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?


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.

Rough Magic has wanted to stage Mahagonny – whose narrative seems to mirror the state of the Irish nation – for a few years. Populated by prostitutes, prospectors and lumberjacks, Mahagonny becomes a booming city, but the economy soon takes a nosedive. When the city goes into an orgiastic overdrive of food, sex, fighting and drinking, it finally collapses in chaos and the greatest crime of all: going broke and failing to pay your debts. Sound familiar?

Rough Magic had initially considered staging a production in a Nama property, before Parker thought it would be “too obvious”. Instead, it will be an “immersive” staging in the Olympia Theatre, where the city will be built around the audience using the infrastructure of the Victorian venue.

“Rehearsing opera is the most wonderful experience,” says Parker. “You’re right in there with the singers, you’re four foot away from them, it’s utterly electric. That’s what I wanted to investigate with this restaging.”

Sky shifts direction
The Sky Arts Ignition projects so far have leaned towards visual arts: a Doug Aitken installation at Tate Liverpool and Memory Palace at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. “Having covered those aspects, we were looking for something different,” says director of Sky Arts James Hunt. “The idea of just doing something that was completely left-field was hugely exciting.”

Why did Sky Arts restrict the award this year to Irish applicants?

“Primarily it was about Sky investing in Ireland, as it’s doing across the board in terms of jobs and infrastructure,” says Hunt. “But also in terms of creating content here.”

Sky has been making its presence known in Ireland for a while now. This year it became the title sponsor of the Kilkenny Cat Laughs festival, for instance, while Chris O’Dowd and Nick Murphy’s television comedy Moone Boy, which last week won an International Emmy, is made for the broadcaster.

When Sky Arts comes on board is it a patron or a producer? “It’s both,” says Hunt. “The money we make available for the creation of a production, that’s a separate thing to the money we will then spend on transferring that production and getting it online and onscreen.”

Actually, the work and its transmission are bound up with each other. Currently, it is not known how Mahagonny will be broadcast, reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, and Parker’s ideas don’t make it easy.

“One of the things that attracted us to this project was the fact that the vision they have for using areas of the amazing theatre precludes it from being a straightforward, through-the-proscenium-arch piece of coverage,” says Hunt. “So I’m not sure how we’re going to cover it, to be honest. That kind of challenge is really exciting for us, and hopefully our coverage of it will be as inventive and as creative as the actual production itself.”

Changing the vision
When Sky Arts sponsored Anthony Gormley’s Fourth Plinth project, One & Other, in 2009, it spoke to the artist about digital camera and infrared capability, which Gormley absorbed into his process. The result was a 24-hour live stream for 100 days, seen by about eight million people around the world.

“By working with the artist, showing him the resources and technological expertise, it changed his vision of what his piece was about,” says Hunt.

Many artists will read that sentence and shudder. But how different is such influence from the days of Medici, or the notes of Hollywood producers?

Parker sounded more intrigued than influenced, though. “Brecht said something that I love, which is, ‘If art imitates life, it does so with special mirrors’. One of the reasons for shifting the axis of the Olympia is that you see both the auditorium and the backstage – you see both worlds. I think the medium of television is going to offer some very exciting possibilities. One of the things we want to explore is do the [viewers] have different options themselves? Can they press the red button and have a different point of view?”

Although Mahagonny will be performed for just 10 days next June (opera is an expensive artform and both Rough Magic and Opera Theatre Company are contributing to the budget), digital broadcast means it will reach an audience far bigger than the companies could otherwise imagine. In four years, monthly viewing figures for Sky Arts have risen from 800,000 to a peak of more than nine million.

“The real challenge is going to be getting the atmosphere across,” Parker says. “The smell of it, almost.”

It’s a question that has been asked since Walter Benjamin: you may be able to transmit a live performance, but what happens to its aura? Does the camera, or a broadcaster, steal its soul? Push the red button to find out.

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