The rise and rise of Mahagonny: Sky brings Irish opera to the box

Rough Magic and Opera Theatre Company have been awarded €230,000 from Sky Arts to stage a Marxist opera. Are Brecht and Weill camera-ready, and what’s in it for Sky?

Wed, Dec 4, 2013, 01:00

An old truck, coughing and spluttering its way across America, finally breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Its three occupants – a widow called Leocadia Begbick, Fatty the Bookkeeper and the divinely named Trinity Moses – are fugitives, wanted for fraud and slave trading.

They had intended to pursue the gold rush, but the middle of nowhere has certain advantages: no cops, no rules, and nearby traffic from the Alaskan gold fields. They decide to stay put and build a city devoted to the lusty appetites of pleasure seekers – gambling, whoring, fighting and drinking. They call it Mahagonny, which means “spider web”. “It’s easier to get gold from men than from rivers,” reasons Leocadia.

This is the beginning of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, an opera written between 1927 and 1929 by playwright Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill, which satirises everything from capitalism to opera itself. “It attacks the society that needs such operas,” wrote Brecht, so nothing escaped his scorn: the theatre, like the rest of the pleasure industry, was in the direct line of fire.

It sounds like a curious project to win €230,000 from Sky Arts Ignition, a funding award that the digital broadcasting channel bestowed last week on Rough Magic theatre company for a co-production with Opera Theatre Company.

In its third year, the award, which was previously open to arts organisations from the UK and Ireland, was restricted to Irish entries only, while Sky Ireland has established a base in the country, creating 850 jobs in its new Dublin office and announcing plans to invest €1.25 billion in the Irish market.

With State subsidy for the arts in Ireland in ever dwindling supply – it has been cut for a sixth successive year, falling 34 per cent from €85 million in 2008 to €56 million for 2014 – organisations have been encouraged to attract philanthropists and corporate sponsors.

“In terms of an input from a commercial or corporate organisation, this is second to none,” says Lynne Parker, artistic director of Rough Magic. “It enables us, as two companies who are funded by the Arts Council, but only to a certain extent, to realise something which would normally be beyond both of us.”

One condition for applicants is that the project has “an innovative or groundbreaking approach to the arts” while Sky Arts will contribute further support “to bring the chosen project to a wider audience on air, on demand, online and on the ground”.

The arts companies get funding, promotion and exposure on a huge scale. Sky Arts gets content and audience. (Moreover, it gets a specific kind of audience through arts programming, known as the ABC1 demographic – namely, people more likely to buy new cars or take holidays – and so it gets advertisers.) In the entertainment industry, this sounds like a fair exchange.

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