How the drug-like voice of Lotte Lenya led me to Kurt Weill

I discovered many of Weill’s works by following the trail of his tremulous-toned wife

Lotte Lenya: nothing else can quite hit the same spot of her voice, and, although you know this, you keep on wanting other performers to generate the same frisson. Photograph: Erich Auerbach/Getty Images

Lotte Lenya: nothing else can quite hit the same spot of her voice, and, although you know this, you keep on wanting other performers to generate the same frisson. Photograph: Erich Auerbach/Getty Images

Wed, Jun 11, 2014, 01:00

The music of Kurt Weill was something I knew before I knew that I knew it. Who hasn’t heard Mack the Knife? The song may be from an opera, but it has become a popular standard, recorded by Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Bobby Darin and Robbie Williams, among many others.

I knew nothing about Weill or Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) – from which it comes – when I first heard the song. And I’ve no idea whose version I heard first. It was when my brother John took on the role of Mr Peachum in a UCD Dramsoc production that the world of that particular opera opened up to me.

A copy of the vocal score came to live on our piano, along with sonatas by Mozart and Beethoven, albums by Fats Waller and Winifred Atwell, all kinds of Irish music, bits and pieces from the Lilac Edition, and Sydney Smith’s Le jet d’eau, whose parlour music ripples were once famous in Ireland as the signature tune for the Radio Éireann series The Foley Family.

It was by mucking through the vocal score that I first came to know the music of the opera. I remember wondering at how tunes that could be so catchy had accompaniments that could be so sharp and spicy. I quickly discovered the recordings of the tremulous-toned – in later life gravel-voiced – Lotte Lenya, the composer’s wife, who created the role of Jenny in the opera’s Berlin premiere in 1928. Her recorded performances are inimitable, and a bit like a drug. Nothing else can quite hit the same spot, and although you know this, you keep on wanting other performers to generate the same frisson.

The show you couldn’t miss

In the late 1920s The Threepenny Opera became the Berlin show you couldn’t afford to miss. It spawned the manufacture of Dreigroschen wallpaper, and a pub, the Dreigroschen-Keller, was soon named after it. In the 1930s, Walter Benjamin quoted an estimate of the number of performances around the world at 40,000. And in the late 1980s it was still among the top 10 new theatrical productions in Germany, attracting an attendance of 174,000 – double the number for Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Lenya led me to other works by Weill – Happy End, The Seven Deadly Sins, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny – all of them, like The Threepenny Opera, collaborations with Bertolt Brecht. She also led me to the works Weill wrote after his forced departure from Nazi Germany and eventual arrival in the US. There he became a Broadway composer, and the one-time sharpness became smooth and sentimental,

I found myself largely parting company with the Weill of the American years, and went to the other end of his career to explore what he had written before his great successes with Brecht. I found a symphony, a string quartet and a concerto that didn’t herald the Weill that was to come, and a cantata, the Berliner Requiem of 1928, for the striking combination of male voices and wind orchestra. It’s a compassionate, secular requiem, written for the 10th anniversary of the ending of the first World War. It was another collaboration with Brecht, and its celebration of Rosa Luxemburg caused it to be censored by Frankfurt Radio, which had commissioned it.

Mahagonny in Dublin

A major new production of Mahagonny opens at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre on Friday. It is a collaboration between the Rough Magic theatre company and Opera Theatre Company, and it has already garnered much attention for having won a €230,000 Sky Arts Ignition award. The two companies are also putting in €200,000, drawn equally from their core Arts Council funding.

The Goethe-Institut has run a number of related events, and German Weill expert Jürgen Schebera gave an illustrated talk in the institute’s premises last Thursday. His subject was From Berlin to Broadway: The Music of Kurt Weill, and among the rare illustrations was a silent-film snippet of Weill, the cigar-smoking Brecht and Lenya, all appearing to have a good time, along with a film of Weill speaking in French and also of him singing a demo of one of his songs in the 1940s.

Schebera, whose book Kurt Weill: An Illustrated Life is worth exploring for the illustrations alone, sees Weill primarily as an innovator in the realm of musical theatre. The Threepenny Opera, which is a reworking of John Gay’s 1728 ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera, set out a new stall in the 1920s with its mixture of popular idioms and classical practices.

For Schebera, Weill also rewrote the handbook on Broadway musicals. His last major work, Street Scene (1947), set out what an American opera could be. And when it comes to the Weill/Brecht collaboration, the real force for Schebera was Weill, not Brecht.

I’m in no position to comment on Weill and his Broadway musicals. Musicals, whether West End or Broadway, are a blind spot for me. But it’s clear that Weill and Brecht were what you might call co- dependants when it came to musical theatre. Neither man was able to repeat with anyone else the artistic success they had working together on music and words.

Brecht seemed to have preferred working with more compliant composers. And without Brecht, Weill seems to have gone the way the market blew.

While it may be true that Street Scene opened up new ground in American opera, my response to its mish-mash of styles and outlandish sentimentality has always been to feel that it would have been better for the new territory to have been left alone. The video excerpt from a Houston Grand Opera production played by Schebera did nothing to change my mind. Broadway aficionados, I’m sure, will beg to differ.

Boyle’s high-wire act

One of the leads in the new Mahagonny is soprano Claudia Boyle, who takes the role of the prostitute Jenny Smith. I sampled the first half of her concert with the RTÉ NSO under John Finucane on Friday, where in arias by Donizetti and Verdi she was in super form, communicative and touching, the high-wire athleticism carried off with exciting aplomb. Sadly, the accompaniments and purely orchestral items found Finucane on sub-routine form. Letting the kish-boom effects dominate, as Finucane allowed, does Italian composers no favours.

mdervan@irishtimes.com

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