Nina Baker Feinberg and Ted Schillinger co-directed this moving documentary on the tumultuous life of Isa Kremer (1887-1956), a Russian-born soprano who broke significant barriers through the unapologetic incorporation of Yiddish-language songs into her concert performances.
In many ways, Kremer enjoyed an unusually charmed life: the daughter of a well-to-do Jewish family, she was spared from the anti-Semitic environment of Tsarist Russia as a teenager when Israel Heifetz, the publisher of an Odessa newspaper, arranged for her musical education in Italy. Her overseas studies lasted from 1902 to 1911, and shortly after her return to Odessa she became a star of the Russian opera and concert recital circuit. Even the Tsar was enchanted by Kremer’s beauty and vocal prowess, and she enjoyed a degree of celebrity that was unprecedented for a Jewish performer.
Kremer married Heifetz, despite their 27-year difference in age, and they had a daughter. Kremer was in Constantinople when the 1917 revolution occurred, and it took her three years of negotiating before she could bring her family out of the Soviet Union.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Kremer’s concert recitals mixed classical music and folk songs of various cultures. Kremer made numerous recordings – though, oddly, she declined to record her most notable song, the haunting elegy to her Russian-Jewish roots, “Mayn shtetele Belz.” Although non-Jewish audiences responded fondly to her Yiddish selection, Kremer was twice asked to remove her Yiddish songs from her performances by very difference forces: by the Nazi government before a 1936 concert given in Berlin to an all-Jewish audience, and by the Israeli government before a concert held in Tel Aviv after the Jewish state’s creation (the latter was based on the Israeli push to revive Hebrew as the unifying language of the Jewish people).
Despite her preference for songs that focused on family, Kremer placed more focus on her career and social life and gave less attention to her husband and daughter (the latter would recall her mother as a glamorous guest that flitted in and out of her life). After Heifetz’ death, Kremer emigrated to Argentina and married a noted physician. However, her left-wing politics resulted in considerable problems after Juan Peron’s fascist regime took power.
This documentary is packed with a seemingly endless collection of photographs, news clippings, recordings and even a scratchy print from Kremer’s only known film appearance (a Vitaphone short produced when talking pictures were beginning to take root). The result is a portrait of a woman who was both bold and baffling: a genuine talent but a complex and often exasperating personality who was capable of great generosity and even greater selfishness. Indeed, calling Kremer “the people’s diva” is no small exaggeration – the love of her fans was exceeded only by her self-adoration.