‘The Threepenny Opera,’ Without the ‘Cabaret’ Clichés
BERLIN – This winter, after a modest return to live shows in Germany, the coronavirus pandemic has stopped them again a little.
But at the Berliner Ensemble in January, preparations were underway for a much anticipated new staging of “The Threepenny Opera”. This ‘play with music’ by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill had its premiere in 1928 in the company’s home and has become the city’s most famous musical theater export – and perhaps the most famous cultural artefact. most emblematic of the Berlin of the Weimar era.
“I work behind Bertolt Brecht’s timber production office! Australian director of the production Barrie Kosky said with some astonishment.
Although the cast has been rehearsing for eight weeks, no one could tell when the opening night would be. “The only good thing for me, personally, that comes out of the crown is that I’ve had more time on stage than I’ve ever had to put on a show,” Kosky said.
Seven months later, this “Threepenny Opera” is finally scheduled for a premiere on August 13; he will then enter the repertoire of the Berliner Ensemble, founded by Brecht and actress Hélène Weigel, his wife. But don’t expect Weimar-era clichés like bowler hats, dirty overlooks, and paintings by Otto Dix or George Grosz.
“This play can’t be ‘Cabaret’ with a little intellectualism,” Kosky said.
“We are beyond ‘Babylon Berlin’,” said Oliver Reese, artistic director of the Berliner Ensemble, who was seated across from Kosky during the interview.
Kosky, 54, is best known for his energetic productions at the neighboring Komische Oper, the opera company of which he has been artistic director since 2012. Among his greatest hits have been the wacky and dazzling productions of operettas and musicals, including many forgotten works from the Weimar Republic.
But now that he’s directing the defining play of that era, he’s taking a different approach.
At a dress rehearsal in January, the actors sang and danced on an industrial stage whose welded metal ladders and platforms resembled a treacherous maze or an adult gym; there was no reference to the decadence of 1920s Berlin. Instead, the sardonic, tangy tone of the piece appeared in a somber, psychologically meaningful production that felt abstract and timeless.
The previous production “Threepenny Opera” of the Berliner Ensemble, by Robert Wilson, was a stylized nod to German expressionism. It was one of the theater’s iconic productions and spanned over a decade, with over 300 performances. (He arrived at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York in 2011.) But it required a lot of actors from outside the company, which made editing difficult. Shortly after Reese’s arrival to run the house in 2017, he approached Kosky to create a new production cast exclusively with cast members from the ensemble.
It was an offer Kosky couldn’t refuse.
“It’s the same antenna that went off when Katharina Wagner called me,” Kosky said, referring to Richard Wagner’s great-granddaughter and the director of the Bayreuth Festival, who had it. invited to stage “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” in 2017.
“If you’re going to do ‘Meistersinger’ then where are you doing it other than Bayreuth? And if you are going to do “Dreigroschenoper”, where do you do it other than the Berliner Ensemble? Kosky said, using the German title of “Threepenny”.
With its difficult mix of genres and sources – it is based on an 18th century British folk opera, and Brecht has also incorporated words from other poets into the text – “Threepenny” is a difficult work to achieve convincingly. The most recent Broadway production of 2006 was a Coke-Fueled 1980s Bacchanale starring Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper which was a critical failure.
Much of what makes “Threepenny” unique, and particularly difficult for a director, goes back to its origins. Brecht and Weill spent 10 days in the south of France getting by, working with a German translation of “The Beggar’s Opera” by John Gay by Elisabeth Hauptmann – a collaborator and mistress of Brecht who, according to Brecht scholar John Fuegi , was ultimately responsible for 80 percent of the text “Threepenny”.
The creators, Kosky said, “didn’t even know exactly what they were writing because it was written very quickly.” Although Weill later claimed that they always tried to create a “new genre,” Kosky and Reese felt that much of the series was the result of trial and error. The rushed nature of the collaboration, they said, resulted in something that doesn’t fit any style.
“He’s kind of a bastard,” Reese said.
“A schizophrenic bastard,” Kosky added. “But it’s joy. It is a tap dance through theatrical styles.
The rehearsal period for the premiere of “The Threepenny Opera” is the makings of a theatrical legend: calamities worthy of a wacky comedy. But after a month of illnesses and walkouts, defective sets and props – the barrel organ used for “Mack the Knife,” malfunctioned on opening night – the show opened and ended. was an immediate success. All of Berlin was whistling Weill’s tunes, and ticket queues curled around the block.
But despite the fame the play enjoyed over the next 93 years, Kosky called it a “problematic masterpiece” whose meaning is far from clear. Much of the ambiguity stems from the curious, if not unbalanced, interaction between the libretto and the score, he said.
“Is it a farce with the music, as Weill argued?” Kosky asked. “Or is it biting anti-capitalist satire, as Brecht retrospectively claims? And what is the conductor, the text or the music?
Every production of “Threepenny”, he added, “tries to do the impossible: to solve the enigma of this play and the contradictions in text, music and content.”
Adam Benzwi, the American conductor who is the musical director of the production, said he felt a certain tension between the critical distance that Brecht’s text invites and the emotional immediacy of Weill’s songs. The music, he said, must remain beautiful despite the harshness of the lyrics.
“Weill’s music is unique because you immediately feel the pain, excitement and sensuality of city life,” Benzwi said in a recent phone interview, highlighting the composer’s “melodies that want to be hot in a place that does not allow it, the rhythms that want to be happy in describing something terrible.
In January Kosky said: “If Bertolt Brecht had asked another composer to do the music, we would probably have a much drier and easier to understand piece. “
“But,” he added, “Weill has opened up an emotional landscape where suddenly you are contradicting virtually anything Brecht wants, or believes, in the theater.” (It was a tension that would ultimately lead to the dissolution of Brecht and Weill’s partnership in 1931, although they reunited for “The Seven Deadly Sins” a few years later.)
Under its previous artistic directors, the Berliner Ensemble had forged a reputation for traditional, even adoring, representations of Brecht’s pieces. Kosky is the latest in a series of innovative directors that Reese invited to give their own spin on the works of the genius loci of the theater.
“We are trying to establish a new Brecht tradition in this house,” Reese said.
“I think it’s no longer necessary to stick to theory,” he added, referring to Brecht’s stage philosophy, which, despite his influence on 20th century theater, is approaching now 100 years old. Brecht’s most famous technique, the alienation effect, is a back-and-forth between emotional involvement and critical thinking that is often achieved through ironic or metatheatrical means.
Although Kosky eschews Weimar-era footage for his “Three-legged Opera,” he said he was inspired by one of the great comedic filmmakers of the time, Ernst Lubitsch – but also, can -be more surprising, the much darker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the enfant terrible of the new German cinema.
Kosky said he was trying to bring together “the loneliness and melancholy of those isolated characters in Fassbinder’s films” with the “wonderful, naughty speed, irony and levity of Lubitsch.”
“It’s a strange combination,” he admitted, adding that he was aware that his artistic choices might not appeal to everyone. But he doesn’t fear a bit of controversy.
“I’m sure some people will say I ignored the savage social satire,” Kosky said, but insisted his production would be “political in a different way,” adding: “It’s a song about love in capitalism, and how love is for sale This is the triumph of bourgeois hypocrisy.
For many, Weill’s score remains the soundtrack of its time, while Brecht’s portrayal of a corrupt society captures the spirit of Berlin on the brink. Even so, Kosky wants to push the show’s local associations back in favor of something with a broader resonance.
“I think people will think that my production smells like Berlin, ”he said,“ but the images you see could be anywhere in the world. ”
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