LONDON — As the pithy and oft-quoted line from “Fiddler on the Roof” goes, “May God bless and keep the Tsar — far away from us!”
Of course, for Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that wasn’t always within their control; what the Tsar wanted, he generally got. On that note, the title of Kurt Weill’s 1927 comic opera, “The Tsar Wants His Photograph Taken,” is more of a command than a request.
On May 4, one London audience had a unique opportunity to view the Tsar and his wishes at London’s Bloomsbury Theatre.
Thanks to the work of Prof. Michael Berkowitz, an American academic based in London, and his collaborator, musicologist and translator Leo Doulton, “The Tsar Wants His Photograph Taken” — once banned by the Nazis — was performed in an imaginative production for one night only. The music was written by Kurt Weill, son of a cantor from Dessau, Germany, together with librettist Georg Kaiser.
As Berkowitz tells it, the unearthing of the opera had almost as much to do with his own family history as with academic research.
Berkowitz, who works from a delightfully chaotic office in a labyrinth of corridors at University College London, was raised in Rochester, New York, home of the Eastman Kodak camera company. Despite his years in London, the professor of modern Jewish history retains his upstate New York accent as he recalls an out-of-the-blue phone call 12 years ago from a woman in Haifa, who believed they were related.
“She said she was my cousin, and her name was Lily Titova,” Berkowitz said, adding that she had many stories to tell about their family, including a special connection with photography. The family had owned photography shops, Titova said — and one relative, she told him, lowering her voice, “was photographer to the Tsar.”
Initially Berkowitz thought this was a joke, the kind of story Rochester Jews would tell each other because of their hometown connection to Kodak.
In fact, however, Wolf Jasvoin, the relation in question, had indeed been involved in photography — though perhaps not actually as the Tsar’s photographer — and it became apparent to Berkowitz that a disproportionate number of Jews in Russia had been court photographers. Most intriguing of all, he discovered that photography had been a prime career for Jewish women.
In researching for a book on Jews and photography, Berkowitz stumbled on the Weill/Kaiser opera.
“It was the last thing Weill wrote before creating ‘The Threepenny Opera’ and ‘The City of Mahagonny’ with Berthold Brecht,” said Berkowitz.
“The Tsar Wants His Photograph Taken” ticked many of Berkowitz’s research boxes. The plot features a Paris-based photographer, Angele, whose studio is invaded by a troupe of anarchists, would-be assassins of the Tsar.
They hear that she has been commissioned to take the Tsar’s picture and so they take over her studio, substituting a female anarchist, False Angele, who places a gun in Angele’s camera.
The plan is to kill the Tsar — until he turns up in the studio in civilian dress, not in his uniform and medals, and catches False Angele off guard by telling her wistfully of his desire to be seen as a bourgeois gentleman, not an emperor like Napoleon. The pair fall in love and ultimately, the plot to kill the Tsar is thwarted.
Grains of truth?
Berkowitz is convinced that Angele is meant to be a Jewish photographer, and in his collaboration with Leo Doulton, who wrote a new English translation for the opera, he provides plenty of historical material to support his case.
“I knew,” said Berkowitz, “when I stumbled upon this opera, that in real life, the Tsar would have been comfortable with Jewish photographers. That wouldn’t have been such a stretch… among his own photographers [in real life] were two Jewish women, Lotte Jacobi and Elli Marcus.
“But what really convinced me that Georg Kaiser and Kurt Weill knew what they were doing? The first response of this photographer when the anarchists break in. I thought, wow! The anarchists want to kill the Tsar, commit murder in Angele’s studio. That, she can live with,” Berkowitz said. “But when they say they want to put a gun in the camera, she freaks out and screams, you’re gonna wreck my camera! And I thought, these guys really know photographers.”
The academic said that what also struck him was that an audience in 1920s Germany — 10 years after the real Tsar’s assassination — would have had no trouble in seeing most of those in the opera as “most likely, Jewish characters.”
Doulton and Berkowitz had already worked together on an earlier project, “Theatre in the Theresienstadt Ghetto,” a collection of “comic” cabarets, so they knew they had sensibilities in common.
Partner in crime Doulton speaks German. When Berkowitz told him about the Weill opera, Doulton contacted Weill’s estate to ask for the musical scores in order to work on a new translation.
“It was incredibly exciting,” Doulton said. “I had absolutely no idea that this opera existed; when we received the scores, we found that some of the musicians had written in the margins about when and where they were performing, so we are reasonably confident that the premiere took place around April 1928.”
For Doulton, it was a first opportunity to work both as a director and translator.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see more performances of ‘The Tsar’ from now on,” he said, “because it has lots of parts — 11 singers plus a full orchestra — it’s fun, and it’s quite short. And in three years’ time the Kurt Weill estate will be out of copyright, so it will be possible to perform all this material freely.”
Introducing Mannes and Godowsky
Berkowitz has a theory about how Jews first got themselves involved in photography in the 19th century. He thinks it is because the local lords, on whose property the Jews lived, ordered them to familiarize themselves with photographic equipment so that pictures could be taken to impress other aristocrats.
Berkowitz believes that the tradition of Jews as “court photographers” continues today. He once privately interviewed Prince Philip for 45 minutes about the Prince’s long-time friend, the Jewish society photographer, Baron — born Stirling Henry Nahum — and even suggests that snapper Annie Leibovitz is among the Queen’s favorites.
During his research for “The Tsar,” Berkowitz reached back to his Rochester roots and found an untold story which he thought might make for another stage performance. It is the story of the two Jewish men who developed Kodachrome film for the Eastman Kodak company: Mannes and Godowsky, both of whose first names were Leopold and both of whom were the sons of classical musicians.
The two Leopolds, known familiarly as “Man and God,” have almost dropped out of history.
“People didn’t want to admit that two Jewish scientists invented Kodachrome,” Doulton said.
In a new musical named after the inventors and devised by Berkowitz and Doulton, the men ponder an unanswerable question: “What if what happened to us, happens to everyone?”
Berkowitz borrowed the question from Godowsky’s writings, and takes the “what happened to us” question to relate not just to Mannes and Godowsky’s own disappearance from the Eastman Kodak story, but also to the Jews who died in the Holocaust.
Godowsky married Frankie Gershwin, the younger sister of the composers George and Ira, and the music for “Man and God” certainly has Gershwin-esque echoes. The musical, billed as “the birth of color photography, taking in Gershwin, Einstein, and Hitler,” is set to premiere at the Bloomsbury Theatre on May 18. Doulton describes it as “a cross between the ‘Great American Songbook’ and ‘Hamilton.’”
Perhaps “Man and God” is a more accessible show than “The Tsar,” whose notoriously difficult music is, says Doulton, one reason why it is so rarely performed. But “The Tsar” received an enthusiastic ovation, with cheers from the packed house for Doulton, conductor Johann Stuckenbruck, and the cast, led by Edmund Danon as the Tsar and Anna Sideris as the False Angele.
The staging was minimalist, with cardboard props and very little in the way of costume. But the cast sang their hearts out — and even what looked like a mostly Ashkenazi Jewish audience were rooting for the Tsar.