With the successful staging of "Fiddler on the Roof," the Komische Oper celebrates its 70th anniversary. For DW columnist Gero Schliess, the smallest of the three Berlin opera houses is particularly inspiring right now.
Many things are different at Berlin's Komische Oper, including the name. "Komisch" alternatively translates as comical, funny, strange or weird. But why komisch? Is what's happening on stage something to laugh about? Is there anything serious about this theater?
Nobody would come up with the idea of staging the Broadway musical classic "Fiddler on the Roof" ("Anatevka" in German) on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Komische Oper, except it seems for its director Barrie Kosky. What is he playing at?
Well, the founding director of the Komishe Oper, Walter Felsenstein, also directed a legendary version of "Fiddler on the Roof" that was performed 500 times there, from 1971 through 1988.
The story is set in the Russian small town, or shtetl, of Anatevka in 1905. Despite Jewish religious and cultural traditions, the three daughters of the poor dairyman, Teyve, want to marry for love. Although the father tries to maintain old ways, he follows his heart in the end as well.
I learn though the musical that traditions only exist as long as people follow them — and when we are the ones who define them. Nothing stays the way it was. The world has changed: I hear this sentence pronounced countless times on stage during the celebratory performance.
If that applies to the inhabitants of Anatevka, it also applies to our world with its new forms of pogroms and migration waves.
One of a kind
It also applies to the Komische Oper, which tirelessly pushes its chief director Barrie Kosky to the foreground of modern musical theater — without always worrying about its commercial potential. It nevertheless always remains connected to the tradition of its legendary founder Felsenstein, who fundamentally changed the theater world in postwar East Berlin with his psychological realism staging style. Musicals are not something for dusty museums, but for us all.
The Komische Oper has since been regarded as the "somewhat different" opera among Berlin's three halls. It is unique in the world, of course, but perhaps even more so in Berlin. In the west part of the city there's the sedate-bourgeois Deutsche Oper. And on Berlin's famous Unter den Linden boulevard there's the Staatsoper, recently reopened by Daniel Baremboim. A few meters away from it is the lively-frivolous entertainment ship that likes to go against the grain. That's why I like the Komische Oper.
Another fan is incidentally German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who held a speech before the anniversary premiere, saying that the communication style demonstrated by the opera should inspire more people in politics. For him, the Komische Oper speaks a language "that can be understood by all Berliners in this polyglot Babylon of a city."
General renovation a threat
He's right too! The word is out, and even state leaders know that "komisch" doesn't mean ridiculous, weird or strange in this case. Whether an opera, operetta or musical, the goal here is to fully live life.
It's entertainment theater at its best: popular, funny and moving and often spiced with snappy dance revues and – as with "Fiddler on the Roof" — with magnificent choir scenes.
I got a bit misty-eyed seeing Paul Abraham's operetta "The Ball at the Savoy," staged by Barrie Kosky and offering a melancholic reflection of Berlin's nightlife.
I felt it again with this production. None of the two other opera houses is "so Berlin" as the Komische. It's hard to believe that Berlin wanted to shut it down for budgetary reasons.
Even now for its 70th anniversary, the opera is still threatened by politics, even though this time it received "a present" from Berlin's Culture Senator Klaus Lederer: the complete renovation of the theater.
But you know, in Berlin such a present can be a threat. A few hundred meters away, the Staatsoper's three years of restoration turned into seven – putting its production into involuntary exile for the period. This perspective doesn't sound so very comical for the people at the Komische Oper.