I’ve started reading Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams by Charles King, a well-written history full of riveting details, and I’ve just gotten to a passage (on p. 68) describing the city in the early nineteenth century, just after its great governor, the Duc de Richelieu, had ended a terrifying episode of bubonic plague in late 1812 by drastic expedients like shutting the entire city down and burning the harbor (and not, amazingly for the time, blaming the Jews):

As the owners of the major trading houses and with strong family and business connections with the Mediterranean, Italians dominated city life, a recapitulation of their role when Genoese and Venetian trading centers ringed the Black Sea. Italian became the city’s lingua franca, lilting through the commercial exchange and wafting up from the docklands. Street signs—another innovation of Richelieu’s tenure—were written in both Italian and Russian, a practice that lasted well beyond his days in office. An eight-hundred-seat opera house, established by Richelieu only three years before the plague and designed by Jean-François Thomas de Thomon, one of the great shapers of St. Petersburg, featured a visiting Italian company performing a standard repertoire of classics. The company offered an early-nineteenth-century version of surtitles: a Russian actor would helpfully summarize the libretto for any audience members who happened not to speak Italian. Even the city’s ubiquitous carters and petty traders, or chumaks, were known to break into choruses of “La donna è mobile”—that is, unless they were singing their own ditties about the glories of the city at the end of the drover trails…

(The picky will point out that “La donna è mobile” didn’t exist until 1851, but they could have been singing something from Tancredi.)


  1. Bill Walderman says

    I’m not sure that in 1812 there were quite as many Jews in Odessa to blame for plagues and other natural catastrophes as later in the 19th century. My great-grandfather, born in Vinnitsa sometime in the 1830s, later moved to Odessa, and I suspect he was not alone. (Fortunately, his son moved to Baltimore in the 1880s and eventually managed to bring all his living family members there, including my great-grandparents and copious in-laws.)

  2. Bill Walderman says

    Another thought. It’s well known that much of the traditional cantorial music that flourished in American synagogues is basically Italian opera with augmented seconds (an interval that sounds exotic and “Oriental”). OK, that’s maybe an exaggeration, but the American Jewish cantorial style, and the synagogue music itself was heavily influenced by Italian opera, especially Verdi. Many of the cantors who achieved fame in the US were from Odessa. The Odessa Opera House (and other opera houses in Russia) undoubtedly had something to do with this instance of cross-cultural fertilization.
    I’m not practicing anymore, but I can remember hearing this wonderful music as a kid in the B’nai Jeshurun synagogue on West 89th Street, which was the subject of an article in the New York Times last week.

  3. the city’s ubiquitous carters and petty traders, or chumaks, were known to break into choruses of “La donna è mobile”
    Which brings to mind that sketch by Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse.

Speak Your Mind