‘The Threepenny Opera,’ Without the ‘Cabaret’ Clichés

NYT Music

BERLIN — This winter, after live performances had made a modest return in Germany, the coronavirus pandemic brought them to another halt.

But at the Berliner Ensemble in January, preparations were underway for a highly anticipated new staging of “The Threepenny Opera.” That “play with music” by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill had its 1928 premiere in the company’s house, and became the city’s most famous music theater export — and perhaps the most iconic cultural artifact of Weimar-era Berlin.

“I am working behind Bertolt Brecht’s wooden production desk!” said Barrie Kosky, the production’s Australian director, with some astonishment.

Although the cast had been rehearsing for eight weeks, no one could say when opening night would be. “The only good thing for me, personally, that’s come out of corona is that I’ve had more time onstage than I’ve ever had to put on a show,” Kosky said.

Seven months later, this “Threepenny Opera” is finally set for an Aug. 13 premiere; it will then enter the repertoire of the Berliner Ensemble, which was founded by Brecht and the actress Helene Weigel, his wife. But don’t expect Weimar-era clichés like bowler hats, dirty negligees and tableaus out of Otto Dix or George Grosz.

“This piece cannot be ‘Cabaret’ with a little bit of intellectualism,” Kosky said.

“We are beyond ‘Babylon Berlin,’” chimed in Oliver Reese, the Berliner Ensemble’s artistic director, who was sitting across from Kosky during the interview.

Kosky, 54, is best known for his energetic productions at the nearby Komische Oper, the opera company where he has been the artistic director since 2012. Among his biggest hits there have been deliriously overstuffed, razzle-dazzle stagings of operettas and musicals, including many forgotten works of the Weimar Republic.

But now that he’s directing that era’s defining piece, he’s taking a different approach.

During a dress rehearsal in January, the actors sang and danced on an industrial set whose welded metal ladders and platforms resembled a treacherous labyrinth or adult jungle gym; there were no references to the decadence of 1920s Berlin. Instead, the sardonic, acid-laced tone of the piece came through in a dark and psychologically probing production that appeared abstract and timeless.

The Berliner Ensemble’s previous “Threepenny Opera” staging, by Robert Wilson, was a stylized tip of the hat to German Expressionism. It was one of the theater’s signature productions and ran for over a decade, with more than 300 performances. (It came to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York in 2011.) But it required many actors from outside the company, which made mounting it a challenge. Shortly after Reese arrived to lead the house in 2017, he approached Kosky about creating a new production cast exclusively with actors from the ensemble.

It was an offer Kosky couldn’t turn down.

“It was the same antenna that went out when Katharina Wagner rang me,’” Kosky said, referring Richard Wagner’s great-granddaughter and the director of the Bayreuth Festival, who invited him to stage “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” there in 2017.

“If you’re going to do ‘Meistersinger,’ then where else do you do it but Bayreuth? And if you’re going to do ‘Dreigroschenoper,’ where else do you do it except the Berliner Ensemble?” Kosky said, using the German title of “Threepenny.”

With its uneasy blend of genres and source materials — it is based on an 18th-century British popular opera, and Brecht also incorporated lyrics from other poets into the text — “Threepenny” is a tricky work to pull off convincingly. The most recent Broadway production, from 2006, was a coke-fueled 1980s bacchanal starring Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper that was a critical flop.

Much of what makes “Threepenny” unique, and uniquely challenging for a director, can be traced back its origins. Brecht and Weill spent 10 days in the south of France hashing it out, working with a German translation of John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera” by Elisabeth Hauptmann — a collaborator and mistress of Brecht’s who, according to the Brecht scholar John Fuegi, was ultimately responsible for 80 percent of the “Threepenny” text.

The creators, Kosky said, “didn’t even know exactly what they were writing, because it was written very quickly.” Although Weill later claimed that they had been trying all along to create a “new genre,” both Kosky and Reese felt that much of the show was the result of trial and error. The rushed nature of the collaboration, they said, resulted in something that doesn’t fit any one style.

“It is a kind of bastard,” Reese said.

“A schizophrenic bastard,” Kosky added. “But that’s the joy of it. It’s a tap dance through theatrical styles.”

The rehearsal period for the premiere of “The Threepenny Opera” is the stuff of theatrical legend: calamities worthy of a screwball comedy. But after a month of cast illnesses and walkouts, and faulty sets and props — the barrel organ used for “Mack the Knife,” malfunctioned on opening night — the show opened, and was an immediate hit. All of Berlin was whistling Weill’s melodies, and lines for tickets wound around the block.

But despite the fame the play has enjoyed in the 93 years since, Kosky called it a “problematic masterpiece” whose meaning is far from clear. Much of the ambiguity stems from the curious, even lopsided, interplay between the libretto and the score, he said.

“Is it a farce with music, as Weill maintained?” Kosky asked. “Or is it a biting anticapitalist satire, as Brecht retrospectively claimed? And what is chief, the text or the music?”

Every production of “Threepenny,” he added, “tries to do the impossible: to work out what the conundrum with this piece is, and the contradictions within the text, music and content.”

Adam Benzwi, the American conductor who is the production’s music director, said he felt a definite tension between the critical distance that Brecht’s text invites and the emotional immediacy of Weill’s songs. The music, he said, must remain beautiful despite the harshness of the lyrics.

“Weill’s music is unique because you immediately feel the pain, excitement and sexiness of urban life,” Benzwi said in a recent phone interview, pointing to the composer’s “melodies that want to be warm in a place that doesn’t allow that, rhythms that want to be happy when describing something terrible.”

In January, Kosky said, “If Bertolt Brecht had asked another composer to do the music, we would probably have a much drier, easier piece to understand.”

“But,” he added, “Weill opened up an emotional landscape where suddenly you are contradicting virtually everything that Brecht wants, or believes in, in theater.” (It’s a tension that would ultimately lead the dissolution of Brecht and Weill’s partnership in 1931, though they did reunite for “The Seven Deadly Sins” a couple of years later.)

Under previous artistic directors, the Berliner Ensemble had developed a reputation for traditional, even worshipful, presentations of Brecht’s plays. Kosky is the latest in a series of innovative directors that Reese has invited to put their own spin on the works of the theater’s genius loci.

“We’re trying to establish a new Brecht tradition at this house,” Reese said.

“I think you don’t have to stick to the theory anymore,” he added, referring to Brecht’s stage philosophy, which despite its influence on 20th century theater is now approaching 100 years old. Brecht’s most famous technique, the alienation effect, is a push and pull between emotional involvement and critical reflection that is often achieved through ironic or metatheatrical means.

Although Kosky is steering clear of Weimar-era imagery for his “Threepenny Opera,” he said he had been inspired by one of the period’s great comic filmmakers, Ernst Lubitsch — but also, perhaps more surprisingly, the much-darker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the enfant terrible of New German Cinema.

Kosky said he was trying to bring together “the loneliness and melancholy of those isolated characters in Fassbinder’s films” with the “wonderful, naughty, Lubitsch quickness, irony and lightness.”

“It’s a weird combination,” he admitted, adding he was aware that his artistic choices might not please everyone. But he doesn’t mind a bit of controversy.

“I’m sure some people will say that I have ignored the savage social satire,” Kosky said, but insisted his production would be “political in a different way,” adding: “This is a piece about love in capitalism, and how love is for sale. It’s about the triumph of bourgeois hypocrisy.”

For many, Weill’s score remains the soundtrack of its era, while Brecht’s portrait of a corrupt society captures the spirit of Berlin on the edge of an abyss. Even so, Kosky wants to roll back the show’s local associations in favor of something with broader resonance.

“I think people will think my production smells like Berlin,” he said, “but the images that you see could be anywhere in the world.”


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