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Decadence and Decay: Kurt Weill's 'Mahagonny'

Kurt Weill was one of the 20th century's most accomplished and versatile composers, and in his astonishing opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, written when he was still in his twenties, he seems to have unleashed his entire musical and dramatic arsenal.

Born in 1900, Weill studied music in Berlin, working with composers as wide ranging as Engelberg Humperdinck and Ferruccio Busoni. Mahagonny began life as a sort of theatrical song cycle called the "Mahagonny Songspiel," set in a fictional American city, which helped launch Weill's fruitful collaboration with writer Bertold Brecht. The "Songspiel" was both a scandal and a success at its Berlin premiere in 1927, and Weill and Brecht quickly began expanding the score into a full scale opera.

At the same time they also wrote their famous "play with music," The Threepenny Opera, which took Germany by storm after its premiere in 1928. Mahagonny was at first turned down for a premiere in Berlin. Potential publishers found the work "depraved" -- much of the action takes place in beer halls and bordellos, and its characters are an irreverent bunch to say the least. The eventual premiere, in Leipzig in 1930, caused a considerable uproar, leading to protests on moral, religious and political grounds.

Late in 1931, a shortened version of the opera did have a brief, commercial run in Berlin. But with the Nazi takeover in 1933, Weill's music was banned in Germany and he was forced to leave the country. Weill first went to Paris and then to New York, where he had a successful career on Broadway. His hits included Lady in the Dark, starring Gertrude Lawrence and Danny Kaye, and One Touch of Venus, which launched the Broadway career of Mary Martin.

In the "Mahagonny Songspiel," Weill relied on an experimental, non-tonal harmonic style that characterized much of his early music. But with the operatic Mahagonny, he began turning to the more traditional harmonic language heard in his later works, including his Broadway musicals.

Still, the score is very much an opera -- and one that demands a lot from its performers. Musically, it requires singers with truly operatic voices who can also work effectively with a popular style of music.Dramatically, with the unflinching nature of its moral and political messages, the opera certainly has the feel of a paean. But those messages are often divergent, and whether the drama is a tribute to idealism or to cynicism may depend largely on its audience's point of view.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a production of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, sung in English, from the Teatro Real in Madrid. The stars are tenor Christopher Ventris as Jimmy McIntyre, soprano Elzbieta Szmytka as Jenny Smith and mezzo-soprano Jane Henschel as Leocadia Begbick.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

Copyright 2010 WDAV

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.