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Timeless Power of 'The Threepenny Opera'

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Juilliard’s versatile fourth-year actors will get to show off their musical talents this month in a production of The Threepenny Opera, directed by Sam Gold. The work, by playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) and composer Kurt Weill (1900-1950), was first performed in its original German as Die Dreigroschenoper at Berlin’s Theater am Schiffbauerdamm on August 31, 1928, with Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya, in the role of Jenny Diver. The show quickly became an international sensation and its opening number, “Mack the Knife,” achieved iconic status as one of the most popular songs of the century.

Bertolt Brecht (left) and Kurt Weill, c. 1928, the year their Threepenny Opera was premiered in its original German. The fourth-year actors will perform the work in December.

(Photo by Courtesy of the Kurt Weill Foundation)

Lotte Lenya, who played Jenny Diver in the 1928 German premiere of The Threepenny Opera, won a Tony for her performance of the role, in English, in 1956. Above: Lenya performs as Jenny at the Theater de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel Theater) in Greenwich Village (photo c. 1954).

(Photo by S. Neil Fujita)

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The source for the work was John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), a humorous “ballad opera” with no generic precedent. Gay’s work consisted of dialogue interspersed with 69 songs, mainly popular ballads of the British Isles and France, and well-known opera arias by Handel and Purcell, among others. A satire of both Italian opera conventions and the political corruption of England’s reigning prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, The Beggar’s Opera was tremendously popular with 18th-century theatergoers and had enjoyed a successful London revival in the early 1920s. In addition to Gay’s text, Brecht also used poems by Rudyard Kipling and Françoise Villon. Translations for all the texts were by made by Brecht’s close collaborator, Elisabeth Hauptmann.

Retaining the essential plot and characters of The Beggar’s Opera, The Threepenny Opera updates the setting to Victorian London, where Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, the “boss of London’s beggars,” owns a shop where he outfits and trains beggars in return for a cut of their takings. When Peachum and his wife learn that their daughter, Polly, has married Macheath, a.k.a. the notorious bandit Mack the Knife, they hatch a plan to bring about Mack’s ruin. Other principal characters include “Tiger” Brown, the chief of police and an old friend and ally of Mack; Brown’s daughter, Lucy, to whom Mack is also secretly married; and Jenny, a prostitute with whom Mack has enjoyed a long and seemingly close relationship. Although Mack is imprisoned twice during the course of the play and is on his way to the gallows at the end of the final act, the king’s mounted messenger saves him at the last minute, providing, in the words of the final chorus, an “alternate conclusion” in which mercy tempers justice—an appropriately ironic ending for the satirical tale.

A committed Marxist, Brecht was the most famous practitioner of “epic theater,” a genre defined by a non-naturalistic mode of acting, montage-like dramatic construction, and the use of choruses and projections to provide commentary. These techniques are seen throughout The Threepenny Opera, as for example when Jenny steps out of character to deliver the “Pirate Jenny” song—a disruptive moment highlighted in Juilliard’s production by the use of two different actors for the role of Jenny.

Brecht utilized such techniques to achieve his goals of breaking down the division between high art and popular culture, and using theater as a platform to advance his political ideals. Commenting on The Threepenny Opera in the program notes of a 1928 performance, he said that the work confronted “the same sociological situation as The Beggar’s Opera: just like 200 years ago, we have a social order in which virtually all strata of the population, albeit in extremely varied ways, follow moral principles—not, of course, by living within a moral code but off it.” On the other hand, as Weill scholar Stephen Hinton observes in his book Kurt Weill: The Threepenny Opera, “If the work exerts any socio-polemical impact, which [Ernst] Bloch and [Theodor] Adorno claimed, it is at best indirect. Unlike in The Beggar’s Opera, the outrage expressed in The Threepenny Opera is general, not particular … Gay’s satire contains scarcely camouflaged barbs against the Walpole administration, whereas Weill and Brecht’s satire lampoons conventional bourgeois morality, both in and out of the theater.”

Hinton describes The Threepenny Opera as a bold act of “creative vandalism,” but with the exception of one number, “Peachum’s Morning Hymn,” the music was all newly composed by Weill. By the time Weill met Brecht, he had already distinguished himself as a composer of classical works for the concert hall. While his jazz-influenced score for The Threepenny Opera represented a new direction for his own work and for musical theater in general, Weill saw it as part of the continuing evolution of the classical opera tradition, noting in a 1929 interview with the Austrian newspaper Wiener Allgemeine Zeitung that “this type of music is the most consistent reaction to Wagner. It signifies the complete destruction of the concept of music drama.” On the other hand, having admired Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale as a type of mixed-genre work that could serve as a new prototype for opera, Weill must have been especially pleased, as he wrote in a letter to his wife in January 1930, that “Stravinsky is really enthusiastic about Dreigroschenoper.”

Critics were also quick to recognize the work’s originality. In a 1928 review for the Berlin newspaper Die Zeit, A. Ebbutt wrote that The Threepenny Opera “is not … a morality play, it is not a revue, it is not a conventional burlesque, and it is not The Beggar’s Opera; but it is an interesting combination of them illustrating the progress of a movement towards freeing music, acting, and the cinematograph from the ruts of Italian opera, Wagnerian music-drama, drawing-room comedy, and Hollywood, and creating something new with them.” The work’s energy and freshness have won over audiences ever since.

Because of its unique genre, the show presents a special challenge for actors who, as Weill said, “don’t have to be trained singers but … have to be able to put over a song in the special singing style of Threepenny Opera.” Thanks to the Drama Division’s strong emphasis on vocal training, and as they’ve already proven in their cabaret performances last spring, Juilliard’s Group 39 actors are more than ready for the challenge. The music is also demanding for the instrumentalists, especially in attempts to adhere to the original performance standard in which just seven musicians played a total of 23 instruments. (Juilliard’s production will come pretty close, using an eight-member ensemble comprised of both jazz and classical music students.)

This will be the first production of The Threepenny Opera in the history of Juilliard’s Drama Division. Commenting on the show, James Houghton, the division’s artistic director, remarked that “The Threepenny Opera possesses a vitality and relevance that resonates today—we knew that Group 39 and director Sam Gold would seize this opportunity and make the most of this work.” (Gold, an alumnus of Juilliard’s theater directing program, previously directed Juilliard’s Group 35 actors in a production of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II in 2006.) Houghton also noted that the production “provides a great opportunity for collaboration across many disciplines within Juilliard. This is exactly the kind of project we have been hoping to incorporate in our training and the larger Juilliard community.”

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