If you weren’t at Opera Up Close yesterday, you missed some seriously nformative and entertaining commentary on The Threepenny Opera. Here’s our recap of the event:
Sadly, this was our departing general director Allan Naplan’s last Opera Up Close. The audience started by giving him a warm and well-deserved ovation for initiating this signature program in Madison. Allan then proceeded to give us an in-depth overview of Kurt Weill’s life and work. What stood out was Weill’s perpetual “outsider” status: as a Jew in Germany on the eve of the Nazi takeover, and as a German in Paris, and eventually New York. It also seems, though, that this gave him a flexibility and fluidity between styles that really shaped his distinct sound, which draws from jazz, cabaret, operetta, and classical music. It was also interesting to learn the details of the challenging first production of Threepenny in Berlin, which played to a skeptical opening night audience until the bawdy “Army Song” riled them up.
Up next, assistant director Frank Honts offered a special presentation on Marc Blitzstein, the composer and writer who adapted Brecht’s original lyrics to English for the popular 1954-61 off-Broadway production. Madison Opera is using the Blitzstein adaptation, and as it turns out, the Blitzstein papers are archived right here in our city at the Wisconsin Historical Society. Having combed that trove of information, Frank talked about Blitzstein’s famous, pro-union piece Cradle Will Rock and his mentoring of Leonard Bernstein, who presented the first performance of his Threepenny adaptation at Brandeis University in 1952. It was also comical to hear that Blitzstein’s famous “Mack the Knife” translation–later used by Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin–was originally just called “Moritat,” a nod to the original German title (rhyming to “Moritat” didn’t work as well as “Knife,” in the end.) Frank also discovered that Blitzstein had originally toyed with setting his adaptation in San Francisco and New York, before sticking to Victorian London.
Blitzstein was a communist and was always sympathetic to the message of Threepenny, but we learned yesterday that he originally was put-off by Weill’s music. Later on, though, it stuck in his head, and he began to toy with a translation. He called Weill at home in 1950, and sang his translation of “Pirate Jenny” to both Weill and Lotte Lenya over the phone. They both loved it, and encouraged him to translate the whole opera. Weill died just months later, but Lenya would appear in the New York production of Blitzstein’s translation.
After Frank, it was John DeMain and Dorothy Danner’s turn. Both have extensive experience crossing the opera and musical theater boundary, so there was a lively discussion about how we define both genres. John’s opinion was that if it’s majority sung, then it’s an opera, and since Threepenny is majority dialogue, it’s musical theater. He then shared a fantastic anecdote about a dinner with Stephen Sondheim, where he asked Sondheim whether he thought Sweeney Todd was a musical or an opera. Sondheim replied that it had entirely to do with venue, which shapes the audiences expectation (“It’s opera when an opera company does it, and musical theater when it’s on Broadway.”) John also talked about Weill’s philosophy that there’s no opera or musical theater, but just good music and bad music. Dorothy, a former Broadway actress/dancer, revealed that she fell into opera directing while hanging behind-the-scenes with her opera-singer husband. She also shared that she approaches opera and musical theater the same way, but whether you’re working at an opera company or a theater company really impacts what your expectations are on day one. The conversation was lively, and it was incredible to hear these two pros chat and reminisce about their experiences.
Finally, Jim DeVita (Macheath) and Alicia Berneche (Polly) took the stage to talk about their roles. Jim, a classical actor noted for his work at American Players Theatre, talked about overcoming his fear of singing and his recent coaching sessions with John DeMain. He also talked about making the role of Macheath his own, and the challenges of the opera process (he compared the transition between theater and opera to what it would be like for a pilot being asked to fly a space shuttle.) Alicia, an acclaimed soprano who has performed across the country, thought that she had a leg up in this repertoire versus the traditional opera singer because she started out in straight theater. She also cited Dorothy–whom she has collaborated with frequently–for teaching her how to be herself onstage, breaking down the facade that opera sometimes invites. It was a fascinating discussion, and we’re so thankful this thoughtful group of artists took time out of their day for our Opera Up Close audience!
As usual, Allan closed the event with a segment on opera in popular culture, this time with a look at “Mack the Knife” through the ages. (My favorite had to be this McDonald’s commercial.)
The next Opera Up Close will be for La Traviata, on Saturday, April 16th, from 1-3 PM in MMoCA’s lecture hall, hosted by yours truly.