"Fiddler on the Roof has always struck me as an un-Jewish work," said composer David Schiff, during a recent interview about his new opera, Gimpel the Fool. "It's about getting away from Judaism. There's not even any religion there, just 'tradition,' which is threatened by the non-Jewish outside, something you lose and leave behind." What makes Gimpel's author, Isaac Bashevis Singer, so different, says Schiff, is his description of a Jewish world from the inside out, while still running counter to Jewish literary stereotypes. "It's a world Singer's not nostalgic about," he explains, "though he sees the tragic implications in it."
Based on one of Singer's most famous stories, "Gimpel the Fool," a parable set against the maltreatment of a shtetl baker by everyone from the neighborhood kids to his own cuckolding wife, Schiff's opera premiered at New York's 92nd Street Y in 1979. On May 31, Gimpel will receive its Portland premiere (in concert version) with Third Angle New Music Ensemble. Acclaimed baritone Richard Zeller sings the title role, and Ken Kiesler conducts.
Since first reading Singer's stories over 25 years ago, Schiff has been fascinated by the writer, who was born in 1904 to a distinguished rabbinical family in Poland and died in Florida in 1991. "There's a quality in his work that's like Chaucer," he says. "He sketches a whole character in a single phrase." Schiff also admires Singer's anti-rational, often mystical style. "Most Jewish literature up to that point is very rationalistic," says Schiff. "Singer's Gimpel is a perverse hero. He is not bent over, or poor, or an intellectual--all the things a Jewish hero is supposed to be. And his enemies are other Jews, which is very different from what was happening in Jewish literature."
In Singer's story, the baker says, "I am Gimpel the fool," but he knows better--a strength of character and faith that drew Schiff to the story. Schiff is happy to have Zeller singing the role. "He's a big, strong guy," he says. "He fits Singer's character perfectly."
Schiff's opera was first performed in Singer's original Yiddish, "but it was such a headache," he says. "If you're going to do Yiddish, you have to do it right." The Portland performances will be sung in English, but Schiff hopes for a future Yiddish production. "Singer is the librettist," Schiff says, "because all the words are his. But the shape of the libretto is mine." As is the opera's richly evocative sound world. "I discovered I had tons of Jewish music inside me," Schiff says. His models were Stravinsky and Weill, flavored with the minor- scale Jewish cantorial and klezmer music that influenced everyone from Mahler to Gershwin.
Schiff met Singer twice: once at a reading Singer was giving, when he first asked for permission to use his story, and again at the premiere of the opera. Schiff still chuckles over the second occasion. "Singer said, 'You know, I usually don't like music. But this I like!' That was saying something, as it turned out," Schiff says, smiling, "because when Yentl came out, he hated it."
Third Angle at the Kaul Auditorium, Reed College, 3203 SE Woodstock Blvd., 224- 8499. 8 pm Saturday, 3 pm Sunday, May 31-June 1. $17 (students/seniors) $25+ (Fastixx).