EVERYONE knows the work of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, even if they don’t necessarily know that they do. Songs like ‘Mack the Knife’ and ‘The Alabama Song’ are zippy anthems of popular culture — made famous in versions by Louis Armstrong and the Doors respectively.
While Brecht and Weill were committed to using their music theatre to trigger social consciousness it never prevented them from drumming up a good score.
Audiences can look forward to the full-on Brecht-Weill experience this week when Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny opens in the Olympia Theatre, Dublin. A co-production between Rough Magic and Opera Theatre Company, it’s a rare opportunity to see a work rarely staged on these shores. The show features a chorus of 22 singers accompanying a full orchestra led by conductor David Brophy.
For the show’s director, Rough Magic’s Lynne Parker, the move to opera is made less daunting by her company’s own dabbling with musical theatre in the past, most notably on their wonderful, surreal hit Improbable Frequency.
Live music brings a very distinctive quality to drama, notes Parker. “It brings an extraordinary tension to the stage,” she says. “The air literally vibrates. It creates an atmospheric magic and in an opera, of course, it becomes more than that. Music is the actual motor of the show. There’s a musical drive beneath every single moment and it ups the ante.”
First produced in Brecht and Weill’s native Germany in 1930, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny was inspired by the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Set in America, Brecht’s script centres on three reprobates who create a city founded on gratuitous pleasures and hard, hard cash. If it was an explicit critique of capitalism’s erosion of human spirit and community, it was also a commentary on the Weimar Republic, then sleepwalking its way into an era of fascism.
“It’s about the prohibitive nature of consumerism, the way people are controlled and their choices are reduced and they become inert in the process,” says Parker.
At the centre of the plot is an inverse Christ-figure, Jimmy Mahoney, whose key insight — that at their core humans just want to do as they desire — sets the city of Mahagonny off on a wild hedonistic ride. Yet, Jimmy becomes the sacrificial victim when he realises that a life of pleasure costs more than he can afford. “So he’s hoist by his own petard,” says Parker. “It’s quite Biblical in its nature and the parallels with Christ are mischievously used.”
It’s not just capitalism that comes under fire. Brecht and Weill were hellbent on subverting opera itself as an art form.
“What they were really working against was the bourgeois approach to opera — which Brecht describes as the ‘culinary opera’, where everything is cooked so that it’s a soporific pleasure. They wanted to challenge the inertia of a bourgeois society that allows an evil to take root and does nothing about it.”
Part of Weill’s musical subversion involves the embrace of forms such as jazz and ragtime.
“It’s a stunning score which contains a lot of elements that wouldn’t be considered operatic at all,” says Parker. “That’s why the Nazis banned it. They thought that Weill’s music was un-German. He was taking elements of jazz, which they regarded as blasphemous.”
One shouldn’t lose sight of the fact this is a co-production with Opera Theatre Company. Parker says, despite the demise of Opera Ireland a few years back, there are signs of an exciting new opera culture visible in Ireland. (She cites Conor Hanratty’s Flatpack, a big hit at the Fringe Festival in 2012, as one example.)
“It’s great to see smaller companies and Fringe companies taking on opera,” she says. “And it’s a great pleasure for us that the chorus in the show are young graduates who are coming on the scene. They’re already working in opera in very unusual ways. But you still have the ‘culinary opera’. And there’s nothing wrong with that in itself. But we’re all less enamoured of the deeply middle-class culture where opera is for rich people. That’s the prejudice that many people still hold. I was asked by somebody if there was a dress code and I said, ‘Certainly not’. But people still do think that.”
Theatre is sometimes pilloried for nursing the same prejudices — and often the criticism is justified.
“It’s the mediocre, bourgeois form of any art form that is the problem,” says Parker. “My uncle, the playwright Stewart Parker, said ‘Nothing that mediocre could ever be harmless’ and it’s a great quote.”
Notably, the production would not have come into existence were it not awarded €230,000 by Sky Arts Ignition, an initiative set up by media organisation Sky to fund ambitious arts projects.
“A lot of people think that Sky’s involvement will change the nature of the production,” says Parker. “But they’re not involved in the production. They’ve given us the money to make it happen. It doesn’t affect what I’ve done in any shape or form. We’re just extremely grateful.”
Is there any frisson for Parker in the fact that a play that excoriates capitalism and its values is being funded by a huge corporate entity?
“Well, it amuses me enormously, that the message of the play has gotten to the audience because of a corporate entity — there’s a fantastic irony there. But the important thing is that we can do the piece.”
* Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny runs at the Olympia Theatre for six nights only: June 13, 15, 17,19, 21 and 22.