The Threepenny Opera

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For the 1931 film, see The Threepenny Opera (1931 film). For the 1990 film, see Mack the Knife (film).
The Threepenny Opera
Dreigroschenoper.JPG
Original German poster from Berlin, 1928
Music Kurt Weill
Lyrics Bertolt Brecht
Book Bertolt Brecht
Basis John Gay's The Beggar's Opera
Productions Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, Berlin, 31 August 1928

The Threepenny Opera (German: Die Dreigroschenoper) is a play with musical elements by German dramatist Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill, in collaboration with translator Elisabeth Hauptmann and set designer Caspar Neher.[1] It was adapted from an 18th-century English ballad opera, John Gay's The Beggar's Opera,[2] and offers a Socialist critique of the capitalist world. It opened on 31 August 1928 at Berlin's Theater am Schiffbauerdamm.

By 1933, when Brecht and Weill were forced to leave Germany by Hitler's Machtergreifung, the play had been translated into 18 languages and performed more than 10,000 times on European stages.[3] Songs from The Threepenny Opera have been widely covered and become standards, most notably "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" ("The Ballad of Mack the Knife") and "Seeräuberjenny" ("Pirate Jenny").

Overview[edit]

Set in Victorian London, the play focuses on Macheath, an amoral, antiheroic criminal.

Macheath (Mackie Messer, or Mack the Knife) marries Polly Peachum. This displeases her father, who controls the beggars of London, and he endeavours to have Macheath hanged. His attempts are hindered by the fact that the Chief of Police, Tiger Brown, is Macheath's old army comrade. Still, Peachum exerts his influence and eventually gets Macheath arrested and sentenced to hang. Macheath escapes this fate via a deus ex machina moments before the execution when, in an unrestrained parody of a happy ending, a messenger from the Queen arrives to pardon Macheath and grant him the title of Baron.

The Threepenny Opera is a work of epic theatre. It challenges conventional notions of property as well as those of theatre. The Threepenny Opera is also an early example of the modern musical comedy genre. Its score is deeply influenced by jazz. The orchestration involves a small ensemble with a good deal of doubling-up on instruments (in the original performances, for example, some 7 players covered a total of 23 instrumental parts, though modern performances typically use a few more players).[4] Its opening and closing lament, "The Ballad of Mackie Messer", was written just before the Berlin premiere, when actor Harald Paulsen (Macheath) threatened to quit if his character did not receive an introduction; this creative emergency resulted in what would become the work's most popular song, later translated into English by Marc Blitzstein as "Mack the Knife" and now a jazz standard that Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Michael Bublé, Robbie Williams, Ray Quinn, and countless others have all covered. Another well-known song, recorded by Nina Simone, Judy Collins, and Marc Almond, is "Pirate Jenny", which was also recorded by Steeleye Span under the alternative title "The Black Freighter". The Pet Shop Boys,[5] Tom Waits, and William S. Burroughs have recorded "The Second Threepenny Finale" under the title "What Keeps Mankind Alive?".

Performance history[edit]

Playbill of the premiere performance at Theater am Schiffbauerdamm Berlin, 31 August 1928. The name of Lotte Lenya, who played the Jenny, was omitted by mistake.

The Threepenny Opera was first performed at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in Berlin in 1928. Despite an initially poor reception, it became a great success, playing 400 times in the next two years. The performance was a springboard for one of the best known interpreters of Brecht and Weill's work, Lotte Lenya, who was married to Weill.

At the end of WWII the first theater performance in Berlin was a rough production of The Threepenny Opera at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm. Wolf Von Eckardt described the 1945 performance where audience members climbed over ruins and passed through a tunnel to reach the open-air auditorium deprived of its ceiling. In addition to the smell of dead bodies trapped beneath the rubble, Eckardt recollects the actors themselves were "haggard, starved, [and] in genuine rags. Many of the actors ... had only just been released from concentration camp. They sang not well, but free." Von Eckardt, Wolf; Gilman, Sander (1975). Bertolt Brecht's Berlin. 

In the United Kingdom, it took some time for the first fully staged performance to be given (9 February 1956, under Berthold Goldschmidt). There was a concert version in 1933, and there was a semi-staged performance on 28 July 1938. In between, on 8 February 1935 Edward Clark conducted the first British broadcast of the work. It received scathing reviews from Ernest Newman and other critics.[6] But the most savage criticism came from Weill himself, who described it privately as "... the worst performance imaginable ... the whole thing was completely misunderstood". But his criticisms seem to have been for the concept of the piece as a Germanised version of The Beggar's Opera, rather than for Clark's conducting of it, of which Weill made no mention.[7][8][9]

The Threepenny Opera has been translated into 18 languages and performed more than 10,000 times. A French version produced by Gaston Baty and written by Nicole Steinhof and André Mauprey was presented in October 1930 at the Théâtre Montparnasse. It was rendered as L'Opéra de quat'sous; (quatre sous, or four pennies being the idiomatically equivalent French expression for Threepenny and, by implication, cut-price, cheap). Georg Wilhelm Pabst produced a German film version in 1931 called Die 3-Groschen-Oper, and the French version of his film was again rendered as L'Opéra de quat'sous.

It has been translated into English several times. One was published by Marc Blitzstein in the 1950s and first staged under Leonard Bernstein's baton at Brandeis University in 1952. It was later used on Broadway. Other translations include the standard critical edition by Ralph Manheim and John Willett (1976), one by noted Irish playwright and translator Frank McGuinness (1992), and another by Jeremy Sams for a production at London's Donmar Warehouse in 1994.

New York and regional[edit]

At least six Broadway and Off-Broadway productions have been mounted in New York.

[T]he work is not actively political as many of Brecht's later works are, though he tried to make it so in subsequent rewritings. It was meant as provocative entertainment for middle-class theatergoers – part satire, part shock effects, part aesthetic innovation, part moral indictment, and part sheer theatrical diversion. ... Wilson carefully removed all these aspects of the piece, turning Brecht and Weill's middle-class wake-up call into dead entertainment for rich people. His gelid staging and pallid, quasi-abstract recollections of Expressionist-era design suggested that the writers might have been trying to perpetrate an artsified remake of Kander and Ebb's Cabaret. ... [T]he music was trashily handled, and, in general, rottenly sung ... [although the] actors seemed capable and knowing, snatching eagerly at the brief moments of life allowed them. Too few such moments came to save the evening from Wilson's embalming fluid; much of the middle class, sensibly, fled at intermission.[12]

Regional productions include one at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Massachusetts, in June and July 2003. Directed by Peter Hunt, the musical starred Jesse L. Martin as Mack, Melissa Errico as Polly, David Schramm as Peachum, Karen Ziemba as Lucy Brown and Betty Buckley as Jenny. The production received favorable reviews.[13][14][15]

West End (London)[edit]

Argentina[edit]

  • A 1988 Argentina production,[clarification needed] starring: Victor Laplace as Mack, Susana Rinaldi as Jenny, Laura Liss as Polly
  • A 2004 Argentina production, opened in August. Cast: Diego Peretti, Alejandra Radano, Guillermo Angelelli, María Roji, Muriel Santa Ana, Walter Santana, Alejandra Perlusky, Gustavo Monje, Laura Silva, Jorge Nolasco

Australia[edit]

Indonesia[edit]

  • A 1983 and 1999 Teater Koma production, titled Opera Ikan Asin (The Salted Fish Opera), starring: N. Riantiarno as Mekhit/Mat Piso(Mack), Ratna Riantiarno as Amalia Picum (Celia Peachum), Budi Ros as Natasasmita Picum (Mr. Peachum), Sari Madjid as Yeyen (Jenny), Sriyatun Arifin as Poli (Polly), Daisy Kojansow as Lusi Kartamarma (Lucy), and O'han Adiputra as Kartamarma si Macan Coklat (Tiger Brown)

Roles[edit]

Role Voice type Premiere cast, August 31, 1928[18]
(Conductor: Theo Mackeben)
Macheath ("Mackie Messer"/"Mack the Knife"), London's greatest and most notorious criminal tenor/baritone Harald Paulsen
Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, The "Beggar's Friend". Controller of all the beggars in London, he conspires to have Mack hanged baritone Erich Ponto
Celia Peachum – Peachum's wife, who helps him run the business mezzo-soprano Rosa Valetti
Polly Peachum – The Peachums' daughter. After knowing Mack for only five days, she agrees to marry him soprano Roma Bahn (de)
Jackie "Tiger" Brown – Police Chief of London and Mack's best friend from their army days baritone Kurt Gerron
Lucy Brown – Tiger Brown's daughter. Also claims to be married to Mack soprano Kate Kühl (de)
Jenny ("Ginny Jenny" or "Low-Dive Jenny"), A prostitute who was romantically involved with Macheath in the past. She is bribed to turn Mack in to the police. mezzo-soprano Lotte Lenya
Filch – The misfit young man who approaches the Peachums in hopes of beggar-training. tenor Naphtali Lehrmann
The Street Singer – sings 'The Ballad of Mack the Knife' in the opening scene. baritone Kurt Gerron
Smith – a constable baritone Ernst Busch
Walter tenor Ernst Rotmund
Matthias tenor Karl Hannemann
Jakob tenor Manfred Fürst
Jimmie tenor Werner Maschmeyer
Ede tenor Albert Venohr
Beggars, gangsters, whores, constables

Synopsis[edit]

Prologue[edit]

A street singer entertains the crowd with the illustrated murder ballad or Bänkelsang, titled "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" ("Ballad of Mack the Knife"). As the song concludes, a well-dressed man leaves the crowd and crosses the stage. This is Macheath, alias "Mack the Knife".

Act 1[edit]

The story begins in the shop of Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, the boss of London's beggars, who outfits and trains the beggars in return for a slice of their takings from begging. In the first scene, the extent of Peachum's iniquity is immediately exposed. Filch, a new beggar, is obliged to bribe his way into the profession and agree to pay over to Peachum 50 percent of whatever he made; the previous day he had been severely beaten up for begging within the area of jurisdiction of Peachum's protection racket.

After finishing with the new man, Peachum becomes aware that his grown daughter Polly did not return home the previous night. Peachum, who sees his daughter as his own private property, concludes that she has become involved with Macheath. This does not suit Peachum at all, and he becomes determined to thwart this relationship and destroy Macheath.

The scene shifts to an empty stable where Macheath himself is preparing to marry Polly once his gang has stolen and brought all the necessary food and furnishings. No vows are exchanged, but Polly is satisfied, and everyone sits down to a banquet. Since none of the gang members can provide fitting entertainment, Polly gets up and sings "Seeräuberjenny", a revenge fantasy in which she is a scullery maid turning pirate queen to order the execution of her bosses and customers. The gang becomes nervous when the Chief of Police, Tiger Brown, arrives, but it's all part of the act; Brown had served with Mack in England's colonial wars and had intervened on numerous occasions to prevent the arrest of Macheath over the years. The old friends duet in the "Kanonen-Song" ("Cannon Song" or "Army Song"). In the next scene, Polly returns home and defiantly announces that she has married Macheath by singing the "Barbarasong" ("Barbara Song"). She stands fast against her parents' anger, but she inadvertently reveals Brown's connections to Macheath which they subsequently use to their advantage.

Act 2[edit]

Polly warns Macheath that her father will try to have him arrested. He is finally convinced that Peachum has enough influence to do it and makes arrangements to leave London, explaining the details of his bandit "business" to Polly so she can manage it in his absence. Before he leaves town, he stops at his favorite brothel, where he sees his ex-lover, Jenny. They sing the "Zuhälterballade" ("Pimp's Ballad") about their days together, but Macheath doesn't know Mrs Peachum has bribed Jenny to turn him in. Despite Brown's apologies, there's nothing he can do, and Macheath is dragged away to jail. After he sings the "Ballade vom angenehmen Leben" ("Ballad of the Pleasant Life"), another girlfriend, Lucy (Brown's daughter) and Polly show up at the same time, setting the stage for a nasty argument that builds to the "Eifersuchtsduett" ("Jealousy Duet"). After Polly leaves, Lucy engineers Macheath's escape. When Mr Peachum finds out, he confronts Brown and threatens him, telling him that he will unleash all of his beggars during Queen Victoria's coronation parade, ruining the ceremony and costing Brown his job.

Act 3[edit]

Jenny comes to the Peachums' shop to demand her money for the betrayal of Macheath, which Mrs Peachum refuses to pay. Jenny reveals that Macheath is at Suky Tawdry's house. When Brown arrives, determined to arrest Peachum and the beggars, he is horrified to learn that the beggars are already in position and only Mr Peachum can stop them. To placate Peachum, Brown's only option is to arrest Macheath and have him executed. In the next scene, Macheath is back in jail and desperately trying to raise a sufficient bribe to get out again, even as the gallows are being assembled. Soon it becomes clear that neither Polly nor the gang members can, or are willing to, raise any money, and Macheath prepares to die. He laments his fate and poses the questions: "What's picking a lock compared to buying shares? What's breaking into a bank compared to founding one? What's murdering a man compared to employing one?" Macheath asks everyone for forgiveness ("Grave Inscription"). Then a sudden and intentionally comical reversal: Peachum announces that in this opera mercy will prevail over justice and that a messenger on horseback will arrive ("Walk to Gallows"); Brown arrives as that messenger and announces that Macheath has been pardoned by the queen and granted a title, a castle and a pension. The cast then sings the Finale, which ends with a plea that wrongdoing not be punished too harshly as life is harsh enough.

Musical numbers[edit]

Marcia Edmundson as Low-Dive Jenny in Brad Mays' 1982 Baltimore production

Prelude

11 Ouverture
12 Die Moritat von Mackie Messer ("The Ballad of Mack the Knife" – Ausrufer – Street singer)

Act 1

13 Morgenchoral des Peachum (Peachum's Morning Choral – Peachum, Mrs Peachum)
14 Anstatt dass-Song (Instead of Song – Peachum, Mrs Peachum)
15 Hochzeits-Lied (Wedding Song – Four Gangsters)
16 Seeräuberjenny (Pirate Jenny – Polly)[N 1]
17 Kanonen-Song (Cannon Song – Macheath, Brown)
18 Liebeslied (Love Song – Polly, Macheath)
19 Barbarasong (Barbara Song – Polly)[N 2]
10 I. Dreigroschenfinale (First Threepenny Finale – Polly, Peachum, Mrs Peachum)

Act 2

11a Melodram (Melodrama – Macheath)
11a Polly's Lied (Polly's Song – Polly)
12a Ballade von der sexuellen Hörigkeit (Ballad of Sexual Dependency – Mrs Peachum)
13a Zuhälterballade (Pimp's Ballad or Tango Ballad – Jenny, Macheath)
14a Ballade vom angenehmen Leben (Ballad of the Pleasant Life – Macheath)
15a Eifersuchtsduett (Jealousy Duet – Lucy, Polly)
15b Arie der Lucy (Aria of Lucy – Lucy)
16a II. Dreigroschenfinale (Second Threepenny Finale – Macheath, Mrs Peachum, Chorus)

Act 3

17a Lied von der Unzulänglichkeit menschlichen Strebens (Song of the Insufficiency of Human Struggling – Peachum)
17a Reminiszenz (Reminiscence)
18a Salomonsong (Solomon Song – Jenny)
19a Ruf aus der Gruft (Call from the Grave – Macheath)
20a Grabschrift (Grave Inscription – Macheath)
20a Gang zum Galgen (Walk to Gallows – Peachum)
21a III. Dreigroschenfinale (Third Threepenny Finale – Brown, Mrs Peachum, Peachum, Macheath, Polly, Chorus)
  1. ^ In the original version, "Pirate Jenny" is sung by Polly during the wedding scene, but is sometimes moved to the second act and given to Jenny. In the 1956 Off Broadway production starring Lotte Lenya, Polly sang a version of the "Bilbao Song" from Brecht's and Weill's Happy End in the first act wedding scene. Sometimes (i.e. in 1989 recording) it's sung by Polly in the first act and by Jenny in the second act between song 13 and 14 according to the list above.
  2. ^ In the Marc Blitzstein adaptation, this song was moved to the second act and sung by Lucy.

Recordings[edit]

Recordings are in German, unless otherwise specified.

  • Die Dreigroschenoper, 1930, on Telefunken. Incomplete. Lotte Lenya (Jenny), Erika Helmke (Polly), Willy Trenk-Trebitsch (Macheath), Kurt Gerron (Moritatensänger; Brown), and Erich Ponto (Peachum). Lewis Ruth Band, conducted by Theo Mackeben.
  • The Threepenny Opera, 1954, on Decca Broadway 012–159–463–2. In English. Lyrics by Marc Blitzstein. The 1950s Broadway cast, starring Jo Sullivan (Polly Peachum), Lotte Lenya (Jenny), Charlotte Rae (Mrs Peachum), Scott Merrill (Macheath), Gerald Price (Street Singer), and Martin Wolfson (Peachum). Bea Arthur sings Lucy, normally a small role, here assigned an extra number. Complete recording of the score, without spoken dialogues. Conducted by Samuel Matlowsky.
  • Die Dreigroschenoper, 1955, on Vanguard 8057, with Anny Felbermayer, Hedy Fassler, Jenny Miller, Rosette Anday, Helge Roswaenge, Alfred Jerger, Kurt Preger and Liane. Vienna State Opera Orchestra conducted by F. Charles Adler.
  • Die Dreigroschenoper, 1958, on CBS MK 42637. Lenya, who also supervised the production, Kóczián, Hesterburg, Schellow, Neuss, and Willi Trenk-Trebitsch, Arndt Chorus, Sender Freies Berlin Orchestra, conducted by Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggeberg. Complete recording of the score, without spoken dialogues.
  • Die Dreigroschenoper, 1966, conducted by Wolfgang Rennert on Philips. With Huebner, Teichmann, Mey, Korte, Brammer, and Kutschera.
  • The Threepenny Opera, 1976, on Columbia PS 34326. Conducted by Stanley Silverman. In English, new Translation by Ralph Manheim and John Willett. Starring the New York Shakespeare Festival Cast, including Raúl Juliá (Macheath), Ellen Greene (Jenny), Caroline Kava (Polly), Blair Brown (Lucy), C. K. Alexander (Peachum) and Elizabeth Wilson (Mrs Peachum)
  • Die Dreigroschenoper, 1968, on Polydor 00289 4428349 (2 CDs). Conducted by James Last. The only recording, up to the present, that contains the complete spoken dialogue.
  • Die Dreigroschenoper, 1988, on Decca 430 075. René Kollo (Macheath), Mario Adorf (Peachum), Helga Dernesch (Mrs Peachum), Ute Lemper (Polly), Milva (Jenny), Wolfgang Reichmann (Tiger Brown), Susanne Tremper (de) (Lucy), Rolf Boysen (de) (Herald). RIAS Berlin Sinfonietta, John Mauceri.
  • Die Dreigroschenoper, 1990, on Koch International Classics 37006. Manfred Jung (Macheath), Stephanie Myszak (Polly), Anelia Shoumanova (Jenny), Herrmann Becht (Peachum), Anita Herrmann (Mrs Peachum), Eugene Demerdjiev (Brown), Waldemar Kmentt (Street Singer); Bulgarian Television and Radio Mixed Choir and Symphony Orchestra, Victor C. Symonette
  • The Threepenny Opera, 1994, on CDJAY 1244. In English. Donmar Warehouse (London) production. Translated by Robert David Macdonald (lyrics translated by Jeremy Sams). Conducted by Gary Yershon. With Sharon Small (Polly Peachum), Tara Hugo (Jenny), Natasha Bain (Lucy Brown), Tom Hollander (Macheath), Simon Dormandy (Tiger Brown), Beverley Klein (Mrs Peachum) and Tom Mannion (Mr Peachum).
  • Die Dreigroschenoper, 1994, on Capriccio. Conducted by Jan Latham-König, with Ulrike Steinsky, Gabriele Ramm, Jane Henschel, Walter Raffeiner, Rolf Wollrad, and Peter Nikolaus Kante.
  • Die Dreigroschenoper, 1999, BMG 74321 66133-2, Ensemble Modern, HK Gruber (conductor, Mr Peachum), Max Raabe (Macheath), Sona MacDonald (Polly), Nina Hagen (Mrs Peachum), Timna Brauer (Jenny), Hannes Hellmann (de) (Tiger Brown)

Film adaptations[edit]

There have been at least three film versions. German director Georg Wilhelm Pabst made a 1931 German- and French-language version simultaneously (a common practice in the early days of sound films). Another version was directed by Wolfgang Staudte in West Germany in 1962 starring Curd Jürgens, Gert Fröbe, and Hildegard Knef. Scenes with Sammy Davis, Jr. were added for its American release.[19] In 1989 an American version (renamed Mack the Knife) was released, directed by Menahem Golan, with Raúl Juliá as Macheath, Richard Harris as Peachum, Julie Walters as Mrs Peachum, Bill Nighy as Tiger Brown, Julia Migenes as Jenny, and Roger Daltrey as the Street Singer.[20] Andy Serkis has announced a collaboration with musician Nick Cave on a planned motion capture film of The Threepenny Opera.[21]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Notes

  1. ^ The word "threepenny" refers to a coin in Britain's pre-decimal currency; the musical's title in its English-language translation reflects the common pronunciation of that coin ("THREP-penny"). The coin was discontinued in 1971 after the decimalization of sterling.
  2. ^ In an acknowledgement of the earlier work, Weill sets his opening number, Morgenchoral des Peachum, to the music used by composer Pepusch in Gay's original.
  3. ^ Chamberlain, Jane H. ([northern] Summer 2009). "Threepenny Politics in Translation". ATA Source (45): 20–31. "Newsletter of the literary division of the American Translators Association."  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  4. ^ "Threepenny Opera: The Music"
  5. ^ Pet Shop Boys: Alternative, disc 2, track 8
  6. ^ Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya, Speak Low (When You Speak Love): The Letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, p. 159
  7. ^ Stephen Hinton ed, The Threepenny Opera
  8. ^ Bertolt Brecht, The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht
  9. ^ Philip Reed, On Mahler and Britten: Essays in Honour of Donald Mitchell on His Seventieth
  10. ^ Suskin, Steven. "On the Record: Ernest In Love, Marco Polo, Puppets and Maury Yeston", Playbill.com, August 10, 2003.
  11. ^ Threepenny on Broadway official site
  12. ^ Feingold, Michael. "The Threepenny Opera Enters the Dead Zone: Robert Wilson whips out his embalming fluid at BAM", The Village Voice, October 12, 2011
  13. ^ Sommer, Elyse. A CurtainUp Berkshire Review: 'The Three Penny Opera'" curtainup.com, June 28, 2003
  14. ^ Portantiere, Michael. "Berkshires Review:'The Threepenny Opera'" theatermania.com, June 30, 2003
  15. ^ Brantley, Ben. "The Fine Art Of Slumming It"New York Times, July 4, 2003
  16. ^ Melbourne production
  17. ^ Sydney Theatre Company. "The Threepenny Opera". Retrieved 19 September 2011. 
  18. ^ Amadeus Almanac 31 August 1928, accessed 16 October 2009
  19. ^ Die Dreigroschenoper (1962) at the Internet Movie Database
  20. ^ Mack the Knife (1989) at the Internet Movie Database
  21. ^ "Serkis, Cave plan motion-capture Opera" by Mike Goodridge, ScreenDaily.com (15 February 2010)

Sources

External links[edit]