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Exploring Mack the Knife: Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin jazz things up

In November, we started a new series of blog posts looking at how Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer” became the iconic American classic, “Mack the Knife.” At first glance, the original is a gritty, darkly comic murder ballad about the seditious ways of the notorious Mackie Messer. The comedy lay in the understanding that Mack is not so different from the politicians and members of respectable society that look down at ruffians of his stature; Brecht and Weill want us to know that corruption is a game everyone plays.

Die Dreigroschenoper premiered in Berlin in 1928. In the 1930s, as the Nazis took over Germany and Weill’s livelihood and life itself were endangered, he emigrated to the United States and began his second life as a composer for Broadway and Hollywood. He died in 1950, just as the composer Marc Blitzstein was beginning a new English translation of Die Dreigroschenoper. Blizstein’s adaptation–The Threepenny Opera–premiered off-Broadway in 1954, bringing the work to a wide American audience for the first time. While the run was deemed an enormous success (it ran until 1961 and garnered a Tony Award for Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya in the role of Jenny), Mack the Knife’s moment in the cultural spotlight was still to come.

In 1956, Louis Armstrong introduced his version of “Mack the Knife” to the American hit parade in a new, jazzed up version that decidedly lightened the musical tone of the piece:

Just two years later, in 1958,  Bobby Darin recorded his iconic version of “Mack the Knife.” The single was released in August 1959 and sold 2 million copies, stayed at number one on the charts for 9 weeks, and won the Grammy for Record of the Year, forever embedding the piece in the annals of American pop culture. Darin used Blitzstein’s translation in his recording, but he was liberal in throwing in some “babes” at the end of almost every line. Furthermore, influenced by Armstrong’s take on “Mack,” Darin’s arrangement is almost aggressively smooth and sugary where the original is rough and bitter. Take a listen below:

Sounds a little different than this, huh? In Darin’s version, much like in Armstrong’s, Mack is no longer the dangerously seductive criminal you fear. Rather, he sounds almost like an Elvis figure, someone slightly dangerous but endlessly cool, someone you want to know. While the words are only slightly altered, the new music is downright gleeful, rendering a work that would likely be unrecognizable to Kurt Weill.

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Keely Futterer

Rosina, The Barber of Seville

Hometown: Dover, AR
Madison Opera Debut: Léontine, The Anonymous Lover (2024)

Recently: Musetta, La Bohème; Armida, Rinaldo; Charlene, Service Provider; Jazz Trio, Trouble in Tahiti (Minnesota Opera);
Armida, Rinaldo; Vanderdendur, Candide; Angostura, Tenor Overboard (Glimmerglass Festival);
Rodelinda, Rodelinda (Hudson Hall); Fiordiligi, Così fan tutte (Opera Memphis);
Marie, The Daughter of the Regiment (Opera Saratoga)

Upcoming: Anna Sørenson, Silent Night (Wolf Trap Opera); Marcellina, Leonora (Chicago Opera Theater);
Fiordiligi, Così fan tutte (Virginia Opera)


Weston Hurt

Baritone, Opera in the Park

Hometown: Spring, TX
Madison Opera Debut: Germont, La Traviata (2019)

Recently: Sharpless, Madama Butterfly (Houston Grand Opera, New Orleans Opera);
Britten's War Requiem (Opera Roanoke); Scarpia, Tosca (Arizona Opera);
Germont, La Traviata (Lyric Opera of Kansas City); Nabucco, Nabucco (Seattle Opera)

Upcoming: Rigoletto, Rigoletto (English National Opera)

Joshua Sanders

Tenor, Opera in the Park

Hometown: Plain, WI
Madison Opera Debut: Giuseppe, La Traviata (2011)
Also at MO: Tobias Ragg, Sweeney Todd; Inmate, Dead Man Walking; Ensemble, Acis and Galatea

Recently: Count Almaviva, The Barber of Seville; Romeo, Romeo and Juliet (Opera San José);
Tamino, The Magic Flute (Nashville Opera); Sam Clay, The Amazing Adventures of
Kavalier & Clay
workshop (Metropolitan Opera)

Upcoming:  Victorin, Die tote Stadt (Boston Symphony Orchestra)

Sachie Ueshima, wearing black in front of a stone staircase.
Sachie Ueshima

Zerlina, Don Giovanni

Hometown: Wakayama City, Japan
Madison Opera Debut
Former Madison Opera Studio Artist

Recently: Cio-Cio-San, Madama Butterfly (Virginia Opera); Violetta, La Traviata;
Krystyna Zywulska, Two Remain (UW-Madison)

Upcoming: Cio-Cio-San, Madama Butterfly (Kentucky Opera)


David Walton

Count Almaviva, The Barber of Seville

Hometown: Twin Cities, MN
Madison Opera Debut: Opera in the Park 2017
Also at MO: Belmonte, The Abduction from the Seraglio

Recently: Ferrando, Così fan tutte (Princeton Festival); Ramiro, La Cenerentola (Toledo Opera);
Count Almaviva, The Barber of Seville (North Carolina Opera);
Sullivan, The Pirates of Penzance (Opera San Antonio); Filippo, Deceit Outwitted (Sarasota Opera)

Upcoming: Count Almaviva, The Barber of Seville (Minnesota Opera); Candide, Candide (South Florida Symphony);
Don Ottavio, Don Giovanni (Livermore Valley Opera)

Emily Fons

Mezzo-soprano, Opera in the Park
Donna Elvira, Don Giovanni

Hometown: Milwaukee, WI
Madison Opera Debut: Opera in the Park 2012
Also at MO: Rosina, The Barber of Seville

Recently: Nicklausse, The Tales of Hoffmann (Palm Beach Opera);
Rosina, The Barber of Seville (Cincinnati Opera, Santa Fe Opera);
Woman, Ghosts (San Diego Opera); Cherubino, The Marriage of Figaro (Canadian Opera Company);
Hansel, Hansel and Gretel (New Orleans Opera)

Upcoming: Princess Irene, Tamerlano (Haymarket Opera)


Ryan Nash

Madison Opera Debut
Madison Opera Studio Artist
Recently: Gherardo, Gianni Schicchi (American Gothic Performing Arts Festival); Frederic, The Pirates of Penzance (Madison Savoyards);
Mercurio, La Calisto; Gastone, La Traviata; Albert Herring, Albert Herring (UW Madison Opera);
Rinuccio, Gianni Schicchi (La Musica Lirica USA); Alfred, Die Fledermaus; Monostatos, The Magic Flute (UMass Opera)

Upcoming: Tamino, The Magic Flute (Opera for the Young)


John DeMain

Conductor: Opera in the Park, The Barber of Seville, Don Giovanni

Hometown: Youngstown, OH
Madison Opera Debut: The Magic Flute (1995)
Recently at MO: Candide, Tosca, Trouble in Tahiti / The Seven Deadly Sins, Salome


Rebecca Herman

Stage Director, The Barber of Seville

Hometown: Austin, TX
Madison Opera Debut

Recently: Carmen (Austin Opera); Don Giovanni (Opera Colorado, Cincinnati Opera);
Un Cuento de Luces y Sonmbras
(LOLA); La Bohème (Glimmerglass Opera);
The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs (Utah Opera, Calgary Opera)

Upcoming: The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs (Washington National Opera)


Fenlon Lamb

Stage Director, Don Giovanni

Madison Opera Debut: La Traviata (2019)
Recently at MO: Lucia di Lammermoor

Recently: La Fanciulla del West (Central City Opera); The Elixir of Love, Così fan tutte (Palm Beach Opera);
The Marriage of Figaro
(Portland Opera); Carmen (Opera Santa Barbara);
Charlie Parker's Yardbird (Dayton Opera); La Bohème (New Orleans Opera); Mozart and Salieri (Opera San Jose)


Kamna Gupta

Conductor, María de Buenos Aires

Hometown: St. Genis-de-Puilly, France
Madison Opera Debut

Recently: The Pearl Fishers (Vancouver Opera); In Our Daughter's Eyes (LA Opera / BMP);
Number Our Days (Perelman Performing Arts Center); Glory Denied (Cleveland Institute of Music);
Rocking Horse Winner (Tapestry Opera); The Rip Van Winkles (Glimmerglass Festival)

Upcoming: Ruinous Gods (Spoleto Festival USA)


Frances Rabalais

Stage Director, María de Buenos Aires

Hometown: New Orleans, LA
Madison Opera Debut: Tosca (2023)

Recently: Macbeth (Resonance Works); Hansel and Gretel (Opera Birmingham);
The Magic Flute (North Carolina Opera); The Barber of Seville (Pensacola Opera)


Charles Eaton

Don Giovanni, Don Giovanni

Hometown: Storrs, CT
Madison Opera Debut: Moralès, Carmen (2017)
Recently at MO: Count Malcolm, A Little Night Music

Recently: Brother, The Seven Deadly Sins (Wolf Trap Opera); Schaunard, La Bohème;
Sam, Trouble in Tahiti; Masetto, Don Giovanni; Argante, Rinaldo (Minnesota Opera);
Fedorov, The Christmas Spider (Opéra Louisiane, Marble City Opera);
English Ambassador, The Ghosts of Versailles (Royal Opera Versailles);
Marcello, La Bohème (Imperial Symphony Orchestra)

Upcoming: Ponchel, Silent Night (Wolf Trap Opera); Mercutio, Romeo & Juliet (Minnesota Opera);
Silvio, Pagliacci (Pensacola Opera)


Jeremiah Sanders

Leporello, Don Giovanni

Hometown: Marian, IN
Madison Opera Debut

Recently: Marcello, La Bohème; Beau, Service Provider; Jazz Trio, Trouble in Tahiti;
Hortensius, The Daughter of the Regiment; Mago, Rinaldo;
Abilenes's Father / Bryce's Father, Edward Tulane (Minnesota Opera);
Colline, La Bohème (Lyric Opera of the North); Lackey, Ariadne auf Naxos (Lakes Area Music Festival);
Charlie, Three Decembers (South Bend Lyric Opera); The Villains, The Tales of Hoffmann (Union Avenue Opera)


Ashraf Sewailam

The Commendatore, Don Giovanni

Hometown: Cairo, Egypt / San Francisco, CA
Madison Opera Debut:
Captain, Florencia en el Amazonas (2018)

Recently: Dr. Bartolo, The Barber of Seville (Des Moines Metro Opera, Seattle Opera);
Dr. Bartolo, The Marriage of Figaro (New Orleans Opera); Sparafucile, Rigoletto (Opera San Jose);
Giove, La Calisto (Opera Memphis)

Upcoming: Dr. Bartolo, The Barber of Seville (Lyric Opera of Kansas City);
Dulcamara, The Elixir of Love (New Orleans Opera)


Andrew Stenson

Don Ottavio, Don Giovanni

Hometown: Rochester, MN
Madison Opera Debut: Opera in the Park 2021

Recently: Pong, Turandot (Metropolitan Opera); Bill, Flight; The Steersman, The Flying Dutchman (Dallas Opera);
Pang, Turandot (Houston Grand Opera); Don Ottavio, Don Giovanni (Seattle Opera);
Nemorino, The Elixir of Love (Seattle Opera, Minnesota Opera, Florentine Opera);
Count Almaviva, The Barber of Seville (Opera Colorado, Garsington Opera);
Nikolaus Sprink, Silent Night; Tamino, The Magic Flute (Utah Opera);
Fadinard, The Italian Straw Hat (Minnesota Opera); Danny Chen, An American Soldier (Opera Theatre of St. Louis)

Headshot of Hailey Cohen
Hailey Cohen

Berta, The Barber of Seville

Hometown: Edgemont, NY
Madison Opera Debut: Dorothée, The Anonymous Lover (2024)
Also with MO: Paquette, Candide
Madison Opera Studio Artist

Recently: Zita, Gianni Schicchi (Finger Lakes Opera); Hattie, American Gothical (Cedar Rapids Opera);
Sally, The Boy Who Wanted to be a Robot; K., Would You Eat Me? (Thompson Street Opera)


Lifan Deng

Fiorello, The Barber of Seville
Masetto, Don Giovanni

Hometown: Shenzen, China
Madison Opera Debut
Madison Opera Studio Artist

Recently: Voce 2, Il Nostro Posto nel Mondo (Thompson Street Opera Company);
The Police Agent / Mr. Kofner, The Consul (Third Eye Ensemble);
Don Alfonso, Così fan tutte; Kaiser Overall, Der Kaiser von Atlantis (Northwestern Opera Theater);
Old Adam Goodheart, Ruddigore; Carpenter's Mate, H.M.S. Pinafore (The Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company);
Olin Brett, The Music Man (Metropolis Performing Arts Centre)

Upcoming: Papageno, The Magic Flute (Opera for the Young)


Laureano Quant

El Payador, María de Buenos Aires

Hometown: Barranquilla, Colombia
Madison Opera Debut

Recently: Schaunard, La Bohème (Wolf Trap Opera); Foreman, Jenufa; Dancaïre, Carmen;
Count of Lerma, Don Carlo (Lyric Opera of Chicago); Escamillo, Le tragedie de Carmen;
Guglielmo, Così fan tutte (The Opera Next Door); Betto, Gianni Schicchi (Ópera de Colombia);
Demetrius, A Midsummer Night's Dream; Captain / Ragotsky, Candide (Orquestra Filarmónica de Bogotà)

Upcoming: Belcore, The Elixir of Love (New Orleans Opera);
Bill, Aufsteig und Fall der Stadt Mahgonny (Staatsoper Stuttgart)


Kelly Guerra

María, María de Buenos Aires

Hometown: Los Angeles, CA
Madison Opera Debut

Recently: María, María de Buenos Aires (Kentucky Opera); Lupita, Cruzar la Cara de la Luna;
Carlotta de Obragón, Zorro (Opera Santa Barbara); Renata, Cruzar la Cara de la Luna (West Edge Opera);
Rosina, The Barber of Seville (Princeton Festival); Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Scalia/Ginsburg (Chautauqua Opera);
Luisa Fernanda, Luisa Fernanda (Opera Hispánica, Opera Williamsburg)

Upcoming: Una Niña, Ainadamar (Metropolitan Opera); Jo, Little Women (Fort Worth Opera);
Isabella, L'Italiana in Algeri (Opera in the Heights); Mrs. Fox, Fantastic Mr. Fox (Opera Omaha)


Alex Taylor

Don Basilio, The Barber of Seville

Hometown: Beloit, WI
Madison Opera Debut: Mother, The Seven Deadly Sins (2023)

Recently: Green Shirt Guy, Mel Rides the Bus Alone (Pittsburgh Opera);
Sarastro, The Magic Flute; Dr. Bartolo, The Marriage of Figaro (Carnegie Mellon University)


Levi Hernandez

Dr. Bartolo, The Barber of Seville

Hometown: El Paso, TX
Madison Opera Debut: Papageno, The Magic Flute (2006)
Recent at MO: Alvaro, Florencia en el Amazonas; Opera in the Park 2018

Recently: Diego Rivera, El Último Sueño de Frida y Diego (Opera Omaha);
Tonio, Pagliacci (Hawaii Opera Theatre); Dandini, La Cenerentola (Boston Lyric Opera);
Peter, Hansel and Gretel (Opera San Antonio); Lescaut, Manon Lescaut (North Carolina Opera)

Upcoming: Benoit/Alcindoro, La Bohème (Lyric Opera of Chicago);
Alvaro, Florencia en el Amazonas (North Carolina Opera)


Benjamin Taylor

Figaro, The Barber of Seville

Madison Opera Debut: Silvio, Pagliacci (2018)

Recently: Bello, La Fanciulla del West (Bayerische Staatsoper); Moralès, Carmen (Metropolitan Opera);
Guglielmo, Così fan tutte (Princeton Symphony); Jan Nyman, Breaking the Waves (Detroit Opera);
Silvio, Pagliacci (Austin Opera)

Upcoming: Marcello, La Bohème (Arizona Opera); Jake, Porgy and Bess (Washington National Opera);
Schaunard, La Bohème (Charleston Opera Theatre)


Katerina Burton

Soprano, Opera in the Park
Donna Anna, Don Giovanni

Hometown: Ocean City, MD
Madison Opera Debut

Recently: Mimì, La Bohème (Opera Theatre of Saint Louis); JFK: The Last Speech
(National Symphony Orchestra); Britten’s War Requiem (Strathmore Music Center);
Russian Chamber Art Society; Postclassical Ensemble Concert (The Kennedy Center); Girlfriend 2, Blue;
Micaëla, Carmen (Washington National Opera); Alice Ford, Falstaff (Aspen Music Festival);
Verna/Young Lovely/Evelyn, Fire Shut Up in My Bones (Opera Theatre of Saint Louis)