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Critic's Notebook: As anti-Semitic hate crimes rise, a German production of 'Fiddler on the Roof' preaches tolerance

Critic's Notebook: As anti-Semitic hate crimes rise, a German production of 'Fiddler on the Roof' preaches tolerance
A scene from Barrie Kosky's Komishe Oper Berlin production of "Anatevka" ("Fiddler on the Roof"). (Iko Freese / drama-berlin.de)

Anti-Semitic hate crimes were up 18% here last year and 16% the year before.

The spread of anti-Semitism in the German capital in particular, but throughout Germany as well, is seen as a reaction to complex social and political forces that include, from the right, opposition to immigration; from the left, anger over Israel’s Palestinian policy; from all sides, the tribal pull of holding onto threatened traditions.

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Opera may no longer have the power it once enjoyed to alter the course of events, be it Verdi steering the independence movement in 19th century Italy or the worst-case scenario of Hitler finding validation for genocide in his love for Wagner. But Barrie Kosky, an Australian Jew who heads Berlin’s Komische Oper and is one of today’s most riotously (and, on occasion, chillingly) imaginative opera directors, has something important to say about the current state of affairs. So, of course, does “Fiddler on the Roof’s” Tevye, who has something important to say about everything.

Late last year, Kosky, known to Southern California audiences for his L.A. Opera productions, unveiled a wondrous new production of “Anatevka,” as “Fiddler on the Roof” is known in Germany. He has now brought it back for the beginning a the new season at Komische Oper, an easy stroll from the Reichstag, where the Nazi government once managed its endeavor to eliminate Jews.

“Anatevka” has a surprising history at Komische Oper, which was founded in 1947 in East Berlin by the Brechtian director Walter Felsenstein. Strange as it might seem, Felsenstein mounted a production of “Anatevka” with his company in 1971. There were no Jews in the cast and there couldn’t have been many left in East Berlin to see it. The German translation of the book and lyrics included not one word of Yiddish.

But the show somehow hit a nerve with an East German audience that otherwise had a special love for escapist Viennese operetta. The company kept “Anatevka” in its repertory for 17 years and performed it over 500 times. There are various theories why — the sense of displacement and desire to hold onto traditions in the conformist DDR seeming the most plausible.

“Anatevka” has hit a nerve again. This time half the cast is Jewish, and the show is performed in an amalgam of German and Yiddish. But the reasons for its popularity and rave reviews clearly must be similar to the reasons before. Immigration has everyone here uneasy about the uncertain social calculus of maintaining identities, hospitality and assimilation.

Max Hopp as Teyve in Komische Oper Berlin's production of "Anatevka" or "Fiddler on the Roof," directed by Barrie Kosky.
Max Hopp as Teyve in Komische Oper Berlin's production of "Anatevka" or "Fiddler on the Roof," directed by Barrie Kosky. (Iko Freese / drama-berlin.de)

Touching as it does on these themes, “Fiddler on the Roof” has, of course, been hailed as relevant with every revival just about everywhere. Back in the early 1960s, the then-continued currency of Yiddish novelist Scholem Aleichem’s “Tevye the Dairyman” (first published in 1894) is what inspired composer Jerry Bock, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, playwright Joseph Stein and choreographer Jerome Robbins in the first place.

But the ubiquitous “Fiddler” has also, revival after revival, never had much trouble finding its inner schlock. When novelist Philip Roth called the Broadway-ization of Aleichem’s satiric and acerbic account of the Talmud-toting milkman in an early 20th century Russian pogrom, “shtetl kitsch,” he wasn’t wrong.

But Kosky’s “Anatevka,” which is neither preachy nor updated, finally proves Roth very wrong indeed. Once more, the reasons for this are many. While Broadway shows can be hopelessly weighed down by overblown operatic treatment, Komische Oper brings the incalculable advantage of a gorgeous, big opera orchestra, vibrantly expressive conducting, a level of dramatic singing rare in commercial theater, edgy choreography and an audience not appreciative of dumbing down.

To say the production is not updated may not be quite right. It opens with a blond teenager in green hoodie riding his skateboard on stage. Behind him is a mountain of antique furniture. The boy pulls a violin out of his backpack, climbs upon some cabinets and begins to play the famous “Fiddler” violin melody with the technique and style of an Isaac Stern, conjuring up the past.

Out of the cabinet case of wonders emerges Tevye and everyone else. None are portrayed as exactly lovable. Their lives are difficult. The typical “Fiddler” whittles down the sharper edges of sanctioned anti-Semitism; “Anatevka” comes closer to Aleichem. Max Hopp’s Tevye is less happy-go-lucky than hardscrabble. Tradition makes him intolerant.

But tradition is also glorious. Songs many of us have heard our whole lives sentimentalized, usually arranged with enough saccharine to produce insulin shock, are given weight and take on deep meaning. Laughter and tears are allowed, as they should be, but never on the cheap.

The ending is particularly bleak, as Tevye’s daughters find their way into a new world and, as the old Jews, forced to leave their pogrom, are obviously ill-equipped to adapt to other surroundings but remain survivors. A modern audience knows the struggles that lay ahead.

Over the 3½ hours of “Anatevka,” the cabinets of wonder gradually lose their Old World magic. The occasional appearances of the modern boy fiddler on the roof makes the furniture seem as out of place as if it were in an Ikea showroom. We can’t go back. Yet we can’t forget.

A cast of singers and dancers full of visceral intensity remind us that there are no easy answers. You can’t go back, but you also can’t forget. Therein lies the path to tolerance.

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Kosky told me during intermission that he would love to bring “Anatevka” to the U.S. For a short period, L.A. Opera had given the director an American base, with his popular cinematic “Magic Flute” and his startlingly contrasting double bill of Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” and Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle.”

L.A. Opera had hoped to import his Brechtian take on “West Side Story” but fell afoul of union regulations preventing the amount of stage fog Kosky needed to create the atmosphere on an otherwise bare stage. At the moment, the director said New York looks most likely for “Anatevka.” But for now, Berlin is where “Anatevka” does the most good by producing empathy without schmaltz but with Yiddish.

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