September is a month for both wrapping up the summer season and revving up for a whole new calendar of performing arts events. A case in point: The Lyric Opera is set to open its season with an intriguing production of Fiddler on the Roof (a sign that it is returning to its pre-pandemic practice of mounting a Broadway musical classic each year). And at the same time the Ravinia Festival will continue to present a few more weeks of top-notch programs, including two concerts by solo pianists who both just happen to be Jewish women. Here is a closer look:
A 'Fiddler on the Roof' initially staged in Berlin heads to the Lyric
From almost the very moment it arrived on Broadway in 1964, Fiddler on the Roof has enjoyed a level of universal appeal that was surprising even to its creators. The musical-based on stories by Sholem Alecheim, with a score by Jerry Bock and Chicago-bred lyricist Sheldon Harnick (now 98), a book by Joseph Stein, and original direction and choreography by Jerome Robbins-gets to the heart of social change, family upheaval, and antisemitism, yet never loses faith in the power of tradition. The show has been staged throughout the world-from Japan to Israel to Russia and beyond. And, of course now, although the situation is decidedly different from that in 1905, war is again raging in Ukraine-the very place where Tevye the milkman, and his wife and three daughters, lived in a shtetl called Anatevka until Russian soldiers forced them to flee.
The production now being produced by Lyric began at the Komische Oper Berlin in 2017 where it was directed by Barrie Kosky, the Australian-born grandson of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. By all accounts, Kosky took a radically new approach to the work, but what is of particular interest is his casting of Steven Skybell as his Tevye.
Skybell began performing in community theater at the age of 11, played Tevye for the first time at 17 when he spent a summer at the Interlochen Arts Camp, and then assumed the role again at 21, when he was an undergraduate at Yale. Fast forward to 2018 and the actor, now a grown man, was chosen to star in Joel Grey's much heralded Yiddish language production of Fiddler that was created for the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, turned out to be a huge Off Broadway success, and earned Skybell a Lucille Lortel Award. In fact, that production is scheduled to be remounted in New York this November with Skybell reprising the role, and shifting back to Yiddish after playing the role in English at the Lyric.
Before rehearsals began in Chicago, I chatted with the actor about shifting languages, and making the change in scale from a 499-seat theater in New York to Lyric Opera's 3,270-seat house and accompaniment by a 70-person orchestra.
"I didn't see the Berlin production, which was sung in German," said Skybell. "[I'm] actually glad to be able to approach the Chicago production without any preconceived ideas."
He then talked about his own Jewish roots and quipped: "I grew up in a shtetl in my hometown of Lubbock, Texas, where there were about a hundred Jewish families in a city with a population of 250,000. My grandfather was Polish, had a business selling schmattas, and chanted the Kaddish. My brother and I both studied Yiddish, so when I spoke to Joel Grey about playing Tevye I had just enough chutzpah to say I could speak it, although I had three weeks of the absolutely most intense coaching."
"The one thing I do know is that Joel Grey and Kosky are on the same page in terms of stripping away any schmaltz from the production and finding the genuine humor and pathos in the real people in the musical. Barrie has even found a way to suggest how this story reaches across the generations by casting the fiddler as a young boy of this moment in time."
Fiddler on the Roof runs Sept. 7 - Oct. 7 at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. For tickets, visit lyricopera.org/fiddler or call 312-827-5600.
Two pianists with Jewish roots at Ravinia
Inna Faliks spent her childhood in Odesa, Ukraine in the 1980s when it was still part of the Soviet Union, but she only began to fully understand its prejudice against Jews after she emigrated to Europe, and finally to the United States, where she is now head of piano performance at UCLA's Herb Alpert School of Music.
In her solo concert at Ravinia's indoor Bennett Gordon Hall (at 1 p.m. on Sept. 10), Faliks will perform an intriguing program entitled "Reimagine: Beethoven and Ravel," comprised of what she has described as nine "social responses" by contemporary composers to Beethoven's "Six Bagatelles, Opus 126" and Maurice Ravel's "Gaspard de la nuit." She also will perform the original masterpieces.
Einav Yarden is an Israeli-born, Berlin-based pianist who graduated from Tel Aviv University, spent four years studying with fabled pianist Leon Fleisher at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, and has performed as a soloist, chamber musician, and guest artist with many orchestras.
Yarden will perform a solo concert, also at Bennett Gordon Hall, on Saturday, Sept. 17, at 1 p.m. On the program will be Johann Sebastian Bach's "Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D Minor"; his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's "Rondos" in C Minor and G Major, "Fantasies" in E-Flat Major and C Major, and "Sonata in D Major;" Beethoven's "Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major"; selections from Brahms' "Seven Fantasies"; and a work by the contemporary Hungarian-born composer Peter Eotro who bears the evocative title, "Dances of the Brush-Footed Butterfly."
For tickets visit Ravinia.org or call (847) 266-5100.