BERLIN (NYT NEWS SERVICE).-
This winter, after live performances had made a modest return in Germany, the coronavirus pandemic brought them to another halt.
But at the Berliner Ensemble in January, preparations were underway for a highly anticipated new staging of The Threepenny Opera. That play with music by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill had its 1928 premiere in the companys house, and became the citys most famous music theater export and perhaps the most iconic cultural artifact of Weimar-era Berlin.
I am working behind Bertolt Brechts wooden production desk! said Barrie Kosky, the productions Australian director, with some astonishment.
Although the cast had been rehearsing for eight weeks, no one could say when opening night would be. The only good thing for me, personally, thats come out of corona is that Ive had more time onstage than Ive ever had to put on a show, Kosky said.
Seven months later, this Threepenny Opera is finally set for an Aug. 13 premiere; it will then enter the repertoire of the Berliner Ensemble, which was founded by Brecht and the actress Helene Weigel, his wife. But dont expect Weimar-era clichés like bowler hats, dirty negligees and tableaus out of Otto Dix or George Grosz.
This piece cannot be Cabaret with a little bit of intellectualism, Kosky said.
We are beyond Babylon Berlin, chimed in Oliver Reese, the Berliner Ensembles artistic director, who was sitting across from Kosky during the interview.
Kosky, 54, is best known for his energetic productions at the nearby Komische Oper, the opera company where he has been artistic director since 2012. Among his biggest hits there have been deliriously overstuffed, razzle-dazzle stagings of operettas and musicals, including many forgotten works of the Weimar Republic.
But now that hes directing that eras defining piece, hes taking a different approach.
During a dress rehearsal in January, the actors sang and danced on an industrial set whose welded metal ladders and platforms resembled a treacherous labyrinth or adult jungle gym; there were no references to the decadence of 1920s Berlin. Instead, the sardonic, acid-laced tone of the piece came through in a dark and psychologically probing production that appeared abstract and timeless.
The Berliner Ensembles previous Threepenny Opera staging, by Robert Wilson, was a stylized tip of the hat to German expressionism. It was one of the theaters signature productions and ran for over a decade, with more than 300 performances. (It came to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York in 2011.) But it required many actors from outside the company, which made mounting it a challenge. Shortly after Reese arrived to lead the house in 2017, he approached Kosky about creating a new production cast exclusively with actors from the ensemble.
It was an offer Kosky couldnt turn down.
It was the same antenna that went out when Katharina Wagner rang me, Kosky said, referring Richard Wagners great-granddaughter and the director of the Bayreuth Festival, who invited him to stage Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg there in 2017.
If youre going to do Meistersinger, then where else do you do it but Bayreuth? And if youre going to do Dreigroschenoper, where else do you do it except the Berliner Ensemble? Kosky said, using the German title of Threepenny.
With its uneasy blend of genres and source materials it is based on an 18th-century British popular opera, and Brecht also incorporated lyrics from other poets into the text Threepenny is a tricky work to pull off convincingly. The most recent Broadway production, from 2006, was a coke-fueled 1980s bacchanal starring Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper that was a critical flop.
Much of what makes Threepenny unique, and uniquely challenging for a director, can be traced back its origins. Brecht and Weill spent 10 days in the south of France hashing it out, working with a German translation of John Gays The Beggars Opera by Elisabeth Hauptmann a collaborator and mistress of Brechts who, according to the Brecht scholar John Fuegi, was ultimately responsible for 80% of the Threepenny text.
The creators, Kosky said, didnt even know exactly what they were writing, because it was written very quickly. Although Weill later claimed that they had been trying all along to create a new genre, both Kosky and Reese felt that much of the show was the result of trial and error. The rushed nature of the collaboration, they said, resulted in something that doesnt fit any one style.
It is a kind of bastard, Reese said.
A schizophrenic bastard, Kosky added. But thats the joy of it. Its a tap dance through theatrical styles.
The rehearsal period for the premiere of The Threepenny Opera is the stuff of theatrical legend: calamities worthy of a screwball comedy. But after a month of cast illnesses and walkouts, and faulty sets and props the barrel organ used for Mack the Knife malfunctioned on opening night the show opened, and was an immediate hit. All of Berlin was whistling Weills melodies, and lines for tickets wound around the block.
But despite the fame the play has enjoyed in the 93 years since, Kosky called it a problematic masterpiece whose meaning is far from clear. Much of the ambiguity stems from the curious, even lopsided, interplay between the libretto and the score, he said.
Is it a farce with music, as Weill maintained? Kosky asked. Or is it a biting anti-capitalist satire, as Brecht retrospectively claimed? And what is chief, the text or the music?
Every production of Threepenny, he added, tries to do the impossible: to work out what the conundrum with this piece is, and the contradictions within the text, music and content.
Adam Benzwi, the American conductor who is the productions music director, said he felt a definite tension between the critical distance that Brechts text invites and the emotional immediacy of Weills songs. The music, he said, must remain beautiful despite the harshness of the lyrics.
Weills music is unique because you immediately feel the pain, excitement and sexiness of urban life, Benzwi said in a recent phone interview, pointing to the composers melodies that want to be warm in a place that doesnt allow that, rhythms that want to be happy when describing something terrible.
In January, Kosky said, If Bertolt Brecht had asked another composer to do the music, we would probably have a much drier, easier piece to understand.
But, he added, Weill opened up an emotional landscape where suddenly you are contradicting virtually everything that Brecht wants, or believes in, in theater. (Its a tension that would ultimately lead the dissolution of Brecht and Weills partnership in 1931, though they did reunite for The Seven Deadly Sins a couple of years later.)
Under previous artistic directors, the Berliner Ensemble had developed a reputation for traditional, even worshipful, presentations of Brechts plays. Kosky is the latest in a series of innovative directors that Reese has invited to put their own spin on the works of the theaters genius loci.
Were trying to establish a new Brecht tradition at this house, Reese said.
I think you dont have to stick to the theory anymore, he added, referring to Brechts stage philosophy, which despite its influence on 20th century theater is now approaching 100 years old. Brechts most famous technique, the alienation effect, is a push and pull between emotional involvement and critical reflection that is often achieved through ironic or metatheatrical means.
Although Kosky is steering clear of Weimar-era imagery for his Threepenny Opera, he said he had been inspired by one of the periods great comic filmmakers, Ernst Lubitsch but also, perhaps more surprisingly, the much-darker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the enfant terrible of New German Cinema.
Kosky said he was trying to bring together the loneliness and melancholy of those isolated characters in Fassbinders films with the wonderful, naughty, Lubitsch quickness, irony and lightness.
Its a weird combination, he admitted, adding he was aware that his artistic choices might not please everyone. But he doesnt mind a bit of controversy.
Im sure some people will say that I have ignored the savage social satire, Kosky said, but insisted his production would be political in a different way, adding: This is a piece about love in capitalism, and how love is for sale. Its about the triumph of bourgeois hypocrisy.
For many, Weills score remains the soundtrack of its era, while Brechts portrait of a corrupt society captures the spirit of Berlin on the edge of an abyss. Even so, Kosky wants to roll back the shows local associations in favor of something with broader resonance.
I think people will think my production smells like Berlin, he said, but the images that you see could be anywhere in the world.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times