When IOpera and Melbourne Opera came together to discuss the possibility of mounting a performance of Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht, and Elisabeth Hauptmann’s Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny [Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny] last year, we were surprised to find that it has been over forty years since the work last received a full stage performance in Australia.
We were surprised because elsewhere in the operatic world the work has been mounted with increasing frequency and to great success; its urban subject matter being recognised (especially after the 2008 financial crisis and in the shadow of declining confidence in democratic institutions) as speaking to our own situation with uncanny prescience despite the intervening 90 years.
But in fact, operas like Mahagonny have always been more of an exception than a rule in our operatic culture. It’s one of its oddities that while the origins and growth of opera mirrored the rise of modern urban cities across Europe, the form itself has typically shied away from explicitly urban topics. As the French writer and photographer Maxime de Camp put it back in 1858, although “electricity had been discovered, we still sing to Bacchus.”
Exceptions are few – we might think, perhaps, of Verdi’s La Traviata and Puccini’s La Bohème, which both invoke that most urban of maladies, tuberculosis. But for a brief, extraordinary, period, the situation was very different. In the heady years of the Weimar Republic in Germany (1919–1933) modern city life was finally brought onto the operatic stage with all its trademark technological novelties and kaleidoscopic variety. And, as the title might suggest, Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht, and Elisabeth Hauptmann’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is one of the greatest examples. Here, the chief protagonist is the city of the opera’s title.
The origins of Mahagonny lie in 1924 when Brecht wrote and published a collection of poems that included some which referred to an imaginary city he called “Mahagonny”,a metropolis characterised by rampant consumerism, and moral and social decay. Separately, Brecht had long harboured an ambition to write an operatic libretto, and a chance to realise it came three years later when he was introduced to composer Kurt Weill. The two men found they shared a desire to shake up the German stage and sharpen its political relevance and critical focus. Brecht took the “Mahagonny” poems, along with some new texts provided by his secretary and lover at this time, Elisabeth Hauptman, and stitched them together with a loose overarching narrative. Weill, in turn, developed a score which drew both on his mastery of modern compositional techniques and harmonies, alongside references to contemporary musical styles, especially American jazz and popular song. Together they created the Mahagonny Songspiel, and over the next three years they expanded and reworked the material into a full-length opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.
The work eschews the post-Wagnerian through-composed sound world typical of works by their contemporaries such as Richard Strauss. Instead it gives us a “numbers” opera that not only speaks to the spirit of “new objectivity” common to a lot of artistic activity at this time, but also hearkens back to the theatrical manner of Mozart, especially Die Zauberflöte. And like Mozart, Weill incorporates musical styles drawn from both high art and popular traditions of his day. Indeed, just as he had done with Dreigroschenoper, Weill also added to the popular music cannon; several numbers from Mahagonny have become famous in their own right (especially the so-called ‘Alabama Song’).
Taken as a whole, the score is at once, direct, accessible, and always entertaining, but there is also a curious strangeness, a “haunted” character that permeates it. It is this, above all, that makes it such a powerful partner to Brecht’s playful, ironic, and acerbic libretto. Through this partnership of text and music the opera’s exploration of some of the social, economic, environmental, and ethical issues raised by modern urban life are explored with particular energy and depth.
In part for this reason the work was focus of violent protests by the rising Nazi Party in Germany (who wished to present a vision of modern urban life characterised by a peverse racial and moral purity). After the party’s accession to power in 1933, they eliminated the work from opera houses across Germany and drove its creators into exile. It took several years after the end of Word War Two for the work to be revived, but once it was, it was immediately recognised as being of not only great historical significance but also of continuing interest and relevance. So, if you are wondering whether opera is still a relevant art form, or if you are not sure that a modern opera can really be serious, challenging, and entertaining, Mahagonny is most definitely for you.
Mahagonny will be performed in English using Jeremy Sams’ new translation for The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
3:00 pm Sunday 1 May 2022
7:30 pm Tuesday 3 May 2022
7:30 pm Thursday 5 May 2022
Athenaeum Theatre, Collins St. Melbourne
Jenny Smith Antoinette Halloran
Jimmy McIntyre James Egglestone
Trinity Moses Christopher Hillier
Leocadia Begbick Liane Keegan
Fatty the Pimp Robert Macfarlane
Bank Account Billy Christopher Tonkin
Jack O’Brien Fraser Findlay
Alaska Wolf Joe Darcy Carroll
Toby Alastair Cooper-Golec
The Girls Amelia Wawrzon, Teresa Ingrilli, Jane Magao, Naomi Flatman, Esther Gresswell and Juel Rigall
Conducted by Peter Tregear
Directed by Suzanne Chaundy
Presented by IOpera and Melbourne Opera.