We tend to think of great music – and indeed all art – as universal and timeless, transcending the specific circumstances of inspiration. Thus Beethoven may have penned his "Eroica" Symphony in tribute to Napoleon, but its potent subtext of heroism, grief and triumph resonate 200 years later and undoubtedly will be equally effective for generations to come. Yet, some works, while continuing to speak to us across the ages, are very much of their time – from Handel's Water Music conjuring the splendor of baroque royalty to George Crumb's Black Angels evoking the confusion and pain of the Vietnam War. Die Dreigroschenoper ("The Threepenny Opera") unmistakably recalls Berlin on a precipice between the World Wars, when the vacuum of its shattered culture eagerly embraced new influences, especially the intrigue of American movies and jazz, with a decadent zest fueled by the desperation of a crashed economy and social unrest.
Despite its relevance to Berlin of the 1920s, the Threepenny Opera had its origins in London two full centuries earlier. John Gay's 1727 Beggar's Opera had created a sensation by skewering the conventions (and pretensions) of trendy Italianate opera and its florid arias, noble characters and rigid morality.
The Beggar's Opera was a huge success – as one critic of the time noted, it made Rich (the theatre owner) very gay and Gay very rich. A 1922 London revival struck a deeply responsive chord in Bertolt Brecht, whose secretary, Elizabeth Hauptmann, brought it to his attention and prepared a translation.
His ideal collaborator for the project was Kurt Weill, a young Berlin composer who had already written several short operas in which he had sought to expand theatrical convention.
Brecht had been approached by Ernest-Josef Aufricht, who desperately needed a work to draw attention to his new Schiffbauerdamm Theatre in Berlin. With a mere three months until the opening, Brecht and Weill closeted themselves on the Riviera and emerged with a novel approach that infused old forms with new ideas, as had been urged by Weill's teacher, Ferrucio Busoni. As Dr. Jürgen Schebera has since noted, Brecht cobbled his lyrics from a deliberately awkward, arrhythmic and repetitious mix of Biblical quotations, tired clichés and street slang, and Weill's music draws upon and abruptly shifts among classics, popular dance tunes and jazz. Indeed, much of the work's energy derives from these constant multi-leveled tensions, thus perhaps symbolizing the Marxian principle so dear to Brecht of progress arising from a synthesis of opposites.
The presentation was intended to counteract the gritty plot. Weill and Brecht drew a clear division between story and song. In so doing, they recalled the origins of opera,
Pre-production snags included last-minute cast changes, Weill's fury upon discovering that his wife's name was omitted from the program, producers' misgivings so severe that they had their musical director prepare the original Pepusch score as a stand-by,
Brecht's book and Weill's score sharpen the social criticism of Gay's original, but always with an intriguing but queasy unrest.
The world is poor and man's a shitThere are also some bizarre plot twists.
The premiere was sparsely attended, but word of this bizarre entertainment spread quickly. As George Martin noted with irony, the show treads a thin line, managing to keep audiences sufficiently amused so that they come and remain to be insulted. According to Schebera, within the first year alone fifty theatres presented 4,000 performances, and record shops bulged with 40 recordings on 20 labels. By 1933, with translations made into 18 languages, Dreigroschenoper received the ultimate accolade for its challenging politics and music when the Nazis not only banned further performances but demanded that all scores be relinquished for destruction.
While the War understandably dampened enthusiasm for German satire, the Threepenny Opera soon resurfaced. In 1952, Leonard Bernstein led a revival at Brandeis for which Marc Blitzstein fashioned an English adaptation. Moving to the 299-seat off-off-Broadway Theatre de Lys, it played to rave reviews for six years, featuring Lotte Lenya and a cast of then-unknowns (including Bea Arthur). The MGM cast recording LP (now on Polydor 820 260) sold a half-million copies and is musically vibrant and colorful. Yet for the recording the lyrics were tamed considerably – in the original tango, Mac relates how when a sailor appeared he would get out of Jenny's bed and have a beer while she earned her keep, but in the album version he gets up to pay the milkman while she is out working.
In 1976, Joseph Papp mounted a new production for the New York Shakespeare Festival that attempted to restore much of the original conception. In his album notes, Papp chided Blitzstein for vitiating the political and sexual thrust that gave the original its relentless power and for trying to make Brecht's thorny lyrics more singable by fitting them into conventional musical patterns rather than chafing them against the rhythm to make the audience listen more sharply.
Fortunately, we have lots of early recordings that provide a reliable guide to the highly unusual performing style. The most renown and complete is a set of four Ultraphon 78s featuring 14 of the songs (albeit cut) by Lenya, Erich Ponto and Kurt Gerron of the original cast, the original arrangement for seven players (most of whom doubled - or tripled - on other instruments), the original Lewis-Ruth Band under Theo Mackeben, and introductory narration prepared by Brecht. The playing is lean and tough, the vocals pointed and intense (except for Willi Trenk-Trebitsch's perversely suave and detached Mac) and Lenya, as Polly, gets not only her own songs but "Pirate Jenny" that would become her anthem. The best CD transfer by far is on Teldec 42663.
The Ultraphon set was not made until December 1930. Arguably more authentic still are four songs cut in December 1928 by Harald Paulson, who created the role of Mac and who presents an intriguing range of styles – clipped notes suggesting routine recital for the "Moritat," lusty confidence for the "Cannon Song," rushed urgency for the "Ballad of Good Living," and fervent declamation for the first act finale. Carola Neher, the original Polly, cut "Pirate Jenny," "Barbara-Song" and a medley in May 1929, far more spoken than sung.
Although Weill reportedly dismissed as falsified arrangements all of these and the other many recordings, he excepted two irresistibly peppy instrumental excerpts (the tango and "Cannon Song") played in 1929 on an Odeon 78 by the Lewis-Ruth Band under Mackeben. In late 1928 he prepared his own arrangement for woodwinds of ten songs in seven movements, more thickly orchestrated but recorded in 1931 with great zest by the Berlin Staatsoper under Otto Klemperer, who had commissioned and led the premiere. (Klemperer's stereo EMI Philharmonia remake is far less spirited.)
Another primary source is a gritty 1931 movie by G. W. Pabst, shot in simultaneous German and French versions on the same sets with wholly different casts. While only the German format (featuring Lenya as Jenny, Neher as Polly and a viciously debonair Rudolph Foerster as Mac) is extant, four songs were issued from the French one ("l' Opéra de Quat' Sous"), blandly sung but played with great spirit by the Lewis-Ruth Band under Mackeben. After selling the film rights, both authors sued – Brecht wanted to turn it into a Marxist manifesto (he lost) and Weill sought to prevent the use of outside music (he won, but the producers cut most of his songs anyway, using some as background music). Authentic or not, it's a fascinating document, intensified by expressionist shot composition, garish lighting and nervous camera movements.
Among modern recordings, the Dreigroschenoper volume of Capriccio's 1997 Kurt Weill Edition (60 058) is deadly dull, drained of any hint of style, but two stereo sets stand out. A lavishly documented 1958 Columbia album with Lenya (CBS 42367) strives for stylistic authenticity; although the deliberate pacing struggles to summon the work's full spirit, it's sung with great expressivity and in the three decades since her first recordings Lenya's voice had dropped an octave, replacing her former weirdly perverse shrill girly innocence with a world-weary wisdom. The avowed intent of a 1989 RIAS Berlin recording peopled with opera stars (London 430 075) was to restore Weill's music to preeminence while evading the "heightened and mannered speech" and "aggressive bellowing and whining" of the producers' conception of the prevailing accepted style. While the singing is full of character but without exaggerated inflection, the accompaniment is exquisitely detailed, often mining lodes of unsuspected splendor and beauty from the score. The potential conflict between adhering to the original manuscript and respecting more recent emendations is finessed, as when "Pirate Jenny" is sung twice – once by Polly (as in the first stagings) and again by Jenny (after Weill shifted his show-stopper to his wife's role).
The Threepenny Opera may evoke Berlin in the 1920s, but its cynical distrust of human endeavor, its frantic search for meaning amid moral chaos and its desparate anxiety for a more secure future are far more current than we might want to admit.
Copyright 2004 by Peter Gutmann
For a note about the illustrations, please click here.
copyright © 1998-2004 Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.