The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music preview: “The Threepenny Opera” links the Great Recession of today to the depression of the Weimar Republic in Germany in 1928

February 1, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend, the Madison Opera opens its almost sold-out, English-language production of “The Threepenny Opera” by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill (below, right) that runs in The Playhouse of the Overture Center from this Friday through Feb. 13.

It also marks the farewell production of the company’s general director Allan Naplan (below), who is leaving to become the head of the Minneapolis Opera on Feb. 15.

For information about performances and tickets, visit:

The acclaimed cabaret work, which runs about 2-1/2 hours, debuted in 1928 and has since had countless revivals in more than a dozen languages. It is especially famous for the song “Mack the Knife.”

For a history and synopsis, visit:

Maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), an accomplished pianist who is the artistic director of the Madison Opera as well as the music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra — will conduct the production from the keyboard.

I like DeMain’s thoughtfulness and intelligence as a musician. Music is about more than the notes for him, and he makes good sense of a work. So I was very pleased that he recently took time from his busy rehearsal schedule to talk to The Ear about the work and its production:

By Jacob Stockinger

What is the artistic context of “Threepenny” as a crossover within the history of opera and, say, cabaret or musical theater? Was Kurt Weill the Stephen Sondheim of his day?

I think that on the whole it is a musical theater piece, so your comparison to Sondheim is dead on. But the work appeals to opera people because some of the parts require trained voices. Whenever you have a trained and sophisticated composer like Leonard Bernstein or Stephen Sondheim writing a musical theater, you get music exists on two levels.

You have these wonderful melodies and tunes that stick in your head. But they are given this acerbic, biting sound that makes them satirical. That kind of quality raises the work so it has an appeal to sophisticated music listeners as well as to musical theater people. That’s what makes it crossover.

Right in the opening overture you are dealing with a fugue, and the final chorale recalls Bach. The cabaret environment lends itself to all these kind of serious musical references. That’s what gives this work its crossover appeal.

What is the historical or social context of the “Threepenny Opera” and is it relevant today?

Sure, it’s eternally relevant. It’s basically pitting the rich against the poor, the top strata of society against the common man. It deals with human rights versus the economic and political situation.

This production highlights the connections between then and now. Then is the Weimar Republic (below) when Germany was decimated after World War I. This piece is setting the stage for a political and economic upheaval that sett he stage for the rise of National Socialism and Hitler.

When we look at the current recession, we can also see the Tea Party as a reaction, but not that is sinister or has any connection to what happened in Germany. But the action absolutely mirrors what was going on in Germany back in 1928. Hopefully, we won’t come to the same dire consequences.

What should people who know only the song “Mack the Knife” know about the opera and the production?

When you hear that song in its original setting, a singer accompanied by a street organ or grinder, you have to adjust your expectations. You’re not hearing Bobby Darin (below) or Frank Sinatra or The Rat Pack jazzing it up and doing a hit. In its original setting, the song has a darker edge to it.

The piece is filled with lowlifes and characters drawn from entrepreneurial business to beggardom. There are wonderful moments musically. “Mack the Knife” is the narrator’s song and it links the pieces together. It’s a bridge. The ditty becomes a very strong motif and imprints itself on your brain.

There’s a lot of great music in the show, including a parody of opera. It’s difficult because it is clever. It has all these high-brow references in a low-brow setting. That juxtaposition adds to its crossover appeal.

Why has “Threepenny” lasted so long and been so popular? The quality of the music? The characters? The plot and story? The concerns with social justice?

People connect to all of the above. You immediately relate to the little guy bucking the establishment and trying to get ahead. There’s also a lot of humor. The elements we are dealing with – crime, robbery and prostitution – don’t go away. They’re part of the human condition and society.

They are treated quasi-seriously and entertaining at the same time. It has a solid story with a solid musical score – so these kinds of pieces live a long time, whether in the opera world or the musical theater world.

What do you want to briefly say about the direction and the cast?

Director Dorothy Danner (below) is terrific and one of everybody’s favorite people in the opera world. Dottie is terrific in opera as well operetta and musical theater. She did my all-time favorite production of “The Merry Widow.” We also did “Carmen” together years ago. So this is a wonderful reunion for us after quite a few years. There is good chemistry between the two of us.

The cast of this production with two exceptions is a musical theater cast. This is not a feast of glorious singing. That wouldn’t make sense for how rough the characters are. Hopefully, it will sound as authentic as the original recording with very gruff voices. There is a lot of license you can take.

It is very well cast. Jim DeVita (below), from American Players Theatre in Spring Green, is such a marvelous actor as Macheath. He’s new to singing, but is doing a great job. He’s an actor who sings as opposed to a singer who acts. Everybody will be surprised at how wonderful he is.

I think everybody will enjoy this show and have a marvelous time. I think the audience will have a lot of fun and so will the cast.

What else would you like to add?

Just that I am so pleased we have these alternate spaces for the Madison Opera to perform in. I can’t tell you have many opera companies would love to do these chamber-size pieces in the proper environment. It’s the right scale.

This is the third or fourth one we have done. That’s part of why they’re successful. These kinds of works belong in this kind of space. And they are successful because they are still in Overture Hall, so people know where it is, what it is like, where to park and how to get around. Having a space like this is one of the things that makes the Overture Center (below) world-class.

Posted in Classical music

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