In this show, Mack the Knife is a woman

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In this show, Mack the Knife is a woman
Starting with “The Threepenny Opera,” the Volksoper in Vienna is reconsidering a series of works and inviting audiences to join the discussion. © Stadler/Bwag.

NEW YORK, NY.- “The Threepenny Opera” could be considered an antiopera as much as its menacing lead character, Macheath, is an antihero. This satirical and existential piece spoofed opera and, in doing so, broke the rules and pushed the art form of musical theater forward.

And this is precisely the lure for the Volksoper in Vienna. The house stages musicals and operas, often with a new spin. Right now, it is exploring “The Threepenny Opera,” with a new production running through January.

The 1928 work, based on the 18th-century work “The Beggar’s Opera” by John Gay, was written by German composer Kurt Weill and German dramatist Bertolt Brecht as a harsh satire of capitalism just before the rise of Nazism. The show’s antihero, Macheath, is a criminal among a rogue’s gallery of friends and business acquaintances relishing in the corruption and greed of 19th-century England, but with a wink to pre-fascist Germany.

Cue the Volksoper’s new Manifesto concept, which seeks to reconsider two pieces each year and give them life to new generations of theatergoers. While some might consider “The Threepenny Opera” to be off-putting, the Volksoper found it to be the perfect springboard.

“When we started reading the text, we realized that everyone thought that they knew the text really well, but that nobody really did,” said the production’s director, Maurice Lenhard. “It felt like an experiment. But ‘The Threepenny Opera’ allows for that more than, say, a Mozart opera.”

That experiment revealed that the sinister elements of the musical, from characters to the production design, were open to interpretation. The Kurt Weill Foundation for Music in New York, which oversees all of Weill’s productions, allowed for cross-gender casting, which was a way to dive deeper into the piece and find something more abstract, Lenhard said, rather than the usual gritty realism. More colorful costumes and sets (versus the street-urchin depiction of most productions) helped transform this production.

“The Threepenny Opera” premiered in 1928 in Berlin and was performed thousands of times across Europe in several languages before Weill and Brecht fled Germany in 1933 as the Nazis seized power. Its initial New York production that same year closed after 12 performances. A revival in the 1950s cemented its place in theater history. But its many commercial productions, with such famous Macheaths as Raul Julia, Sting and Alan Cumming, have not always been successful critically or financially. It’s probably most famous for “Mack the Knife,” the sinister ballad about Macheath that became a perky, up-tempo jazz standard thanks to Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Bobby Darin.

How the musical has been interpreted over the decades is part of the lure for the Volksoper team. Lenhard said the idea of cross-gender casting seemed ideal for “The Threepenny Opera” because of how Brecht revolutionized theater by challenging the audience with his “verfremdungseffekt.” This is often translated in English as the distancing, or alienation, effect, which sought to break the theatrical “fourth wall” and lure the audience into the production more as a critical observer, not just as the emotional passive observer.

“Brecht was happy when the youngest character in one of his plays was played by an old person,” Lenhard said. “Then the audience had to really pay attention and to listen.”

In “Die Dreigroschenoper” at the Volksoper (this production is sung in the original German and runs through Jan. 23), Macheath is played by a woman, Sona MacDonald, and Jenny, the prostitute who was once Macheath’s lover and is in many ways the heart and soul — and hope — of the musical, is played by a man, Oliver Liebl.

Despite these bold changes, no words have been altered, said Lotte de Beer, the artistic director of the Volksoper.

“Not a word has been rewritten,” de Beer said. “Manifesto is not an invitation to rewrite anything.”

But part of the Manifesto concept is bringing the audience into the discussion. For the debut of the series, the Volksoper held three evenings of talks with the public, with numbers from different musicals and operas performed. About 80 people attended each session, as well as an open rehearsal of “The Threepenny Opera” with an audience discussion afterward.

It all seems suited to the vision of Weill and particularly Brecht, who was constantly pushing the boundaries of theater and how it can change culture.

“Doing Brecht, you’re forced to reflect on the whole idea of how he imagined theater to be played,” de Beer said. “Brecht wanted to actively pull people out of their comfort zones.

“This production is stirring up some reaction here in Vienna,” she added. “And I think that’s good.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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