‘The Threepenny Opera’ Without the ‘Cabaret’ Cliche


BERLIN – This winter, after live performances in Germany made a modest comeback, the coronavirus pandemic brought them to another halt.

But at the Berliner Ensemble in January, preparations were underway for a much-anticipated new staging of “The Threepenny Opera”. “Play With Music” by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil had its 1928 premiere in the company’s home, and became the city’s best-known musical theater export—and perhaps Weimar-era Berlin’s most iconic cultural artifacts.

“I’m working behind Bertolt Brecht’s wooden production desk!” Australian director of production Barry Kosky said with some surprise.

Although the cast had been rehearsing for eight weeks, no one can say when the opening night will take place. “For me, personally, the only good thing that has come out of Corona is that I have more time than I put on a show,” Kosky said.

Seven months later, this “threepenny opera” is finally ready for its August 13 premiere; It would then enter the repertoire of the Berliner Ensemble, founded by Brecht and his wife actress Helen Weigel. But don’t expect Weimar-era clichés like bowler hats, filthy carelessness, and tableaus from Otto Dix or Georg Groes.

“This piece can’t be ‘cabaret’ with a little bit of intellectualism,” Kosky said.

“We are beyond ‘Babylon Berlin,'” shouted at the Berliner Ensemble’s artistic director, Oliver Reese, who sat across from Koski during the interview.

Koski, 54, is best known for his energetic productions at the opera company, Opera Company, where he has been artistic director since 2012. His greatest hits include opulent, dazzlingly staged performances filled with musical illusions, including many of the Weimar Republic’s forgotten works.

But now that he is directing a pivotal piece of that era, he is taking a different approach.

During a dress rehearsal in January, the actors sang and danced on an industrial set whose welded metal ladders and platforms resembled a treacherous labyrinth or adult jungle gym; There was no reference to the fall of 1920s Berlin. Instead, the piece’s pungent, acid-rich tone came through in a dark and psychologically inquiring production that appeared abstract and timeless.

The Berliner Ensemble’s previous “Threepenny Opera” staged by Robert Wilson was a stylized tip of the hat for German Expressionism. It was one of the theater’s signature productions and ran for over a decade with over 300 performances. (It came to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York in 2011..) But it required many actors from outside the company, which made it a challenge to grow. Shortly after he came to lead Reese’s house in 2017, he contacted Koski to exclusively form a new production cast with ensemble actors.

It was an offer Kosky could not turn down.

“It was the same antenna that Katherine Wagner called me,” Kosky said, referring to Richard Wagner’s great-granddaughter and director of the Bayreuth Festival.

“If you’re going to do ‘Meisteringer’, where else do you do it other than Bayreuth? And if you’re going to do ‘Dreigroschenoper,’ where else do you do it other than the Berliner Ensemble?” Kosky said, using the German title of “Threepenny”.

With its uneasy mix of styles and source material – it is based on British popular operas of the 18th century, and Brecht has also incorporated songs from other poets into the text – “Threepenny” is a difficult task to pull off convincingly. . most recent Broadway production, From 2006, there was a 1980s coke-fueled bacchanal starring Alan Cumming and Cindy Lauper that was a critical flop.

Much of what makes “Threepenny” unique and uniquely challenging for a director can be traced to its origins. Brecht and Weil spent 10 days in the south of France, working with a German translation of John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera” by Elisabeth Hauptmann – Brecht’s colleague and mistress, which, according to Brecht scholar John Fuegy, was ultimately “Threepenny”. Responsible for 80 percent of the text.

The creators, Kosky said, “didn’t even know what they were writing, because it was written too quickly.” Although Weil later claimed that they were trying their best to create a “new genre”, both Koski and Reese felt that much of the show was the result of trial and error. He said the quick nature of collaboration resulted in something that didn’t fit any one genre.

“It’s kind of a bastard,” Reese said.

“A schizophrenic bastard,” Kosky said. “But that’s the joy of it. It’s a tap dance through theatrical genres.”

The rehearsal period for the premiere of “The Threepenny Opera” is the stuff of dramatic legend: disasters worthy of a screwball comedy. But after a month of cast illnesses and walkouts, and faulty sets and props—the barrel organ used for “Mack the Knife” malfunctioned in Opening Night—the show opened, and was an immediate hit. Weil’s tunes were whistling all over Berlin, and lines for tickets wound up around the block.

But despite the play’s fame in 93 years, Koski called it a “problematic masterpiece”, the meaning of which is unclear. He noted that most of the ambiguity stems from the curious, even one-sided, interplay between the libretto and the score.

“Is it a spectacle with music, as Val said?” Kosky asked. “Or is it a scathing anti-capitalist satire, as Brecht claimed retrospectively? And what’s the main thing, the text or the music?”

Every production of “Threepenny”, he said, “tries to do the impossible: to find out what the puzzle is with this piece, and the contrasts within the text, the music, and the material.”

American conductor Adam Benzavi, who is the production’s musical director, said he felt a certain tension between the critical distance invited by Brecht’s text and the emotional urgency of Weil’s lyrics. He said that the music should remain beautiful despite the harshness of the songs.

“Weil’s music is unique because you immediately feel the pain, excitement, and sensuality of urban life,” Benjavi said in a recent phone interview of musicians “tunes who want to warm up in a space that doesn’t allow it.” Said, pointing to the rhythm. Those who want to be happy while describing something terrible.”

In January, Koski said, “If Bertolt Brecht had asked another composer to do the music, perhaps we would have had a more drier, easier piece to understand.”

“But,” he continued, “Vail opens up an emotional landscape where suddenly you are in denial of almost everything that Brecht wants, or believes, in the theatre.” (It’s a tension that would eventually lead to the dissolution of Brecht and Weil’s partnership in 1931, though they reunited a few years later for “The Seven Deadly Sins”.)

Under previous artistic directors, the Berliner Ensemble had developed a reputation for traditional, even venerable, presentations of Brecht’s plays. Kosky is the latest in a series of innovative directors that Reese has invited to put their own spin Works of theater genius Loki.

“We’re trying to establish a new Brecht tradition in this house,” Reese said.

Referring to Brecht’s stage philosophy, he said, “I think you no longer need to cling to the theory, which despite its influence on 20th-century theater is now turning 100 years old. Brecht’s most famous There is a push and pull between technique, alienation effect, emotional involvement and critical reflection that is often achieved through irony or metatheatrical means.

Although Kosky steers clear of Weimar-era imagery for his “Threepenny Opera”, he states that he was inspired by one of the great comedy filmmakers of the period, Ernst Lubitz – but also, perhaps more surprisingly, The very dark Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the terrifyingly terrible of New German cinema.

Koski said that he was trying to bring together “the loneliness and sadness of those isolated characters in Fassbinder’s films” with the “wonderful, mischievous, quickness, irony and lightness of Lubitsch”.

“It’s a strange combination,” he admitted, adding that he knew his artistic choices might not please everyone. But they don’t mind any controversy.

“I’m sure some people will say I overlooked brutal social satire,” Kosky said, but insisted that his production would be “political in a different way,” adding that it was a piece about love in capitalism. And how love is for sale. It is about the victory of bourgeois hypocrisy.”

For many, Weil’s score remains the soundtrack of its era, while Brecht’s portrait of a corrupt society captures the spirit of Berlin on the edge of the abyss. Still, Koski wants to back the show’s local associations in favor of something with wider resonance.

“I think people will think about my production” It smells bad Like Berlin,” he said, “but the pictures you see can be anywhere in the world.”



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