Program notes for September 24, 2016
Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny
Music by Kurt Weill, Libretto by Bertolt Brecht
Why, though, did we need a Mahagonny?
Because this world is a foul one
With neither charity
Nor peace nor concord,
Because there’s nothing to build any trust upon.
— from the translation by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallmann
When one considers the cultural tapestry which gave impetus to the Weill/Brecht The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny), one is struck by the political and social context from which it originated. The tormented brief life of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933), the unofficial designation for the German state between 1919 and 1933, derived its name from the city of Weimar, where its constitutional assembly was held. Culturally, Weimar, city of Goethe, stood for many things -- modernity in art, literature, and thought; Dadaists against art; libertines against old-fashioned moralists. Milestones included the first Weill/Brecht collaboration, The Threepenny Opera, the film Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Thomas mann’s famous novel, The Magic Mountain, the Bauhaus, and the iconic Marlene Dietrich.
Of course, there was the gangsterism, infighting, incompetence, and Hitler who brought the whole post-WWI experiment down in 1933.
From 1923 to 1929, the Weimar Republic had a relatively stable period, albeit hiding deep financial realities, allowing Germany to make the war reparations payments cast upon it from the Treaty of Versailles. It was during this time that the Weimar Republic enjoyed a cultural renaissance ushering in, although briefly, a period known as the Golden Twenties (Goldene Zwanziger). It was from this era of cultural prosperity and political intrigue that the social and political stage was set for Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht's The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.
The cabaret society, from which Weill would draw for their scenario and music, would provide them with the themes of graft, corruption, speculation, and the "ultramodern" styles in jazz, fashions, and innovative street theater so prevalent in the German culture at that time. Mahagonny made famous the characteristic sound of the Weimar Germany cabaret with its ragtag orchestra; heavy on brass and winds, drum set and banjo, topped with the harshly declaiming female voice so aptly portrayed by its famous original star, Lotte Lenya, who was married to Weill.
Besides the satirical, somewhat minimalist anti-Nazi opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and its forerunner three years earlier, Mahagonny-Songspiel, their work together lasted only a few tumultuous years, also yielding the ballet chanté The Seven Deadly Sins, The Berlin Requiem (performed by Redwood Symphony in 2003) as well as the hugely popular Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper).
Bertolt Brecht, born 1898 in Bavaria, was a poet, playwright, and theater dramaturg. Brecht's main impetus in the theater was presenting a setting, or forum, that was confrontational and sought to historicize and address social and political issues, a model that he called Epic Theater, as apposed to traditional Dramatic Theater, which he saw as "culinary" and simply entertainment.
Brecht's focus in theater was to dramatize the complex, and as he saw it, counterproductive, economic relationships of modern capitalism, while supporting the worker's movement and his own Marxist ideals. His Epic Theater was looking for a conceptual stage to present theater that confronted his audience with choices, arguments, issues from which the audience then could participate in the motion and dialogue of the play. Brecht used techniques such as actors directly speaking to the audience, harsh theatrical lighting, singing to interrupt the action, explanatory signs being carried by the actors, changing of text into the third person or past tense, and even speaking the stage directions out loud to the audience.
In The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, there is a purposeful display of Brecht's "alienation effect" (verfremdungseffekt). Both composer and librettist wished to replace the old dramatic theater and its emphasis on emotion with Epic Theater and its emphasis on reason. In the case of Brecht, it was more as a teaching tool for Marxist philosophy, but for Weill, it was social -- get people involved and thinking. The theatrical model was to arouse the audience's preconceived notions and make them think about what is happening on stage, or to emotionally distance the audience from the action thus making logical evaluation of the play's events easier.
Brecht's Epic Theater ideals, and especially his "alienation effect" would greatly influence the American composer, Mark Blitzstein in his 1937 opera The Cradle Will Rock.
The Brecht/Weill collaboration was a highly unlikely pairing at the time, with Weill choosing a cabaret-oriented satirization of then current mores, but still an evening's "entertainment," however uneasy it was for the audience. Brecht had never seen himself as a librettist, but was convinced by the effusive, and quite artistically well-regarded, Weill, that the collaboration would advance his own artistic/political agenda. Brecht would later distance himself from Mahagonny in his published notes about the production.
Mahagonny was meant to satirize, or parody, the "state of freedom," or utopia, that the Nazi party was trying to fabricate when the original play was written. "In the first act, the characters aim to live a life of uncomplicated luxury within the dictatorship of the three criminal founders (a parody of Hitler's plans for Germany). When this is determined to be too 'inhuman' (read: dull), the characters instead decide in the second act to live a life of violence, decadence and greed, taking whatever they can take in life (a commentary on what the Nazi ideology would inevitably become). The Act 3 courtroom scene ends with the citizens of Mahagonny reminding themselves that their God is the dollar and it is the only governing value in their world. Predictably, the Nazi party was not amused, shut down the performance in 1933." (TVTropes, a WIKI devoted to pop culture).
Exacerbated by the Great Depression of the early 1930s, hyper inflation, political extremism (from both the right and the left), massive unemployment, and Adolf Hitler being appointed Chancellor with the Nazi Party being part of a coalition government, on the evening of 10 May 1933, under the leadership of the German Students' Association, some 20,000 volumes were burned in Berlin, including works by Freud, Einstein and Brecht (among hundreds of other authors). Performances of Kurt Weill's music were also forbidden, and his music was labeled, along with Stravinsky, Webern, Krenek, Hindemith and many other composers, as degenerate art (Entartete Kunst). By this time, both Brecht and Weill had fled Germany.