Saturday, January 29
Annie Korzen knows better than you. Or at least that’s what she thinks. In her one-woman show, “Straight From the Mouth,” that’s how she gives it to you. Expect music, “constructive criticism” and lots of laughs from the gal also known as “Seinfeld’s” Doris Klompus.
8 p.m. $15-$20. Steinway Hall at Fields Pianos, 12121 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (310) 471-3979.
Sunday, January 30
This afternoon, take in the “Music of Or Ami,” and give back at the same time. The Calabasas congregation plans to donate a portion of proceeds from ticket sales to help victims of the tsunami disaster. Flutist Toby Caplan-Stonefield plays a program of music by Jewish composers, light classics and jazz with the accompaniment of pianist Paul Switzler and guitarist Larry Giannicchini. Pianist Aaron Meyer is joined by an ensemble of musicians in playing a contemporary mix of jazz, Latin, classical and world music. A wine and cheese reception follows.
4-6 p.m. $12 (per event), $30 (three-part series). 26115 Mureau Road, Calabasas. (818) 880-4880.
Monday, January 31
Rami Perlman has chosen to follow in his father’s footsteps – sort of. This son of Itzhak took to music from an early age, singing with the children’s chorus of the Metropolitan Opera and studying trumpet at the Manhattan School of Music. But now he’s all grown up and singing a different tune: rock ‘n’ roll. His band, Something for Rockets, plays a free show tonight at Spaceland, with a sound that’s closer to the Vines than Wagner.
21+. 1717 Silver Lake Blvd., Silver Lake. (323) 661-4380.
Tuesday, February 1
Get nostalgic today as the Skirball screens Charles Lamont’s 1942 film, “Almost Married,” as part of its Lifespan Series, “exploring and celebrating the new longevity.” The romantic musical is about a couple that settles on a marriage of convenience only to find that it’s become one of love.
1:30 p.m. Free. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4544.
Wednesday, February 2
The sons and daughters of prostitutes in Calcutta’s red light district are the subjects of Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski’s documentary, “Born Into Brothels,” in theaters this week. Briski, who originally came to Calcutta to photograph the lives of the women, quickly became enchanted by their children. She eventually taught them photography, and in the process, exposed them to life outside the one they knew. The documentary follows their journey and hers.
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Thursday, February 3
A lot of night music, from Chopin to Gershwin, is set to be played on the 1939 World’s Fair replica Steinway “Peace Piano” at the Museum of Tolerance this evening. Pianists Gloria Cheng, Todd Cochran and Norman Krieger donate their talents for the gala, which benefits the musuem’s youth education programs for low-income students. Local composer Nelson Varon’s vocal piece “Shalom, Shalom” will also be performed.
7:30 p.m. $100. Museum of Tolerance, Peltz Theater, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 772-2452.
Friday, February 4
From the “normal” lives of middle class Southern Californians, noted author Merrill Joan Gerber unveils the disquiet that lurks beneath in her latest release, “This Is a Voice From Your Past: New and Selected Stories.” The author of seven novels, including “Anna in the Afterlife,” she signs “This Is a Voice…” at the Huntington Library this afternoon.
2:30 p.m. Huntington Library Overseers’ Room, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino. (626) 405-2100.
7 Days in the Arts
‘Aida’ Not So Tragic for Israeli Maestro
Dan Ettinger looks nothing like the popular image of a classical conductor.
The Israeli is making his American debut with the Los Angeles Opera in Verdi’s “Aida.” Appearing considerably younger than his 33 years and standing a sturdy 6-foot-1, Ettinger wears his hair short-cropped, his approach is casual, and he speaks of his work with the care of a skilled craftsman.
Dealing with an unfamiliar orchestra of more than 80 instrumentalists in “Aida,” advertised as “the grandest of grand operas,” is a major challenge, especially for a self-described “control freak” and “young pisher” (genteelly translated as a “young squirt”).
We talked to Ettinger in the Maestro Room of the downtown Music Center the morning after opening night. He seemed fairly satisfied, although he said that it takes three or four performances before a new opera production hits its peak.
Ettinger is descended from Romanian immigrants to Israel — his father and grandmother are Holocaust survivors — and he grew up in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon.
Early on, he was exposed to his parents’ large classical and jazz collection and the boy showed an early interest in music.
“I wasn’t a child prodigy and I had a normal childhood, but I always knew that I wanted to be a musician,” he said.
Ettinger attended a special high school for the musically talented, training as pianist and singer, and then enrolled in the Rubin Academy of Music at Tel Aviv University. He quit after one year, because “the school system didn’t work for me, I wanted to do things my own way,” he recalled.
From then on, he developed his diverse musical talents by doing, rather than studying, although he credits the help of private mentors.
Ettinger started his professional career as a baritone at age 19 and cites as his favorite role Papageno in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”
Nowadays, Ettinger no longer sings on stage, although when rehearsing “Aida,” he sings along all the parts.
“I find my singing background a real advantage as an opera conductor, because I can identify with the singers, I can phrase with them and breathe with them.”
In a third career, Ettinger continues as a concert pianist, accompanist and coach, and he describes his “ultimate musical experience” as doubling as pianist and conductor in a Mozart piano concerto,
Since 2003, Ettinger has been the resident director of the prestigious Berlin Staatsoper Unter den Linden, handpicked for the job by fellow Israeli Daniel Barenboim.
Many of the current leading musical figures in Berlin are Israelis, Ettinger said, perhaps an ironic footnote to recent world history.
In the coming fall, Ettinger will also become the music director and principal conductor of the Israel Symphony Orchestra in Rishon L’Zion, ranked second in his native country only to the more established Israel Philharmonic.
Yet, he is not entirely happy with the state of opera around the world. For one, budget problems everywhere have forced cuts in rehearsal time, including in his present “Aida” stint.
Of more concern is a shift in the staging of operas.
“It used to be that an opera was the conductor’s world, but now the emphasis is more and more on spectacular visual productions,” he said, though he hopes for a gradual return to more traditional presentations.
After he finishes his current assignment, Ettinger is off to Tokyo to conduct Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte,” but he will return to Los Angeles next year, leading the orchestra in Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.”
Performances of “Aida” will continue on select dates through Feb. 19 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. For tickets and information, call (213) 972-8001 or visit www.LosAngelesOpera.com.
The Once and Future Yiddish Language
Shoah-Era Opera an Allegory of Victory
When she was 11 years old, Ella Weisberger got her first starring role, playing the cat in a children’s opera called, "Brundibar."
But Weisberger didn’t perform in a grand concert hall; instead she sang in the barracks of Terezin, the "model" concentration camp that the Nazis set up in Czechoslovakia for artists and intellectuals.
"Brundibar" ended up being performed 55 official times in Terezin, and in countless other impromptu performances in the camp’s halls and barracks. A charming folktale where good triumphs over evil, this children’s opera became a symbol of resistance and hope for many of the 144,000 Jews interned in Terezin, most of whom were murdered before the end of the war.
Today, "Brundibar" is experiencing a revival of sorts. It is the title and story of a new children’s book written by Tony Kushner, with illustrations by Maurice Sendak (Hyperion Books for Children), and this weekend, the Jewish Community Foundation and the Dwight Stuart Youth Foundation sponsored Youth Opera Camp of Santa Monica College Conservatory will be performing the opera at the Miles Memorial Playhouse and Simon Wiesenthal Center.
"We have been taking the kids through a real journey understanding the social relevance of this piece," said Adam Phillipson, the special projects coordinator for Santa Monica College. "The theme of the opera is overcoming a bully, which is how we made it relevant for them, but we also wanted them to understand its historical relevance."
Hans Krasa composed the music of "Brundibar," and Adolf Hoffmeister wrote the lyrics in 1938 for a competition of the Ministry of Education and Culture in Czechoslovakia. According to some accounts, the impending war prevented the competition from taking place; others say that Krasa and Hoffmeister never got their prize because they were Jews. In 1939 when the Nazis invaded, Jews were prevented from participating in public activities. Krasa took his opera to a Jewish orphanage in Prague, where it had its first performance. In 1943, Krasa and the orphanage boys were shipped to Terezin, and his opera was smuggled into the camp in a suitcase. The opera was a favorite there. It was performed for a visiting Red Cross delegation in 1944, and a performance became part of the Nazi propaganda film, "The Fuhrer Presents the Jews With a City."
"Brundibar" is the story of two children who are trying to buy milk for their sick mother but have no money. They notice people giving coins to Brundibar (Czech for bumblebee), the mean old organ grinder. The children try their hand at singing, but nobody hears them over Brundibar’s racket. Out of frustration they start imitating Brundibar, who runs them out of the market. At night, a sparrow, cat and dog join the children to look after them, and advise them that strength lies in numbers. In the morning, a chorus of schoolchildren join them, and together, their voices are loud enough to drown out Brundibar. Villagers drop coins into their bucket, but then a jealous Brundibar runs away with it. The children chase him, get their bucket back and the opera ends with a song of victory.
"Music was part of the resistance against the Nazis," said Weisberger. "When we sang the finale of this little opera, Brundibar was like Hitler and [the message was] we will overcome him and we will win the war against him, and I believe the audience understood it. They would clap, and we would sing it again several times."
Now, 60 years later, the experience of "Brundibar" is still a bittersweet but happy one. It is both a reminder of prejudice and an escape from it. In the Sendak book, scattered among the brightly colored illustrations are Jews wearing the yellow star and even a Jewish cemetery. The opera camp took its 37 aspiring singers on a tour of the Museum of Tolerance and its Children of Terezin exhibit so they could better understand the historical context of the opera. Yet the specter of the Holocaust did not preoccupy the rehearsals of the opera itself.
"It should be playful," said director Eli Villaneuva to the singers during rehearsal, as they flexed their nimble bodies to look like the animals of the script. "You should feel like this is all pretty silly."
But the performers were aware of the significance of the opera. Eight of the 37 opera campers, who come from all over Los Angeles, are Jewish, and several of them had relatives who went through the Holocaust.
"I am continuing the legacy [of those who died] you might say," said Dana Edelman, 13, from El Segundo Middle School, whose great-great aunts and uncles were killed in the Holocaust. "It was really cool that ‘Brundibar’ had been performed by kids, and it was their way of being unified."
Weisberger said, "’Brundibar’ was our life."
"Brundibar, A Children’s Opera" will be performed Dec. 5 at noon and 7 p.m. at Miles Memorial Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 434-3431; and on Dec. 7 at 1:30 p.m. at the Museum of Tolerance, 9876 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 772-2452.
Crafts Revitalize Israeli Spirit
Orthodox Mother Opens New Opera
File under Incongruities, Major: One of the latest luminaries in the world of grand opera is an Orthodox mother of four from Brooklyn.
In the male-dominated world of opera composition, Deborah Drattell is a rarity, but from childhood she never doubted she would excel in the world of music.
“It was clear from the time I picked up a violin that I would be a musician,” said Drattell, 46, who began playing at 7 as a participant in a program designed to introduce New York schoolchildren to music. She went on to earn a doctorate at the University of Chicago and taught composition and theory at Tulane University in New Orleans through the 1980s.
A composer since age 19, Drattell began with instrumental works for orchestras and chamber groups but eventually included the voice as an important medium, setting texts ranging from poems by Edgar Allan Poe to writings by Sylvia Plath.
“It’s been a slow process,” she told The Journal. “I realized when I started to write for the voice that in my instrumental works I was telling a story…. I wanted to tell a story, and using words seemed the way into the piece for me.”
Her most recent work, “Nicholas and Alexandra,” commissioned by the Los Angeles Opera, will have its world premiere at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Sept. 14, with Mstislav Rostropovich making his Los Angeles Opera debut as conductor and Plácido Domingo in the role of Rasputin.
Opera has occupied most of Drattell’s work time for the past several years.
“I love the collaborative process. It’s the most exciting medium,” said Drattell, who served as composer-in-residence for both the New York City Opera and the Glimmerglass Opera, a summer festival in Cooperstown, N.Y., from 1998 to 2001.
William Vendice, the Los Angeles Opera’s chorus master, praised Drattell’s music for the voice.
“She obviously has a wonderful ear for how to set the language,” he said. “She has the flow of a singer’s line in mind when she writes music.”
Sascha Goetzel, the assistant conductor for “Nicholas and Alexandra,” is just as impressed with Drattell’s writing.
“It’s very deep and powerful music,” he said. “She wonderfully uses the colors of the orchestra.”
Drattell originally wrote the role of Rasputin for a baritone and wanted Domingo to sing Nicholas, but the tenor asked Drattell to rewrite the opera so he could sing the “mad monk” who holds sway over the royal couple. Drattell accommodated his request as a permanent change in the work.
The saga of Nicholas and Alexandra, Russia’s last czar and czarina before the 1917 revolution, is “a story I’ve been thinking about for a long time,” Drattell said, adding that she originally had been intrigued by the story of Anastasia, the self-proclaimed long-lost daughter of Nicholas and Alexandra.
Even when she shifted away from a story with a clear female protagonist, she kept Alexandra central, as did the librettist, Nicholas von Hoffman.
“It’s Alexandra’s story: her experiences with Rasputin’s power, her son’s hemophilia,” Drattell said. “As a woman, I find it intriguing to write from the point of view of a woman.”
Drattell’s parents grew up Orthodox, and while they were not strictly observant as adults, she grew up attending the Orthodox Manhattan Beach Jewish Center in Brooklyn and cites the music she heard there as one of her earliest artistic influences. She returned to traditional observance through her husband, a gastroenterologist.
Juggling a demanding musical career with the care of four children is challenging but not impossible, as most of her work is done within a reasonable commute from her Brooklyn home.
“I don’t do that much traveling,” she said.
During the rehearsal period for “Nicholas and Alexandra,” Drattell’s first extended period away from her family, her husband has taken the kids to visit relatives in Israel.
Drattell said the Los Angeles Opera has made “a really amazing leap” in accommodating her rigorous observance, scheduling the premiere of “Nicholas and Alexandra” on a Sunday and slating next week’s dress rehearsal early enough so it will end before Shabbat. “I’ve found Plácido Domingo and the administration here amazingly respectful,” she said.
It’s another milestone in one of serious music’s most idiosyncratic careers.
“I forged my own path,” Drattell said.
The Los Angeles Opera will hold its premiere of
“Nicholas and Alexandra” on Sunday, Sept. 14, at 2 p.m. Other performances will
be Sept. 17, 23 and 26 at 7:30 p.m. and Sept. 20 at 2 p.m. Tickets are available
through the Los Angeles Opera at www.losangelesopera.com , by phone at (213) 365-3500 or in person at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion box office.
7 Days In Arts
Jewish Drama Abounds
In the last weeks of spring, Jewish-themed theater is busting out all over Los Angeles:
In his one-man show, “…But First, Sammy Shore,” the eponymous Borscht Belt stand-up comic describes opening for Elvis; life with his son, Pauly; founding the Comedy Store with his ex-wife, Mitzi, and why being age 70 sucks. Through July 29, Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 4th St., Santa Monica, (310) 394-9779, ext. 1. $17.50.
Richard Krevolin’s “The Lemony Fresh Scent of Diva Monsoon,” a one-woman show starring Ruth de Sosa, revolves around a designer who visits her late mother’s plastic-covered Miami Beach apartment and finds one last potato kugel in the freezer. Through July 1, the Rose Alley Theater, 318 Lincoln Blvd., Venice, (310) 535-7795. $12-$20.
Wendy Graf’s semiautobiographical comedy “The Book of Esther” follows a woman who reclaims her Judaism after growing up with parents who hate “real Jewy Jews.” P.S. The rabbi in the play is loosely based on the real-life Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben of Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades. Debuts with an opening gala June 16 (tickets for this performance only are $35-$500) at Theater East, 12655 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, (818) 788-4396. $18.
Jewish opera star Beverly Sills is the subject of Roberta Randall’s one-woman show “Beverly,” which includes details of the diva’s interfaith marriage and her work with conductor Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic. June 20, University of Judaism, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air, (310) 440-1246. $10.
Jon Robin Baitz’s acclaimed “The Substance of Fire” tells of a publisher who is driven by guilt for having survived the Nazis by hiding in an attic surrounded by books, while the rest of his family perished in the camps. Opens June 30, Theatre 40, at Beverly Hills High School, 241 Moreno Drive, (323) 936-5842. $15-$18.
Anya Karlin has been fascinated with opera since the age of 4, when she was invited to join the cast of “Madame Butterfly.” At 10, while performing in a Chanukah concert, she discovered the joys of singing in Yiddish. Dressed as a maidel from Eastern Europe, she crooned “Maz’l,” a tune popularized on the Yiddish stage by Molly Picon. The thunderous response convinced her to combine her musical gifts with her interest in Yiddish language and culture.
Karlin’s recent Bat Mitzvah became her opportunity to share Yiddish music with others. Her synagogue, Kehillat Israel, expects its B’nai Mitzvah students to spearhead tzedakah projects. Karlin’s classmates have worked at animal shelters and collected books for the needy. But she had an ambitious idea for what she describes as “a Yiddish CD to introduce fun Yiddish songs to children.” Fortunately, her mother, Rebekah Jorgensen, is an entertainment industry veteran. The result was “A Bissele Nacht Musik,” a recording that blends Jorgensen’s expertise with Karlin’s passion for music.
The concept was that of a shtetl family gathering in the evening to sing. Those who performed on the CD came to be a family of sorts. Jorgensen marvels that “people in the temple who didn’t know each other connected.” Singers included Kehillat Israel’s Preschool Chorus, Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben and wife Didi, Cantor Chayim Frankel, and a cluster of teenagers who called themselves the Yiddish Supremes. Marv Zuckerman, dean of instruction at L.A. Valley College and a native Yiddish speaker, helped choose the material, then made tapes to perfect everyone’s pronunciation. The congregation also yielded music professionals like flutist Susan Greenberg and arranger Ralph Schuckett, who participated alongside the KI Klezmer Band. (Eventually, nonmembers such as mandolinist Kurt McGinniss were drawn to the project.)
One very special number was the one that closes the CD, “Macht Tsu Dayn Eigele.” Performed a cappella by Cantor Emeritus Mickey Bienenfeld and young granddaughter Amanda, it is a haunting lullaby that has been handed down in their family for generations.
Karlin was exhilarated at the response from her peers. “The most amazing thing was seeing how interested the kids were in learning Yiddish,” she said. On the Friday night before her Bat Mitzvah, a children’s Shabbat service featured songs from the recording; each guest was given a tambourine and invited to join in the fun. Everyone went home with a copy of the CD, which contains liner notes that both translate and transliterate all lyrics, so that the full delights of the music can spread to every listener. Does Karlin herself have a favorite track? She’s partial to a sprightly wedding tune called “Hot Sich Mir Di Zip Tsezipt,” because “you can’t listen to that song without getting up and dancing.”
Exactly 1,000 copies of “A Bissele Nacht Musik” were made. Some 800 have now been distributed, many to synagogue groups and organizations. Those remaining can be requested by phoning Kehillat Israel at (310) 459-2328, or by contacting Rebekah Jorgensen at email@example.com.
A Scandal’s Echo
Richard Strauss’s opera “Salome” had its Israeli premiere grave;re in Tel Aviv this month. Strauss, who died in 1949,served, however briefly, as a cultural official in Adolf Hitler’sNazi administration. The season, by the visiting Kirov Opera from St.Petersburg, was an unchallenged hit. Strauss has been forgiven,perhaps because he had a Jewish daughter-in-law and soon learned thefolly of his ways.
Yet, when the Kirov’s hosts, the New Israel Opera,suggested that it was time to lift Israel’s tenacious ban on anotherGerman composer, Richard Wagner, some of its audience walked out.Last week, the Knesset education committee reaffirmed the embargo.For many Israelis, Wagner remains a detested symbol of the Teutonicracism that exterminated 6 million Jews during World War II.
Zubin Mehta, musical director of the Israel Philharmonic, has failed repeatedly to get the ban on Richard Wagner’s music dropped.
One hundred fifteen years after the rampantlyanti-Semitic Wagner died, and 50 years after the establishment of theJewish state, Israelis are still passionately arguing whether to playhim in their opera house and concert halls. Like Wagner’s gargantuan”Ring” opera cycle, the debate will run and run, with a revival everydecade and no end in sight.
Zalman Shoval, chairman of the New Israel Operaand Israel’s ambassador-designate to Washington, puts the case forthe prosecution:
“This is not a debate about the merits of Wagner’smusic,” he says. “Nor is it a debate about our relationship withGermany, nor about the freedom of expression, nor aboutanti-Semitism. It is a debate about sensitivity. It is a debate aboutWagner as a self-proclaimed symbol.
“He evolved a philosophy which called for thedisappearance, if not the destruction, of the Jews. In his writings,he blamed the Jews for all the ills of the Aryan people. He was thehead of a pan-Germanic racist movement. His ideas were later takenover by Nazi propaganda. Hitler once said, ‘If you want to understandNational Socialism, you have to know Wagner.'”
Shoval admits that there have been otheranti-Semitic composers whose works nonetheless are performed inIsrael. But Wagner, he argues, was different.
“No other anti-Semitic composer had hatred of Jewsas something which permeated everything they did, in their artisticas well as their personal life,” Shoval says. “Wagner did not wantJews playing his music. When a Jewish conductor, Hermann Levy,conducted his music, Wagner tried to get him to convert toChristianity.
“These things had a different meaning after theHolocaust, when we know what all this led to. There are still peopleamong us whose memories are fresh about the Holocaust, about the roleof Wagner’s ideas and music as the Nazis used them. When a Holocaustsurvivor hears Wagner’s ‘ride of the Valkyrie,’ he thinks about thegas ovens.”
For the defense, Mordechai Virshubsky, aliberal-left politician who chairs the cultural committee of the TelAviv City Council, dismisses the ban as “stupid” andself-defeating.
“If you don’t play someone because of what he was,then you’re behaving like a totalitarian regime,” he says. “This isthe worst kind of censorship.”
Virshubsky, who was born in Germany in 1930 andwas brought to Israel as a child refugee in 1939, contends that thereare other ways to remember the Nazi atrocities.
“Why deny ourselves the chance to hear this great,dramatic, important music?” he says. “We are the poorer for it. Weare punishing ourselves and gaining nothing by it. No one would beforced to go and listen to his music.
“After all, we drive German cars; we teach theGerman language; we even translated ‘Mein Kampf’ into Hebrew. Thereare no taboos any more. We are making a mockery of ourselves.”
Yet the Nazi genocide, which is central toIsrael’s national consciousness, casts a stubborn shadow.
“There has to be at least one place in the worldwhere survivors can feel that the society protects them, where theirsensitivities are taken into account,” says Ephraim Zuroff, Israeldirector of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which is still striving tobring war criminals to trial. “This is part of the role of the Jewishstate. It is why people came here instead of going to America. Theydon’t want Wagner played here, and I think they’re right.”
Most of Israel’s musicians would like to playWagner. One of the most eminent among them, the pianist-conductorDaniel Barenboim, once tried, but was booed off the stage. ZubinMehta, the Indian-born musical director of the Israel Philharmonic,has failed repeatedly to get the ban dropped. Israel Radio’s musicchannel slips in a snatch of Wagner from time to time — and getsaway with it. The ban is anchored in custom and use, not thelaw.
Asher Fisch, musical director of the New IsraelOpera, would like to introduce a Wagner opera into its program. Hemaintains that the decision should be left to the musicians. “It’simportant,” he says, “because everything that was composed afterWagner was influenced by Wagner to some extent. His sound is of akind that our orchestras do not know. It is important for them tolearn it.”
Yet, sotto voce, quietly, quietly, theIsraeli-born Fisch does not see Wagner topping the charts here, ifand when he is performed. “When we play Wagner in Israel,” he says,”we will realize that, musically, it will not be a great success. Idon’t think the Israeli audience will go for this music.”
Perhaps that would be a more subtle revenge thanbanning his music.
From Operaman to Leading Man
From Operaman to Leading Man
In ‘The Wedding Singer,’ Adam Sandlerproves he can carry a tune and a movie
By Naomi Pfefferman,Senior Writer
Above, Adam Sandler (center) stars as Robbie inThe Wedding Singer and Adam Sandler as a child,taken from the coverof his cassette ‘What the Hell Happened to Me?’
“David Lee Roth lights the menorah. So do James Caan, Kirk Douglasand the late Dinah Shore-ah…. We’ve got Ann Landers and her sister,Dear Abby. Harrison Ford is one-quarter Jewish; not too shabby. Somepeople think that Ebenezer Scrooge is. Well, he’s not. But guess whois: All Three Stooges!”
— from Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song”
Adam Sandler shuffles into an interview, lookingscruffy. He’s wearing brown cords, a baggy, brown velour shirt,oversized sideburns and the jokey, self-deprecating demeanor of theclass clown you remember from Hebrew school, minus the braces and theacne.
The thirtyish writer-songwriter-comedian is knownfor playing doofuses in the movies and for his “Chanukah Song,” afunny, folksy ditty often played on the radio during the holidayseason.
This week, he has a new film coming out, “TheWedding Singer,” in which he portrays his first romantic leadingrole, opposite Drew Barrymore. But Sandler doesn’t feel like aromantic leading man. “I’m trying to get a serious girlfriend,” hesays, sheepishly.
As for his self-image, Sandler says: “I saw apicture of myself…and I went: ‘Woof! I shouldn’t be in front of thecamera.'”
The loser image belies his recent success. Sandlerhas recorded two Grammy-nominated, platinum comedy albums and hassnagged $5 million for starring in “The Wedding Singer.” But, thenagain, the actor has made a career of playing endearing andnot-so-endearing losers. There was the foppish Operaman, who sang thenews on “Saturday Night Live”; the infantile drummer in “Airheads”;the bratty rich kid who goes back to school in “Billy Madison”; thenice-guy crook in “Bulletproof.”
Sandler’s affinity for the underdog may have somethingto do with his Jewish upbringing in small-town, USA. TheBrooklyn-born comic grew up in the non-Jewish milieu of Manchester,N.H., where he attended Hebrew school and sometimes encounteredanti-Semitic slurs. He was one of only two Jews in his class atWebster Elementary School.
Class-clowning was a good way to make friends; italso provided a springboard to his future profession.
Even so, his stand-up comedy debut at a Bostonclub, at age 17, was abysmal; even his big brother, Scott, admittedthat he stunk. But Sandler’s family was supportive (all except onegrandmother, who wondered why he couldn’t be a funny doctor), and heperfected his act while earning a fine arts degree at NYU.
After graduation, he was off to the comedy clubsof Los Angeles, where he was discovered by executive producer LorneMichaels of “Saturday Night Live” in 1990. Sandler, all of 23, wenton to write and perform on “SNL” for five years. Then came film rolesin “Coneheads,” Nora Ephron’s “Mixed Nuts” and, finally, his firststarring vehicle, “Billy Madison” (1995), which he co-wrote with anold NYU roommate.
Sandler penned the “Chanukah Song” while he wasstill at “SNL.” It was December; he’d already done a Thanksgivingsong, and Michaels was encouraging a Chanukah tune. “I was walkingdown the street when I thought up the first line,” the comic says.”It went, ‘Paul Newman is half Jewish; Goldie Hawn is half too. Putthem together: What a fine-looking Jew!'”
An updated version of the ditty lauds theJewishness of Winona Ryder, Lenny Kravitz and Courtney Love. How didSandler know they were Jewish? “I just guessed,” he says, with ashrug.
Nevertheless, the comic does not play a Jewish character in”The Wedding Singer,” which has a 1980s backdrop. Sandler insteadportrays a down-on-his-luck, non-Jewish wedding entertainerwho is left at the altar at his own nuptials. He then becomes theworst wedding singer imaginable — until he switches to working barmitzvahs. That is no easy task, however, because there are only fourJewish families in town.
Drew Barrymore, who plays the love interest,doesn’t think that it’s such a stretch to find Sandler in a romanticleading role. “Adam is one of the most incredible men because he hasthat attractive combination of humor and intellect,” she says. “Iworship comedians like [him], Woody Allen and Albert Brooks. Ofcourse, they all seem so dark and tortured, but they’re like medicinebecause they make you laugh.”
Sandler was suitably angst-ridden during therecent interview. He still gets “very scared” while performing infront of an audience, he reveals. He hates being alone, so he racksup $700 per month in phone bills. He’ll wake a buddy up at 5 a.m.just to make sure there’s another person left on the planet.
While he’s waiting to find his “seriousgirlfriend,” he focuses on his main hobby: eating. “I’ll playbasketball for an hour, knowing that, then, the ribs will be ready,”he says.
So, does Sandler identify with his “WeddingSinger” character? The actor shakes his head. “He’s a great guy, andI’m just all right,” he says. “But I’m working on it.”
Power, Politics And People
Honor Thy Father
Top, a scene from “Countess Maritza;” Above, YvonneSylva Maritza Josephine Kálmán as a child, with herfather Emmerich Kálmán.
Yvonne Sylva Maritza Josephine Kálmán, sixtyish,blond and glamorous, is named for all her father’s favorite operettaheroines. So perhaps not surprisingly, she has dedicated much of herlife to seeing that her father’s operettas have been performed allover the world.
She has many memories of him, but, mostly, she remembers thestories of how the Nazi came calling at the family villa on theAvenue Foch in Paris. It was 1939, not long after EmmerichKálmán had fled Vienna for France, and he wasashen-faced as he received the general. But the general’s message wascordial: “The Führer loves your music, and he misses yourpresence in Austria. He would very much like you to return,” he toldthe composer. Hitler would make Kálmán an “honoraryAryan,” and no one would know he was Jewish.
The musician shakily declined. By March 1940, he was forced toescape with his family to Los Angeles. His music was bannedthroughout the Reich, and most of his extended family perished in theconcentration camps. Kálmán never recovered from theshock and died, brokenhearted, in 1953.
Yvonne, his youngest child, was only 16 when he died. Over theyears, she has tenaciously telephoned and written to opera directorsall over the world, prompting revivals of her father’s works.
Beginning on Saturday, Nov. 22, and running through Dec. 7, theLos Angeles Opera will present Kálmán’s “CountessMaritza,” in perhaps the most lavish production of an operetta seenanywhere. Last week, Yvonne Kálmán could hardly containher excitement as she spoke of the production, jumping upintermittently to play excerpts from the operetta on the stereo.
Emmerich Kálmán was born in 1882 to a musical familyin the Hungarian resort town of Siofok. He attended Budapest’s RoyalAcademy of Music with Béla Bartók, and, by the 1920s,he had become renowned all over Europe. His fiery works, such as “TheGipsy Princess” and “Sari,” combined Hungarian folk themes withstrains of the Viennese waltz.
In Vienna, Kálmán first eyed Yvonne’s mother, VeraMakinska, at the famed Cafe Sacher; she was a lovely Russian dancer,30 years his junior, who asked if she could have a part in his nextshow. George Gershwin later visited the couple at their elegant villaand serenaded them with his “Rhapsody in Blue.”
But when the Nazis forced Kálmán to flee to LosAngeles, the once-prominent composer suddenly found himself obscure,a stranger in a strange land. MGM’s Louis B. Mayer had bought themovie rights to his operettas, but they never made it to the screen.Austrian and Hungarian plots were taboo, impossible with the outbreakof war, Yvonne explains.
It was only when the family relocated to Park Avenue in New Yorkthat Kálmán found a real home amid the expatriatecommunity. He reunited with his old Viennese librettist, AlfredGruenwald, and Yvonne remembers how they shouted together in hiscluttered study while smoking myriad cigars and strewing sheet musiceverywhere. The daughter loved to sit under the Steinway as herfather played or scribbled musical notes on his shirt cuffs. At theage of 3, she first heard Kálmán conduct his work withthe NBC Radio Orchestra, and “thought it was the most beautiful musicI had ever heard.”
Vera Makinska, meanwhile, held court at her legendary Manhattansoirees, where the passing celebrity parade included Greta Garbo andpianist Artur Rubinstein. Salvador Dali, who could always be countedupon to behave outrageously, fascinated young Yvonne with his long,twisted mustache. Shy, sensitive Kálmán usually sat outthe parties in the kitchen with pals Marlene Dietrich and authorErich Maria Remarque.
The composer’s newfound happiness was short-lived, however. Uponlearning of the death of his family in the Holocaust, he suffered amassive heart attack. Three years later, he was virtually immobilizedby a stroke. To cheer him up, 12-year-old Yvonne once brought home asurprise guest she had met at a party. When her father groggilyemerged in his bathrobe, he discovered his film idol, Buster Keaton.
Yvonne remembers the long train ride with her father’s coffin toVienna, where he was buried on a gray, stormy day in an honorarygrave near the composer Johann Strauss. She was devastated by theloss of her father, but heartened by the revivals of his operettasall over Europe. Once, after a production in Leningrad, theperformers called Yvonne onstage and presented her with dozens ofwhite roses, to thunderous applause.
By the 1980s, promoting her father’s work had become a full-timejob for Yvonne, who persuaded the Vienna Volksoper to perform “TheGipsy Princess” at Lincoln Center in 1984. After the sold-out run,she prompted shows in Santa Fe, N.M., and Orange County.
But the upcoming Los Angeles production, she says, is perhaps themost meaningful of all. “My father lived in anonymity in this city,”says Yvonne, who maintains residences in the Southland high desert,Munich and Mexico. “If he could have seen the people lining up hereto buy tickets, it would have been one of the happiest moments of hislife.”
For information about “Countess Maritza,” call (213) 972-8001. Tobuy tickets, call (213) 365-3500.
The Swiss Spin