Bob Bernard's Corner: Three for a Match

The Threepenny Opera

By Bob Bernard

Composer Kurt Weill, librettist Bertolt Brecht and singer Lotte Lenya first matched up artistically for the world premiere of Die Dreigroschenoper [The Threepenny Opera] in Berlin in 1928, with Weill and Lenya having married two years earlier. This German-language critique of London life had as its hit tune "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" ["The Ballad of Mack the Knife"]. The opera’s number two hit was "Seeräuberjenny" ["Pirate Jenny"], sung by Ms. Lenya in the role of a prostitute/maid. This number’s threatening tone pre-echoed Eliza Doolittle’s peevishly-oriented, but much more humorously-slanted “Just you wait” number in 1956’s My Fair Lady.

Concurrent with The Threepenny Opera, Weill and Brecht put together the Mahagonny-Songspiel, a collection of five of Brecht’s poems, set to music by Weill. Over the next couple of years they built upon this foundation to form the opera Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny [Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny]. From its early trial runs, its left-wing political slant drew an increasingly strong reaction from the burgeoning National Socialist party.


Being cognizant of the opera’s ideological content, the Nazi Brown Shirts paramilitary infiltrated the premiere of Mahagonny in Leipzig on March 9, 1930, bringing about a riot. Lotte Lenya remembered the scene as:

“As the opera swept towards its close, the demonstrations started. The theater was a screaming mass of people. Soon the riot had spread to the stage, panicky spectators were trying to claw their way out, and only the arrival of a large police force finally cleared the theater.”

The opera Mahagonny, a cynical, bitter, in-your-face satire, has never lost its ability to antagonize its audiences. Professor Albert Braunmuller of UCLA, in his Introduction to W. H. Auden’s 1976 translation of Brecht’s libretto, averred: “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny must offend and repel its audience is it is to succeed. The opera can hardly be mistaken for anything but a harsh attack on many values and institutions of contemporary society.”

Indeed, the opera emphasizes that specific corruptions are time-invariant: specific villainies reoccur from generation to generation, with only the names changed and, regrettably, often the circumstances are intensified … a few examples:

  • In Act 2’s trial scene, the corrupt prosecutor Trinity Moses [Brecht using this name as an opportunity to diss two religions!] dodges answering a question that would be self-incriminating with “That information is not before the court.” In an updated production, that line could be revised to “That’s beyond my purview.”
  • The opera's closing scene shows groups of demonstrators entering in continual succession, each faction in opposition to the other, much as we've seen recently in Portland:
  • Near the end of Act 1- with a typhoon threatening Mahagonny – Jimmy Mahoney, in a scene of horrifyingly “Accidental Prescience”, sings this …. And we remember …:

Weill, Lenya and Brecht emigrated from Germany to the United States in the mid-thirties. Then, with the eastern front battles developing during 1943 in WWII, the combination of Brecht’s words, Weill’s music and the voice of Lenya – reassuming the deadly seductive tone of her Pirate Jenny in The Threepenny Opera - were matched up one more time in produce a US military audio that was broadcast to German troops. It was a riff based upon the line: “What was sent to the soldier’s wife?” It runs for seven verses. The first is (English translations, of course): “From Oslo over the sound? From Oslo there came a collar of fur, How it pleases her, the little collar of fur.” The second is from the South from Bucharest? “From Bucharest he sent her a shirt embroidered and pert, that Rumanian shirt.” And, the last, “From the far-off Russian land? From Russia there came just a widow’s veil For her dead to bewail in her widow’s veil.”

Kurt Weill died in 1950, his huge American music legacy including the musical plays/comedies Lady in the Dark, One Touch of Venus, Street Scene, Love Life, and Lost in the Stars. For many, the evocative “September Song” from his 1938 Knickerbocker Holiday, remains a favorite with its all-too-true reminder of how the inevitable passage of time must affect courtship and relationships. Besides the many opera recordings, singers Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Anne Sofie von Otter have all recorded entire albums of his music. The Kurt Weill Centre, founded in 1993 and designed by Walter Gropius, is located in Dessau and contains a museum, library, archive, and media complex.

Bertolt Brecht died in 1956. He returned to Europe in 1947 – immediately following his theatrical testimony before the HUAC – residing first in Switzerland and then moving to East Berlin. Other than The Threepenny Opera, his better known plays were written while in the US. His “The Good Person of Szechwan” was adapted to into episode of Cheers (“The Two Faces of Norm”) in 1989. W. H. Auden, who did a translation of his Mahagonny libretto, reflected upon Brecht’s complex nature: "You must admire the logic of a man who lives in a Communist country, takes out Austrian citizenship, does his banking in Switzerland, and, like a gambler hedging his bets, sends for the pastor at the end in the event there could be something in that, too."

Lotte Lenya died in 1981. After the death of Weill, she resumed her musical career, performing in Marc Blitzstein’s adaptation of The Threepenny Opera and singing in recordings of Mahagonny and Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins. Because her voice had deepened with age, her part was transposed substantially downward (director Stephen Wadsworth categorized this as “one octave below laryngitis”). Moving into motion pictures, she earned an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress for her role as Contessa Magna Terribili-Gonzales, the high-end escort service entrepreneur in the Tennessee Williams play The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. She also "got her kicks" as SPECTRE agent Rosa Klebb in the second James Bond film, From Russia with Love (1963).

For jazz enthusiasts, Louis Armstrong created the enduring memory of the Weill/Brecht/Lenya matchup when, in 1959, he (with Lenya in the recording studio) interpolated “Look out for Miss Lotte Lenya!” into the lyrics of “Mack the Knife”, right between mention of Sukey Tawdry and Lucy Brown. That’s something for us to enjoy...

Whenever Macky’s back in town.

(1) Articles from (1) Kurt Weill, Composer in a Divided World by Ronald Taylor; (2) The Days Grow Short: The Life and Music of Kurt Weill by Ronald Sanders; and (3) Kurt Weill: A Guide To His Works compiled by Marlo Mercado were generously drawn upon and made available by Opera League founding member Jay Galbraith
(2) Performance photo image extracted from the Met’s 1979 production of Mahagonny

Author: Thomas Lady

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