When Elena Tal was single, living in New York City, and just beginning to become frum, she auditioned for a prestigious opera company. After anxiously awaiting the results, she found out that she had been accepted to join the company and be a part of this amazing opportunity.
“I figured I could be one of the first Jewish professional artists in the secular world who would be able to keep Shabbos and kosher while simultaneously having a successful performing career,” reminisces Elena. “After all, how hard could that be?”
It was very hard, as Elena soon discovered. Although she had always been nervous to stand out or make waves, Elena forced herself to speak to the non-Jewish director immediately. “I explained that I was religious and observed the Sabbath, and I would not be able to rehearse or perform from Friday night to Saturday night.”
The director tried to be supportive and make it work. “She really wanted me to be part of the company,” says Elena, “but we soon both came to the conclusion that it was not feasible. Most of the concerts were on Shabbos, and if they weren’t, Shabbos was commonly used for rehearsal and travel. I was forced to turn it down.”
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Elena now lives in Baltimore with her husband, filmmaker Tsvika Tal, and their four children, and the internationally renowned soprano is busy raising her four children and doing all the tasks of every frum Jewish wife and mother. Does she regret giving up the chance for an exciting artistic career? Does one part of her still long to experience triumph on the operatic stage?
The realization that she could not have one foot in both doors was painful, Elena admits, but describes what happened immediately after she turned down the opera’s offer. For Elena, it was a defining moment: “I remember sitting on the floor, with the sunlight streaming in through the window, closing my eyes, and begging Hashem to show me that I had made the right decision,” recalls Elena. “Was Shabbos really worth it? Hadn’t I trained my whole life, thus far, for an opportunity like this? Would I regret it? With tears streaming down my face, I all of a sudden felt an overwhelming sense of calm. I delved deep down into my heart and knew at once that I was without a doubt making the right decision. I would never again feel the need to question it. Hashem had answered me, and made me feel validated at a time I needed it most, even amidst the disbelief I was receiving from my friends and family.”
Elena grew up with music. Her father, Daniel Heifetz, is a world-renowned concert violinist. The family moved to Baltimore’s Roland Park from New York City when Elena was only two years old. They were the first Jews to live there, although they were quickly followed by a number of other Jewish families. When she was 12, the family moved to Howard County, where her parents still reside. Surrounded by musicians, concerts, and music festivals, Elena began studying the violin at age three, and piano at age four, and sang, danced, and acted throughout her childhood.
Starting serious voice lessons when she was in high school, Elena went on to attend Carnegie Mellon’s musical theater program during the summer of 1995. She also loved the world of opera, and she was accepted to a top voice program at Tufts University, where she graduated with honors. Interested in learning about the business side of the arts, she interned at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s press office and for a public relations firm for major motion picture corporations.
After college, Elena studied with the chair of the vocal arts department at the Juilliard School of Music, in New York. During the summers, she studied privately with one of the foremost voice teachers in Europe, at the Hochschule für Music in Hanover, Germany, and attended and performed at the Italian International Music Festival. At the same time, to gain experience in the business side of the arts, she worked as a publicist for a major public relations firm that represented classical musicians and symphony orchestras.
It was while studying and working in New York that Elena met her husband Tsvika Tal, originally from Petach Tikva, who was working at the History Channel and A&E Television Networks at the time. “We met on our way to a rabbi’s home for Shabbos dinner on the Upper West Side. (That very rabbi read our ketubah under the chupa at our wedding.)
“Although I was non-Torah-observant growing up, I was always searching for a deeper spiritual connection to Judaism. I ended up experiencing my first real Shabbos, which was life-changing. The warmth, deep conversation, family atmosphere, singing, joy, and happiness made a deep impression. I was hooked. I started taking classes at Aish HaTorah NY and other kiruv organizations, and started going to Shabbos services and meals weekly. Slowly, I started taking on Shabbos.”
After college, Elena returned to Maryland in pursuit of a master’s degree in Vocal Performance, which she earned from the University of Maryland College Park School of Music. She has since performed in Canada and Italy, as well as aboard England’s luxury liner Queen Elizabeth. Also to her credit is a movie debut in a major Hollywood film, in which she played a young opera student.
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At this point in her life, with the help of her supportive husband – Tsvika is now the head of a film production company that produces documentaries, promotional videos, and commercials – Elena performs and lectures exclusively for women around the world, along with giving voice lessons to girls and women of all voice types and ages at the Tal Voice Studio of Baltimore.
Elena is also involved with Tizmoret Shoshana arts camp, where she gives voice lessons and master classes. “I thoroughly enjoy seeing the talented girls from frum communities around the world honing their craft. I feel it is so important for girls who love the arts to have an outlet and to realize that they can explore their talents in a tznius way with kedusha. I think what Mark and Chana Singer have done by creating this music and arts camp is very important for the frum community.”
“I firmly believe that Hashem gives us all gifts for a reason, I have learned that I can still express my love of singing but channel it in a way that is devoted to Torah and kedusha (holiness),” says Elena, who loves to sing many styles of music – from Broadway to Jewish, Yiddish, and Israeli genres. “I can still be true to myself and to my love of singing, leshem Shamayim (for the sake of Heaven).
Elena notes just a few of the wonderful professional experiences she has been fortunate to have since her career turn, from opera singer to frum professional singer and educator. “A fundraising concert I performed in Passaic, while pregnant with my second child, made me realize how important it is for women in the frum community to hear a professionally trained singer,” recalls Elena. “Although the organizers anticipated 100 women, over 400 showed up; it was standing-room only. The response I received after standing ovations and encores was so moving. Women told me how grateful they were, and how they had never heard a professional artist sing selections from the world of opera and Broadway, as well as Hebrew and Yiddish songs. Other women told me how wonderful it was to have an evening of high quality entertainment for women, right in their own neighborhoods, without having to travel to a concert hall and paying a hefty price. It was so rewarding for me to hear these reactions.”
Elena also gets much satisfaction as a private voice teacher. “I cannot begin to tell you the satisfaction of hearing my students’ voices grow and become bigger and more beautiful, especially when they remark at how much easier it is to sing, and how much fun it is! Singing should always be fun! It should never feel hard or laborious.
“More and more opportunities for creativity are opening up for girls and women in the frum community,” continues Elena. “I have students who write their own music and even produce their own albums and CDs. Even my kids are already studying instruments – and love it! I have frum colleagues who are wonderfully talented and also perform for women only. There are women choirs, theater, and dance groups. I even have voice students who are pursuing music degrees in a religious all-women music conservatory in Eretz Yisrael.”
Yet another meaningful experience occurred while Elena was giving a lecture/demonstration at a girls’ school. “The majority of these girls have never heard classical singing before,” notes Elena. “How surprised they are to hear a professional artist, and learn what it is like to sing correctly and easily! I love hearing and answering their many questions, not only regarding singing but also regarding what inspired me to leave the secular life to lead a more fulfilled life of Torah observance; what it was like to stop performing on Shabbos and start dressing tznius (modestly). I remember answering one recurring question that made an impact: ‘How were you able to turn your back on the secular world?’ – to which I answered, ‘I lived that world, and now living this life is so much more meaningful in every way. There is no comparison, and trust me, no matter what one gains in the secular world, there is nothing that compares to living a life of Torah and bringing up your children in this world.’
“In fact, that same overwhelming sense of calm that came over me after I turned down the prestigious opera company’s offer comes back to me every Friday night, when I light the Shabbos candles, say the brachos and open my eyes to see my children standing with outstretched arms, ready for their ‘Good Shabbos hugs.’”