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Once in a lifetime, a play comes along that crystallizes an era and changes our way of thinking about theater. Add some seductive music to the mix and you have that unforgettable concoction of political satire, love-gone-wrong and decadence that is The Threepenny Opera.
The Madison Opera's production of this masterpiece lights up the Overture Center's intimate Playhouse this weekend and next. The cast includes American Players Theatre favorites James DeVita and Tracy Michelle Arnold, and the acclaimed Dorothy Danner directs.
But the performance marks a sad occasion. It is the last production that Madison Opera general director Allan Naplan will oversee before assuming his duties as president and general director of the Minnesota Opera on March 1. The Madison Opera is searching for Naplan's successor and is hopeful of naming a new general director by late April or early May so the person will be on the job by July's Opera in the Park.
As Naplan's swan song, Threepenny is a small production for the director with the booming baritone voice who expanded the company's season and outreach programs to bulging proportions. Something grander, like this season's La Traviata or last season's The Flying Dutchman, seems more appropriate. But, small as it is, the show's impact on musical theater was monumental.
Is The Threepenny Opera an opera? Naplan says no.
"Operetta might be an appropriate genre, but it's really a music theater piece. We chose to do it for our 50th anniversary to honor the Madison Opera's past tradition of performing an opera and a musical each season. It's an important crossover piece that combines jazz and Viennese operetta, and it also furthers our mission of expanding the repertoire."
When Threepenny premiered in Berlin in August 1928, people didn't know what to expect. Composer Kurt Weill was one of the most respected classical musicians in Berlin, while playwright Bertolt Brecht was an avant-garde poet whose works were often unpopular and scandalous. Word on the street was that Threepenny would be a flop, but it became the most popular theater piece of the century and by 1929 had generated over 4,000 performances on stages across Europe.
Brecht was 30 years old when the show premiered. Weill was 28. Germany was growing ripe for Hitler's rise to power. Unemployment and poverty were rampant. Threepenny reflects on these conditions and, beneath its humour noir, asks what drives the world and to what amoral extent we will go to live in it.
Threepenny is based on The Beggar's Opera, the ballad opera by John Gay that premiered in London in 1728. As political and social satire, Gay's work was right up Brecht's alley. It critiqued royalty, questioned the modus operandi of people in high places and pointed a critical finger at opera and at Handel in particular. Brecht, who became a Marxist not long before Threepenny's premiere, satirizes the bourgeoisie.
The show takes place in the Soho district of Victorian London, just before the queen's coronation. The district's winding alleys, seedy dives and poor citizens are just the right cover for Macheath, a.k.a. Mackie Messer, a.k.a. Mack the Knife (DeVita), who kills for money and sometimes for sport. Despite his devious ways, Macheath woos Polly Peachum (soprano Alicia Berneche) into marrying him.
Her parents are enraged when they learn of the union, not just because Macheath is a wanted criminal, but also because he is a competitor to Polly's father, Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum (David Barron), who steals for a living. He trains beggars in the art of looking ill and maimed in order to prey on the public's mercy. Peachum then gets a cut of their beggings.
Tiger Brown (Rick Henslin), chief of police, keeps Macheath out of jail because they're buddies who fought together in England's colonial wars. But when Macheath's former girlfriend Jenny Diver (Arnold) turns him in, Brown can't save him from the gallows. Just before his execution, however, the queen herself forgives Macheath, makes him a knight and gives him a castle.
If this end seems incredible, then the play achieves Brecht's goal of being both entertaining and thought-provoking. It asks: Who is more perverse, Macheath or Peachum? Peachum or the beggars he trains to con people out of money? Tiger Brown, who protects Macheath, or the queen, who forgives and rewards him?
Director Dorothy Danner says Threepenny is a tricky show to do.
"Threepenny is not a naturalistic play," she says. "It's very stylized, and it takes time for actors to get used to that. It has to be witty and entertaining, but you have to get Brecht's point across, too."
Danner's favorite line from the play poses the question: Criminals are bourgeois; are bourgeois criminals? "Macheath is the underbelly of society and completely amoral," she says. "But when he leaves Polly, he says, 'Wash your face and put on some makeup.' He's bourgeois."
The set is simple. "It has to look poor," Danner says. "There will be scaffolding, and the first scene is a beggar's shop. Where there is usually a curtain, there will be a wall of old clothes. There are hampers and George Grosz posters."
Although Threepenny was written in three acts, Danner will do it in two. The production will be Marc Blitzstein's version, which premiered in New York in 1954. Blitzstein softened Brecht's language but was otherwise true to the playwright's intentions.
Some historians say Threepenny's sensational success was due more to Weill's music than Brecht's text, but you can decide after you've heard the band and singers croon a ragtag blend of cabaret songs and jazz riffs, all reminiscent of Mad Twenties Berlin. Weill scored it for 23 instruments played by only seven musicians, whether they could play the instruments well or not. The result was highbrow music with lowbrow ambiance that appealed to a wide audience.
Conductor John DeMain will stick to Weill's original idea of seven musicians, but will use only 12 instruments.
"The Blitzstein version cuts a lot of the doubling that Weill originally had," says DeMain. "There will be some doubling - for instance, the pianist will also play the harmonium and celeste, and the guitarist will also play banjo - but there won't be all the doubling Weill had in the original."
Weill's score is an American-European fusion. "It's a jazzy, German score," says DeMain. "The overture has a fugue that's a reference to Bach. There's a tango, a foxtrot and lots of 1920s dance music. Biting dissonance is an undercurrent to singable tunes, and that's what keeps the music from being sentimental. It's scruffy and sarcastic."
The songs are a play of light and dark. In "The Ballad of Mack the Knife," sunny music covers dark deeds.
Although Threepenny's singers can get away with sounding scruffy, actor James DeVita has worked with DeMain and other coaches to get his voice in top shape for his role as Macheath.
"This is my first singing role," says DeVita. "It's very challenging, but I wanted to accomplish something new, and I've always loved musicals. In Threepenny, Weill and Brecht are going for a different sound. It's the sound of the streets, a gritty, very contemporary sound."
DeVita's 20-some years of experience in Shakespearean theater will come into play.
"Macheath is like some of the classical villains I've played, like Iago or Richard II. I like to find out what makes a villain a villain. It's scary to understand why villains do what they do, to see everyday people doing horrible acts. It catches us off guard."
DeVita takes a fresh approach to his new role. "I have done my research, but I have no preconceived ideas about how Macheath should be played. There are a lot of unknowns. It's kind of dangerous."
Tracy Michelle Arnold will bring her own style to the role of Jenny Diver.
"I look at my characters realistically," she says. "I've often played women who have a darker outside, and I try to find the heart inside. That Jenny lives during the time of Queen Victoria tells a lot about her. She was probably born into poverty and didn't have many choices. The main choices were to be a maid or a whore, and being a maid was backbreaking work. She may have tried to go the good-girl route, but found that it wasn't worth it to her body."
Arnold sees Jenny as the victim of a dismal destiny. "Jenny was a heartbroken businesswoman. She sees that Macheath is a player, but you can't help who you fall in love with. She is blinded by love. She turns Macheath in, but then has remorse."
Arnold's singing background is similar to that of Lotte Lenya, Weill's wife, who made Jenny Diver's role famous. Both have good natural voices without formal training. Lenya's voice was mesmerizing, but not as pretty as Arnold's - but then prettiness isn't an issue here.
"Threepenny isn't lush," says Arnold. "It's gritty, and there's ugliness in it."
The Nazi regime banned Threepenny in 1933 and ultimately banned Weill and Brecht from the German stage. The show's influence diminished until 1954, when Blitzstein's English translation hit off-Broadway and ran for 2,707 performances.
Judging from box-office activity here in Madison, the show will be well attended. With two sold-out performances, the Madison Opera added another performance on Feb. 12 at 2:30 p.m. The show is in English and runs about two and a half hours, with intermission.
With Threepenny's premiere, we bid a fond farewell to Mr. Naplan.
"This has been an enjoyable time for me," he says. "I will miss the tremendous people in Madison who have supported us generously, not only for the art on stage, but for outreach programs as well."
The company has broken stereotypes about opera with Opera in the Park, and it has done great work on the main stage, too, says Naplan.
"Other opera companies are envious."