workman’s Circle and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
Many of her colleagues referred to Cooper as the mother of the Yiddish culture scene.
“I revered Adrienne as a singer but I also revered her as a writer, as a cultural activist and she was a virtuoso at all of it,” said Jeff Warschauer, who first met Cooper at the winter gathering of klezmer musicians known as KlezKamp.
Cooper explained her approach to Yiddish song in an oral history she recorded at KlezKamp, saying, “My approach to all music is kind of the same. I have an enormous interest in the psychology behind the song and in language. The stuff of the texts was always what I was about. And not so much performance and not so much vocal pyrotechnics.”
But Cooper’s mezzo soprano thrilled audiences around the world. It was a voice that prompted The Jewish Week music critic George Robinson to rank Cooper among the greatest female performers in world music.
“She sang from her heart,” said Zalmen Mlotek, the artistic director of Folksbiene, the Yiddish theater group. Mlotek collaborated with Cooper for 20 years. “She studied opera and classical music but she could transcend that part of her voice. She could go to the earthy, folky place and when the folk music demanded that kind of a sound, she gave it.”
Adrienne Cooper was praised for understanding the power of Yiddish songs and recognizing the need to contextualize them for new audiences who were not native Yiddish speakers. She didn’t grow up in a Yiddish-speaking household but her home was full of Jewish music thanks to her mother and grandparents. In Yiddish song workshops at KlezKamp, which she co-founded, thousands of aspiring performers studied with her.
Among the two dozen friends and family members who gathered at Roosevelt Hospital on December 25 to mark Cooper’s passing was Michael Alpert, a Yiddish singer who performed and taught with Cooper.
“Adrienne was not only an artist and teacher, she was someone who brought this culture to a broader public in a very important way,” said Alpert. “She was instrumental in making this real and tangible and accessible to people.”
Cooper was an ardent feminist who collaborated with the performer Jenny Romaine on “The Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln,” a book about a 17th century Jewish business woman. She also sang in Mikveh, an all-woman klezmer band that included the fiddler Alicia Svigals and the clarinetist Margot Leverett.
Asked what advice she had for future generations who want to preserve Yiddish culture, Cooper replied, “This culture belongs to them. They have a right to take it, to create something of their own in it. The only way it’s going to persist is in that courage and recklessness to just throw themselves at it and to own it.”
Cooper’s daughter Sarah Gordon is doing just that. She fronts a band called Yiddish Princess.