• OTF – This Day in Opera History: 31 August 1928

    As I write this post, it dawns on me that, if he were still alive, my dad would have turned 85 this past month...

    On this day 85 years ago, the premiere of The Threepenny Opera took place at Berlin's Theater am Schiffbauerdamm.

    Dreigroschenoper is possibly the most famous collaboration by the duo made up of German dramatist Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill. It was adapted (with the help of translator Elisabeth Hauptmann) from John Gay's 1728 ballad opera The Beggar's Opera, and offers a Socialist critique of the capitalist world.

    A milestone of 20th century musical theatre, The Threepenny Opera rolls on unstoppably into the 21st. In their opera "by and for beggars", Weill and Brecht transformed old-fashioned opera and operetta forms, incorporating a sharp political perspective and the sound of 1920s Berlin dance bands and cabaret. Weill's acid harmonies and Brecht's biting texts created a revolutionary new musical theatre that inspired such subsequent hits as Cabaret, Chicago, and Urinetown.

    The show was a brilliant hit, and Threepenny-fever spread throughout Europe, generating forty-six stage productions of the work in the first year after the Berlin premiere. In 1931, a film version directed by G.W. Pabst entitled Die 3-Groschenoper opened, making an international star of Weill's wife, Lotte Lenya, who repeated her portrayal of Jenny Diver from the show's first production.

    The Threepenny Opera had already been produced 130 times worldwide and translated into 18 languages by 1933, before the rise of the Nazis forced Weill to flee to Paris in March of that year. So, my friends, this isn’t merely a musical comedy!

    The show's opening number, "Mack the Knife," became one of the top popular songs of the century. Like most of us, I’m sure, my first encounter with this music was not in its original German staging, but rather in this renditions by Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Bobby Darin:

    Shameless plug for an old haunt: I was sitting at the second floor of Hamilton’s Gown and Gavel pub (best Guinness in town, as I recall) during my Graduate School days, listening to a performance by local chanteuse Jude Johnson with some friends. Jude started singing “Mack the Knife” and saw me humming along uncontrollably. She took one look at me, and came by to say “You know, I sang in a musical once. You must’ve heard of the Threepenny Opera, right?” (or something like that, as I was in quite a tipsy mood that evening).

    A few days later, here I was at the McMaster University Music and Arts library (Ther Mills library me thinks), and found the CBS 1958 vinyl album supervised by Weill’s widow Lotte Lenya. It is a complete recording of the music (in the original German), without any spoken dialogue. And there it was, the ballad of Mack the Knife, in context!

    According to a quite comprehensive website dedicated to the work, Weill and Brecht were working on a setting of a Brecht play into an opera (Mahagonny would cause a scandal and lead to Nazi riots in 1930) when Brecht began tinkering with the text of The Beggar’s Opera which had been revived in London in 1920 and ran for years.

    Josef Aufricht, a young actor who became a producer when he inherited a big chunk of money, acquired the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm early in 1928 and was looking for a show. He found Brecht in a Berlin watering hole, and asked if he had any possibilities. Finally the conversation came around to the Beggar’s Opera. Aufricht was hooked. When he heard Kurt Weill was writing the score, however, he balked–Weill was considered a difficult avant-garde composer of opera at that time, and Aufricht feared that audiences would stay away. (He went as far as to order his music director to locate the original Beggar’s Opera music, just in case!)

    The show took about six months to adapt from Gay’s piece, although most of the work was done on the French Riviera in May and June. The opening night audience didn't quite know what to expect when the curtain rose on The Threepenny Opera on August 31, 1928, but after the first few musical numbers they began to cheer and call for encores!

    Macheath (Harald Paulsen) in prison, with Mrs. Peachum
    (Rosa Valletti) and Polly (Roma Bahn), Berlin, 1928.

    Although The Threepenny Opera reappeared in theaters in Germany and the United States right after the end of World War II, the work's true renaissance did not get underway until a New York off-Broadway production at the Theater de Lys. Running from 1954 through 1961, the show had a total of 2,707 performances, at that time the longest running musical in history.

    The Performance

    Thirty years after its creation, and four years after its successful run off-Broadway (where she, again, sang the role of Jenny), Lenya supervised and performed in a complete recording of Threepenny in German, released on Philips and Columbia. Erich Schellow, Johanna von Koczian, Willy Trenk-Trebitsch, Wolfgang Neuss, and Trude Hesterberg also appear in the cast.

    I am pleased today to offer the 1958 CBS recording, edited out of one of Sean Bianco’s great At The Opera podcasts.

    Kurt WEILL (1900-1950)
    Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) (1928)
    Play with music after John Gay's The Beggar's Opera; in three acts.
    German translation by Elisabeth Hauptmann.
    German Libretto by Bertolt Brecht.

    [Frau Peachum] – Trude Hesterburg
    [Herr Peachum] – Willy Trenk-Trebitsch
    [Jenny] - Lotte Lenya
    [Lucy] – Inge Wolffberg
    [Macheath] – Erich Schellow
    [Moritatensänger] – Wolfgang Neuss
    [Polly Peachum] – Johanna Von Kóczian
    [Tiger Brown] – Wolfgang Grunert
    Chorus Master – Günther Arndt
    Conductor – Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggeberg
    Orchestra – Sender Freies Berlin
    Recorded at the Afifa Studio in Templehof Berlin, January 11-15, 1958. Entire production supervised by Lotte Lenya.

    Album info: http://www.discogs.com/Kurt-Weill-Lo...elease/1944517

    Synopsis: http://www.threepennyopera.org/storySynopsis.php
    Performance Link (Internet Archive): https://archive.org/details/03Intro
    This article was originally published in forum thread: OTF – This Day in Opera History: 31 August 1928 started by itywltmt View original post

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