Opera director Barrie Kosky first heard “Fiddler on the Roof” as a little boy in Melbourne, Australia. His parents had a copy of the original Broadway recording, and he used to dance to it, not understanding what it was about.
Since then, he has seen stage and screen adaptions of the 1964 musical about early twentieth-century Jewish life in imperial Russia, but hasn’t liked any but his own. He sees other productions as too safe, too kitschy, too soft-focused, like a Chagall painting. Kosky’s “Fiddler,” first staged to critical acclaim in Berlin in 2017 and making its North American debut at the Lyric Opera of Chicago September 17-October 7, makes Anatevka a real shtetl again.
“I think most productions succumb to shtetl-kitsch, and the shtetl becomes a place that’s lovely to be in. And it’s not—it was awful. Most people wanted to leave the shtetl. They were dirty. They were claustrophobic, and what joy and happiness came from the people rather than the place,” says Kosky in an interview. He says that in most Broadway and West End productions, “Everyone looks too pretty, everyone is happy, the songs move along in a nice andante pace, nothing is there to cause any anxiety, no one is really meant to feel genuine pain or unhappiness or ecstasy.”
Kosky did not want a safe “Fiddler”—he wanted one that would honor the glory of the Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick score and the resonant, emotional book by Joseph Stein, based on stories by Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. Kosky wanted the big chorus and full orchestra that can only be provided in an opera house. The Lyric production will have a forty-piece orchestra and a hundred-member cast with chorus. “It’s a shtetl. It’s a world,” Kosky explains. “And it makes all the difference.”
“Fiddler on the Roof” follows Tevye, a milkman in the village of Anatevka, who tries to maintain his Jewish traditions despite modern influences and anti-Semitic oppression. He has three daughters, all of whom want to thwart tradition by marrying for love.
“I think people underestimate how radical and extraordinary the piece was, not just in the themes and ideas… not just the great score, but also in the character of Tevye, who I think is one of the great twentieth-century characters in any culture. I think he’s up there with Mother Courage,” Kosky says. “I mean, can you think of another Broadway musical where a character talks to God for three hours?”
Kosky sees Tevye, played in the Lyric production by Steven Skybell, as part clown, part father figure, with a Shakespearian range. “The dilemmas he goes through are the same that King Lear goes through, except that Tevye doesn’t go mad, because he has humor and irony, and King Lear doesn’t,” Kosky says.
Kosky notes that the “Fiddler on the Roof” musical has been translated into dozens of languages and though it is a very Jewish story, it resonates across cultures because it is about something everyone understands—the struggle between generations. “You could be a Christian family or a Muslim family or a Hindu family and have exactly the same struggle with tradition—which is the opening song and essentially the major theme of the piece. Is it possible to hang on to tradition and to make change? What’s the balance? We’re dealing with this now in our world—it’s exactly the same thing.”
The play is also modern in that it deals with a refugee crisis—people must leave their homes. The play is set in the “Pale of Settlement” that includes modern-day Belarus, Lithuania, part of Poland, Moldova, and much of Ukraine—“to enable the Jews to live in an area as far away from the czar as possible,” Kosky says. He notes that war-ravaged Ukraine is now dealing with the world’s largest refugee crisis, and the global problem of displaced people is only going to get worse because of climate change.
“This piece does deal with the idea of what land belongs to what people, and what happens when people are told to leave that land, and what is homeland,” Kosky says. “And they come to the conclusion that the homeland is not really the furniture and the houses they have to leave, but actually themselves, which is a much healthier message than flags and national anthems.”
Kosky picked Chicago for the American “Fiddler” debut, because he knows Lyric general director Anthony Freud, who thought the show would be “perfect” for the venue. Audience members who know “Fiddler” will find that it is performed as written—it’s not modernized. “It just tries to blow the dust off the piece,” Kosky says.
Kosky is descended from Eastern European Jewish immigrants, with a mix of Belarusian, Polish and Hungarian roots. His grandfather was born in a Belarusian shtetl not unlike Anatevka. After a series of pogroms, Kosky’s great-grandfather sent his children away. They went first to Germany, then to Australia, where they became furriers. Kosky diverged from the family business to become an international opera director. But there was a link—his mother’s family was involved in London’s Yiddish theater.
“Fiddler” is just part of Kosky’s attraction to Jewish literature, particularly Yiddish literature, music and operetta. “I’ve done a lot of pieces in the last thirty-five years about my Judaism, my relationship to Jewish life.” Kosky describes himself as a “Jewish atheist,” drawn to the mix of social realism and spirituality in Aleichem, I. L. Peretz and Isaac Bashevis Singer.
Kosky’s “Fiddler” opens with a boy in modern dress, riding a skateboard after his violin lesson. He stops at a door, and hears a knock from within. And another knock. The door opens, and there’s his great-grandfather, Tevye, who starts to tell him the story of Anatevka. Out of the door pours the shtetl, and the boy is swept into the past.
Kosky says the fiddler can mean anything—death or loneliness or the wise fool. But in his production, he wants the fiddler to have an emotional connection with Tevye and the village, becoming a “personification of genealogy.”
Asked if he imagines his own great-grandfather as Tevye, Kosky says, “There’s no question there. I didn’t skateboard, but that boy is definitely me.”
“Fiddler on the Roof” at Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 North Wacker, lyricopera.org. September 17-October 7.