Jennie Tourel was born Bella or Jennie Davidovich in the city of Vitebsk, now in Belarus. In childhood, Tourel studied the flute and then piano. Tourel and her family were forced to flee during the Russian Revolution; they settled first in Gdansk, Poland and then in Paris.
Tourel continued her piano studies in Paris, but switched to singing under the tutelage of Reynaldo Hahn and Anna El-Tour. Sources differ as to when Tourel made her debut and where; some say the Chicago Civic Opera in 1930, others the Opéra Russe (in Paris) in 1931. Tourel made her debut with the Metropolitan Opera in New York on May 15, 1937 in Mignon; a recording survives of this performance. Tourel's earliest recordings are all live opera "bootlegs"; a 1944 Met performance of Bellini's Norma, in which Tourel appears opposite Zinka Milanov, is particularly prized by collectors.
As Paris fell before the Nazis in 1940, Tourel fled to Lisbon to board one of the last ships heading to the United States. Tourel rejoined the Met, remaining there until 1947, and became established as the reigning mezzo in New York City, extraordinarily popular as well in performances with the New York Philharmonic. In 1945, she premiered the vocal/orchestral versions of several Samuel Barber songs, including Sure, on this Shining Night, in a CBS broadcast led by the composer. Tourel also worked with Villa-Lobos, Poulenc, Virgil Thomson, Lukas Foss (the Song of Songs), and others. In Venice in 1951, Tourel created the role of Baba the Turk in Stravinsky's opera The Rake's Progress. The sheer number of works Tourel introduced in one way or another is in itself impressive.
But it was Tourel's association with Leonard Bernstein that proved most fruitful. The partnership began in 1942 with Bernstein taking the role of piano accompanist to Tourel in recitals, and lasted until she died. Their connection went beyond music; they shared many common interests, and greatly enjoyed hosting loud parties with hundreds in attendance. Tourel premiered Bernstein's Jeremiah Symphony under the composer in Pittsburgh in 1944, and also sang at the premiere of his third symphony, "Kaddish," in Tel Aviv in 1963. Several of Bernstein's songs were written for her, including "I Hate Music" (1943). Among the many recordings Tourel made with Bernstein functioning both as piano accompanist and conductor were those of Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death, Berlioz's La Mort de Cléopâtre, Ravel's Shéhérazade, and their 1962 recording of the Mahler "Resurrection" Symphony.
Tourel was an eccentric who delighted in befuddling critics with conflicting information on her background. She tried to reduce her age by ten years, relocated her birthplace to Toronto, and in later years emphatically denied having created her stage name by modifying that of her teacher. Tourel taught at Julliard and at the Aspen Music School; her impact on younger musicians was considerable and not necessarily limited to singers. Among Tourel's protégés were mezzo-soprano Barbara Hendricks, pianist James Levine, bassist Gary Karr, and, to a certain extent, Bernstein himself. She made her last major appearance in 1972 in Seattle in Thomas Pastieri's opera Black Widow, and died the following year at the age of 73.
Tourel's reputation as a difficult and uncooperative subject has followed her in her afterlife, and her name rarely appears on critical short lists of great singers. However, her recordings are well established with the public and Tourel is still frequently heard on NPR and other classical radio outlets three decades after her death.