Monday, January 31, 2011

Opera Up Close: What You Missed!

If you weren't at Opera Up Close yesterday, you missed some seriously nformative and entertaining commentary on The Threepenny Opera. Here's our recap of the event:

Sadly, this was our departing general director Allan Naplan's last Opera Up Close. The audience started by giving him a warm and well-deserved ovation for initiating this signature program in Madison. Allan then proceeded to give us an in-depth overview of Kurt Weill's life and work. What stood out was Weill's perpetual "outsider" status: as a Jew in Germany on the eve of the Nazi takeover, and as a German in Paris, and eventually New York. It also seems, though, that this gave him a flexibility and fluidity between styles that really shaped his distinct sound, which draws from jazz, cabaret, operetta, and classical music. It was also interesting to learn the details of the challenging first production of Threepenny in Berlin, which played to a skeptical opening night audience until the bawdy "Army Song" riled them up.

Up next, assistant director Frank Honts offered a special presentation on Marc Blitzstein, the composer and writer who adapted Brecht's original lyrics to English for the popular 1954-61 off-Broadway production. Madison Opera is using the Blitzstein adaptation, and  as it turns out, the Blitzstein papers are archived right here in our city at the Wisconsin Historical Society. Having combed that trove of information, Frank talked about Blitzstein's famous, pro-union piece Cradle Will Rock and his mentoring of Leonard Bernstein, who presented the first performance of his Threepenny adaptation at Brandeis University in 1952. It was also comical to hear that Blitzstein's famous "Mack the Knife" translation--later used by Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin--was originally just called "Moritat," a nod to the original German title (rhyming to "Moritat" didn't work as well as "Knife," in the end.) Frank also discovered that Blitzstein had originally toyed with setting his adaptation in San Francisco and New York, before sticking to Victorian London.

Blitzstein was a communist and was always sympathetic to the message of Threepenny, but we learned yesterday that he originally was put-off by Weill's music. Later on, though, it stuck in his head, and he began to toy with a translation. He called Weill at home in 1950, and sang his translation of "Pirate Jenny" to both Weill and Lotte Lenya over the phone. They both loved it, and encouraged him to translate the whole opera. Weill died just months later, but Lenya would appear in the New York production of Blitzstein's translation.

After Frank, it was John DeMain and Dorothy Danner's turn. Both have extensive experience crossing the opera and musical theater boundary, so there was a lively discussion about how we define both genres. John's opinion was that if it's majority sung, then it's an opera, and since Threepenny is majority dialogue, it's musical theater. He then shared a fantastic anecdote about a dinner with Stephen Sondheim, where he asked Sondheim whether he thought Sweeney Todd was a musical or an opera. Sondheim replied that it had entirely to do with venue, which shapes the audiences expectation ("It's opera when an opera company does it, and musical theater when it's on Broadway.") John also talked about Weill's philosophy that there's no opera or musical theater, but just good music and bad music. Dorothy, a former Broadway actress/dancer, revealed that she fell into opera directing while hanging behind-the-scenes with her opera-singer husband. She also shared that she approaches opera and musical theater the same way, but whether you're working at an opera company or a theater company really impacts what your expectations are on day one. The conversation was lively, and it was incredible to hear these two pros chat and reminisce about their experiences.

Finally, Jim DeVita (Macheath) and Alicia Berneche (Polly) took the stage to talk about their roles. Jim, a classical actor noted for his work at American Players Theatre, talked about overcoming his fear of singing and his recent coaching sessions with John DeMain. He also talked about making the role of Macheath his own, and the challenges of the opera process (he compared the transition between theater and opera to what it would be like for a pilot being asked to fly a space shuttle.) Alicia, an acclaimed soprano who has performed across the country, thought that she had a leg up in this repertoire versus the traditional opera singer because she started out in straight theater. She also cited Dorothy--whom she has collaborated with frequently--for teaching her how to be herself onstage, breaking down the facade that opera sometimes invites. It was a fascinating discussion, and we're so thankful this thoughtful group of artists took time out of their day for our Opera Up Close audience!

As usual, Allan closed the event with a segment on opera in popular culture, this time with a look at "Mack the Knife" through the ages. (My favorite had to be this McDonald's commercial.)

The next Opera Up Close will be for La Traviata, on Saturday, April 16th, from 1-3 PM in MMoCA's lecture hall, hosted by yours truly.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Opening night, just a week away!

Alicia Berneche as Polly, Jim DeVita as Macheath, and
Tracy Michelle Arnold as Jenny Diver
We are one week away from opening night of The Threepenny Opera, and the excitement is setting in. Having sat through rehearsal on Wednesday night, a few things strike me about Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's masterpiece. It can be aggressive and gritty, but also surprisingly tender, and quite honest in its portrayal of longing. I was also surprised at how funny it can be - the humor is at turns witty and crass. There is of course an air of satire and irony, and yet, despite what Brecht may have intended, one can't help but empathize with certain characters. In summary, The Threepenny Opera is every bit as entertaining and thought provoking as its reputation has led me to expect.

Two items of note:

1) If you don't follow @MadOpera on Twitter, you may want to, or at least visit the site to view our live-updates and photos from rehearsals. Same goes for our Facebook page, where there's always an interesting conversation or contest going on, like our recent Threepenny CD giveaway.

2) This is the 300th post on The MadOpera Blog. Thank you to all of the generous readers of the last two and half years!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson

The New York Times published an interesting piece today: "Rare Reprises for an Unlikely Collaboration," a look at Kurt Weill's partnership with the playwright Maxwell Anderson, and Weill's post-Germany career in New York. Two Weill/Anderson pieces - Knickerbocker Holiday (1938) and Lost in the Stars (1949) - are receiving performances in the coming weeks.

Several commentators note the disparate genres that influenced Weill's music at different points in his career. The piece also points out that it wasn't until the 1954 production of Marc Blitzstein's adaptation of The Threepenny Opera in New York that Weill's reputation was secured (Madison Opera is producing the Blitzstein adaptation). Additionally, it's fascinating to think that Weill and Anderson were working on a musical version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at the time of Weill's death in 1950.

Here is Weill's famous "September Song" from Knickerbocker Holiday and "Lost in the Stars" from Lost in the Stars:

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Famous Macks

The role of Macheath (aka Mack the Knife) in The Threepenny Opera has been taken up by a slew of famous actors in the 20th and 21st centuries, including these guys:

Left to right: Jerry Orbach (1956, Off-Broadway), Tim Curry (1986, London), Sting (1989, Broadway), Jesse L. Martin (2003, Williamstown), Alan Cumming (2006, Broadway)

Now, Jim DeVita is not a British celebrity, nor was he a fixture on Law and Order (as far as I know), but if you've ever seen him down the road at APT, you know you're in for a treat with this Mack!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Ticketing Update: The Threepenny Opera

The Threepenny Opera created a sensation after its Berlin premiere, and it's already doing the same in Madison. Rehearsals start on Monday but tickets are selling fast, and we've added an extra performance. Here's an update on what's available:

SAT, FEB 5 • 8 PM - Limited Availability
SUN, FEB 6 • 2:30 PM - SOLD OUT
FRI, FEB 11 • 8 PM
SAT, FEB 12 • 2:30 PM - Just added
SAT, FEB 12 • 8 PM
SUN, FEB 13 • 2:30 PM - SOLD OUT

Call (608) 258-4141 or visit the Overture Center website to purchase your tickets today. For production information, check out our Threepenny page and don't miss the educational features in the 'Discover' section on the left.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Exploring Mack the Knife: Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin jazz things up

In November, we started a new series of blog posts looking at how Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" became the iconic American classic, "Mack the Knife." At first glance, the original is a gritty, darkly comic murder ballad about the seditious ways of the notorious Mackie Messer. The comedy lay in the understanding that Mack is not so different from the politicians and members of respectable society that look down at ruffians of his stature; Brecht and Weill want us to know that corruption is a game everyone plays.

Die Dreigroschenoper premiered in Berlin in 1928. In the 1930s, as the Nazis took over Germany and Weill's livelihood and life itself were endangered, he emigrated to the United States and began his second life as a composer for Broadway and Hollywood. He died in 1950, just as the composer Marc Blitzstein was beginning a new English translation of Die Dreigroschenoper. Blizstein's adaptation--The Threepenny Opera--premiered off-Broadway in 1954, bringing the work to a wide American audience for the first time. While the run was deemed an enormous success (it ran until 1961 and garnered a Tony Award for Weill's wife Lotte Lenya in the role of Jenny), Mack the Knife's moment in the cultural spotlight was still to come.

In 1956, Louis Armstrong introduced his version of "Mack the Knife" to the American hit parade in a new, jazzed up version that decidedly lightened the musical tone of the piece:

Just two years later, in 1958,  Bobby Darin recorded his iconic version of "Mack the Knife." The single was released in August 1959 and sold 2 million copies, stayed at number one on the charts for 9 weeks, and won the Grammy for Record of the Year, forever embedding the piece in the annals of American pop culture. Darin used Blitzstein's translation in his recording, but he was liberal in throwing in some "babes" at the end of almost every line. Furthermore, influenced by Armstrong's take on "Mack," Darin's arrangement is almost aggressively smooth and sugary where the original is rough and bitter. Take a listen below:

Sounds a little different than this, huh? In Darin's version, much like in Armstrong's, Mack is no longer the dangerously seductive criminal you fear. Rather, he sounds almost like an Elvis figure, someone slightly dangerous but endlessly cool, someone you want to know. While the words are only slightly altered, the new music is downright gleeful, rendering a work that would likely be unrecognizable to Kurt Weill.

Monday, January 3, 2011

2010 In Review

Happy New Year! 2010 was a pretty great year for Madison Opera, which is why 77 Square and The Isthmus have singled us out in their year-end reviews. 2011 has a lot to live up to, but first, a look at the exciting year behind us!

January 2010 - The Turn of the Screw. Madison Opera's first fully staged Britten production and company debut in The Playhouse.
April 2010 - The Flying Dutchman. Madison Opera's Wagner debut hailed as a landmark achievement.
July 2010 - Opera in the Park draws record audience of over 14,000 people to Garner Park.

November 2010 - The Marriage of Figaro. Mozart's classic comedy ushered in Madison Opera's 50th Anniversary season to rave reviews and with the Mayor proclaiming "Madison Opera Day" before a sold-out house.
All photos credited to James Gill.