Online opera guide and synopsis to Weill’s and Brecht’s THREEPENNY OPERA
The genesis of the Threepenny Opera was dramatic. Everyone expected a failure. But the premiere on August 31, 1928 became an unexpected triumphant success and made Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht all of a sudden famous. Weill’s melodies became popular and the work was performed 10.000 times alone in the first 5 years.
♪ Act I (Peachums beggar shop, Polly’s and Mackie’s Wedding)
♪ Act II (Farewell scene, Mackies arrest)
♪ Act III (Jenny’s betrayal, Finale)
♪ Der Haifisch hat Zähne (Mack the knife)
Roles and Synopsis of the threepenny opera
Bertold Brecht, based on the Beggar Opera by John Gay and the collaboration of Elisabeth Hauptmann and texts by Karl Klammer
The main roles
Jonathan Peachum, owner of the company Beggar's Friend - Celia Peachum, his wife - Polly Peachum, her daughter - Macheath. named Mackie Messer, assassin and gangster - Tiger Brown, chief of police of London - Lucy, his daughter - Jenny, brothel owner and whore
CBS, with Lotte Lenya, Erich Schellow, Johanna von Koczian and Willy Trenk conducted by Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggeberg and the Orchestra Sender Freies Berlin.
The social criticism
The work is a product of the Berlin “roaring twenties”. Jazz, Art déco and the desire for pleasure characterized these years. But also the horrors of the Great War and their consequences such as hyperinflation, organized crime, misery and mentally and physically shattered victims were still omnipresent.
The thirty-year-old Bertold Brecht was a Marxist and with his Threepenny Opera he describes a society that is corroded from within, in which changes are only possible by changing the system, i.e. with a revolution of whatever kind. It is a world without social cement. No one is obliged to the other and everyone is bribable. Man’s baser instincts are driven by bourgeois vices such as greed and vanity, but also by deeply human impulses such as survival instincts and the sex drive.
Peachum stands for the hypocritical bourgeois who feels superior to the lower class (Macheath) but is ultimately no more than a “robber with the Bible in his hand”. Brecht lets Macheath ask, for example, “What is breaking into a bank against the establishment of a bank? In the end, the policeman behaves like the gangster, the whore like the bourgeoise’s daughter. Some rob out of necessity, some out of greed. This hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie in trying to distinguish the two things from each other was what Brecht wanted to uncover.
Five years after its premiere in 1928, the work was banned by the National Socialists. For the fascists it was an amoral, nihilistic work created by Jews. For many of those involved in the premiere (mostly of Jewish origin) the Nazi years were a horror. While Weill and Brecht could emigrate to the USA, others ended up in concentration camps. The fate of the Tiger Brown of the premiere, Kurt Gerron, became famous. He was forced to direct the Nazi propaganda film “Theresienstadt” in 1944, which shows happy Jews in the concentration camps. Gerron was brutally murdered a short time later in Auschwitz.
The original and the “copy” became a sensation
The basis for the Threepenny Opera was an existing work. Brecht freely adapted the plot of John Gay’s “Beggar’s opera”. Exactly 200 years earlier Gay had teased in London against the pomp of Handel’s baroque operas. Instead of playing in the milieu of the nobility as in a Handel opera, Gay let the plot take place in the whore and beggar milieu of the English capital. The success of this parody was so resounding that it caused Handel’s opera company serious economic damage. For the audience it was sensational, that the underground milieu was depicted on a theatre stage.
Also 200 years later the audience reacted to the opera’s theme with the same vehemence. The reason for this was not only the social milieu of the Threepenny Opera, but also the fact that the classical opera of the twenties was far removed from the taste of the general public and the contrast to Weill’s jazzy, almost vulgar music was dramatically big.
An ambivalent triumph
The preparations for the opera were overshadowed by deaths, cancellations and illness of involved persons. Everyone expected failure. But the premiere on August 31, 1928 became an unexpected triumphant success and made Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht suddenly famous. Weill’s melodies became popular and the work was performed 10.000 times in the first 5 years. Brecht suffered from the fact that the popularity of the music pushed the social criticism of the work into the background, and the audience ultimately consumed the work like an operetta. Thirty years later, in an adaptation of Blitzstein on Broadway, the work was to be triumphantly celebrated with over 2,000 performances with an audience not known for its revolutionary movements.
The music of the Threepenny Opera
The Threepenny Opera was Weill’s second work in collaboration with Bert Brecht after “Mahoganny”. Weill’s opera work was already dominated by themes of contemporary criticism, his compositional style was rich in effects and enriched with jazz elements. With the Threepenny Opera, his artistry reached a magnificent climax at the young age of 28.
Weill wrote music with simple but suggestive melodies. The singers are accompanied by a jazz band of 9 musicians who do not sit in the orchestra pit but play their music on stage. The band consists of 2 saxophones, 2 trumpeters, trombone, banjo, timpani, harmonium and a piano played by the band songs, although the instrumentation can also be adjusted.
Everything about this work was a big risk. Seldom has music been composed so simply and so directly (or trivial or even vulgarly) without ever losing its artistic quality. Weill set many strange tones, which for example appear in chords or falsify the melody lines. Of course, the word “opera” in the title of the work is meant ironically; music theatre is the more appropriate expression.
Weill set the music so that it could be sung by actors. This was especially true of the tonal range of the roles, which even untrained singers could master.
The epic theatre and the alienation effect
The Threepenny Opera departs from the conventional approach of musical drama, which we know from the genre of opera. Brecht demanded of the composer and the performing artists not to interpret the scenes psychologically, but to interpret them socio-politically. The actor must not be absorbed in the role. Consequently, it was not the emphatic opera singer who was the ideal interpreter of this work, but the singing actor.
Brecht called this new genre “epic theatre”, one of its core elements was the stylistic device of alienation. In Wikipedia, alienation is defined as follows: Brecht wanted to “distance” or to “alienate” his audience from the characters and the action and, by dint of that, render them observers who would not become involved in or to sympathize emotionally or to empathize by identifying individually with the characters psychologically; rather, he wanted the audience to understand intellectually the characters’ dilemmas and the wrongdoing producing these dilemmas exposed in his dramatic plots. By being thus “distanced” emotionally from the characters and the action on stage, the audience could be able to reach such an intellectual level of understanding (or intellectual empathy); in theory, while alienated emotionally from the action and the characters, they would be empowered on an intellectual level both to analyze and perhaps even to try to change the world, which was Brecht’s social and political goal as a playwright and the driving force behind his dramaturgy.
The work had many fathers and mothers
In addition to the authors of the original form (Gray and Pepusch) and the modern form (Brecht and Weill), Elisabeth Hauptmann, who wrote many texts as a translator of Beggar’s Opera, and Klammer, who translated poems by Francois Villon (chosen by Brecht), must be mentioned. The latter led to a copyright lawsuit by Klammer, which later forced Brecht to pay compensation.
Brecht’s approach to the content of the Threepenny Opera was profoundly Marxist, but when it came to finances, Brecht was an adaptive capitalist, claiming two thirds of the profits for himself. Weill received a quarter and Elisabeth Hauptmann 12.5 %.
THE THREEPENNY OPERA ACT I
The language of the work
Preliminary remark: The language of this play is rude. To maintain authenticity the synopsis uses the words of the play.
Mack’s famous Moritat – Mac the knife
Synopsis: A fair in Soho. The beggars beg, the thieves steal, the whores whore. A carnival singer sings the Moritat about Mackie Messer, the assassin who kills on commission.
Und der Haifisch, der hat Zähne (Ballad of Mac the Knife)
A “Moritat” (probably coming from the word “murderous deed” or “morality”) was a horror ballad that was sung at fairs and the singer was accompanied by violins or barrel organs.
From the beginning, the Moritat became a popular song par excellence and the most famous piece of the Threepenny Opera. Interestingly, this song was not included in the original version. It was written at the last moment because the actor Harald Paulsen insisted on being the first actor to perform a song.
The piece consists of 6 verses and begins with the accompaniment of the harmonium only. With each verse, more of the total of 9 instruments join in. Weill writes at the beginning “in the manner of an street organ”. The rhythm develops more and more into a foxtrot.
We hear this song in two Versions. First we hear the version of the first Macheath, Harald Paulsen, to whom we owe the existence of the piece.
Der Haifisch hat Zähne – Paulsen
His role later in the Third Reich, however, was a sad one. He was an opportunist and notorious as an informer.
Leonard Bernstein took up the opera in the 50s and asked Blitzstein to create an English version for the Broadway. Blitzstein moved the “Three Penny Opera” to the New York of 1870 and wrote the text in American slang. Lotte Lenya again sang Jenny as she die in the premiere 30 years before. The work had a huge impact in America.
Many jazz musicians appreciated that Weill, unlike other European composers, really wrote in the stile of jazz and the song found many adaptations by American jazz musicians. In 1960 Ella Fitzgerald brought “Mack the knife” back to Berlin and received a Grammy for it. Her interpretation turned the key chromatically one step higher with each line, 11 times in total. Breathtaking.
Mack the knife – Fitzgerald
The moon over Soho
Synopsis: Peachum runs a shop with his wife, where he gives future beggars the right outfit and assigns them their districts. In return, they have to give away a part of their miserable income. Their daughter Polly did not come home that night, they fear the worst.
This number is a wonderful caricature of conventional opera. While we experience magical full moon nights at Bellini’s Norma (and many other operas) Weill’s moon over Soho is a grotesque grimace in the night sky.
Anstatt, dass … Das ist der Mond über Soho (No They Can’t Song)
Synopsis: Polly Peachum was away because she was celebrating her wedding in a shabby horse stable in Soho with Mackie the knife, civil name Macheath. Macheath’s rogue friends stole the wedding presents and sing a wedding song to them.
Weill deliberately wrote this choir song with a lot of wrong notes. The cheers of the beer-happy wedding guests are as pathetic as their feelings for the wedding couple.
Wedding Song for the Less Well Off – Brückner
Synopsis: To set the mood, Polly sings the song of the pirate-Jenny. It is a ballad about a barmaid who is in fact a pirate who helps the arriving pirates to plunder the Town.
Lotte Lenya (bourgeois Charlotte Blamauer) was not only the premiere Jenny, but also the wife of Kurt Weill. She also sang this role in the first film adaptation of 1931. We see the next song from this movie. Brecht’s stylistic device of alienation is particularly impressive in this song: Lenya’s acting is limited to an absolute minimum.
Meine Herren heute sehen Sie mich Gläser abwaschen (PIRATE JENNY) – Lenya
The rousing cannon song
Synopsis: Briefly, the wedding guests take a shudder when Tiger Brown appears, London’s dreaded chief of police. He’s an old friend of Macheath’s and has come simply to offer his congratulations. Together the two old war comrades sing the cannon song.
The so-called Cannon Song is a gripping ragtime with a rousing chorus, written in the tempo of a foxtrot.
We hear an english version.
The tropps live under (CANON SONG) – Julia / Sabin
Synopsis: Macheath and Polly are happy for a moment.
Weill surprises us with an almost romantic love song. Parts of the song are songlike composed and others are written in a sprechgesang (more spoken than sung), a style often used in the cabaret of those years.
Siehst Du den Mond über Soho (LIEBESLIED) – Schellow / Koczian
The famous «Barbara Song»
Synopsis: Polly pretends to be a girl who like everyone else just wants to find a man.
In this song we see exemplarily how the epic theatre demanded from the actor to take a mediating role. It was not a question of diving into the emotional world of the character, but rather of demonstrating the person. We see Lotte Lenya again.
Einst glaubte ich, als ich noch unschuldig war (BARBARA SONG) – Lenya
We hear a second, sweeping interpretation by Megan Mullally, a well-known American actress. Concerning interpretation and instrumentation, however, this recording is far different from Lotte Lenya’s previous version.
Barbara song (in english) – Mullally
Synopsis: Back with her parents, Polly tells about the wedding. Peachum is frantic, he was hoping for his daughter as a help for his age. With the Bible in his hand he prophesies her a bad future. He warns her that the world is poor and man is bad.
Was ich möchte, ist es viel? – Koczian
THE THREEPENNY OPERA ACT II
Farewell to Polly – in the manner of Faust
Synopsis: Now Peachum is doing everything he can to put Macheath behind bars. He’s even convinced Tiger Brown to arrest his friend. Macheath finds out and goes into hiding. Wistfully Polly says goodbye to her husband.
Polly’s farewell is a parody of the Gretchen monologue from Faust.
Er kommt nicht wieder (POLLYS FAREWELL SONG) – Koczian
Synopsis: Peachum’s wife has bribed the brothel owner Jenny to report to the police as soon as Macheath shows up at the brothel. Jenny’s sure he’ll turn up because the sex drive will lead him here.
Da ist nun einer schon der Satan selber (Ballad of Sexual Obsession) – Hesterberg
The apt song titles
Synopsis: As a matter of fact, soon after he shows up. Nostalgically the two remember the time when he was her brutal protector and she prostituted herself for him.
The names of the songs like “Canon song” or like here “Pimp Ballad” were concise and helped to make the songs popular. This song is composed in the style of a tango.
In this recording we hear Lotte Lenya again. This recording dates back to the fifties, more than 20 years after the first performance and the first film adaptation in 1931. Lenya’s voice was now much deeper and she could no longer sing all songs in the original pitch.
There was a time and now is all gone by (Tango-Ballad) – Lenya / Merrill
Jenny’s pirate ballade
Synopsis: Without hesitation Jenny calls the police. Soon Macheath will be taken away.
The buccaneer ballad begins accompanied by a seemingly out-of-tune piano. This gruesome piece was subsequently sung by many actresses. It is composed in the characteristic sprechgesang.
Meine Herren heute sehen Sie mich Gläser abwaschen (Ballad of Immoral Earnings) – Lenya
Praise of prosperity
Synopsis: Macheath surrenders to his fate.
Accompanied by a piano piece in the style of jazzy light music, we hear Macheath’s “Praise of Prosperity” (which makes you lazy, though), sung with the bandit’s grandeur.
Da preist man uns das Leben großer Geister (Ballad of Gracious Living)
Synopsis: He is visited by Lucy Brown, the daughter of the police chief. She is pregnant by him. When Polly shows up, she’s furious, and they fight jealously.
This duet is also to be understood as a parody on opera duets. It is a nagging of two “market women”. In the recording we hear, you can tell, two professional singers.
Da preist man uns das Leben großer Geister (Jealousy Duet) – Bernsteiner-Licht / Akselrod
First comes the grub, then comes the morals
Synopsis: Lucy swears she’ll get even with Polly. She presses her father to make sure Macheath gets out of jail. This happens and soon Macheath is back with Jenny. There they philosophize about what man lives on. They agree, first comes the grub, then comes the morals!
Some of Brecht’s verses became proverbial aphorisms that became part of the german language. The most famous and still used today was the one about “eating and morals”. To enhance the effect of the words in the theatre, Brecht had important formulations printed on tapes and hung them next to the stage.
Ihr Herrn, die ihr uns lehrt, wie man brav leben (Second Finale) – Rasp
THE THREEPENNY OPERA ACT III
Synopsis: Peachum doesn’t give up. He threatens the police chief to disrupt the queen’s upcoming coronation celebrations with his beggars.
The music of this piece is supposed to remind of the parade of a torchlight procession and reflects the atmosphere of the threatened march of the beggars. The text by Brecht is stunning, the chorus changes 4 times and becomes more and more cynical:
For this bleak existence Man is never sharp enough
Hence his weak resistance To his tricks and bluff
For this bleak existence Man is never bad enough
Though his sheer persistence Can be lovely stuff
For this bleak existence Man is never pitiful enough
All his bleak existence Is a load of guff
For this bleak existence Man’s not good enough just yet
Do it without assistance Slap him on the head
Der Mensch lebt durch den Kopf (Song of the Insufficiency of Human Endeavor)
Jenny betrays Macheaths a second time
Synopsis: Once again Macheath is betrayed by the whores while visiting the brothel.
Jenny sings about the vanity of man whose ambition leads him to ruin. This fate has befallen Solomon, Caesar, Cleopatra and now Macheath. Thus she justifies that it is she who finally delivers her former lover to the gallows.
Ihr saht den weisen Salomo (SALOMON SONG) – Lemper
Synopsis: This time he is sentenced to death. He lacks the money to bribe the guards for an escape attempt and is led to the gallows. Everyone is waiting for him at the execution ground. When the noose is put around his neck, Peachum announces that Macheath has been pardoned by the queen. A mounted messenger appears.
By ennobling Macheath, Brecht aimed to put the robbers and the upper class on an equal footing. Thus the system cannot reform itself, but rather the change must be brought about by a revolution. This Marxist approach is the social-revolutionary aspect of this opera.
Of course, the Riding Messenger is also a parody of the Opera Seria in which the gods in a surprising turn of the plot give a happy ending, the “lieto fine” brought about by the “Deus ex machina”. But the context of this opera is grotesque and turns the turn into satire.
Horch, horch, horch (The Mounted Messenger)
Synopsis: He announces that on the occasion of her coronation, the queen has decided that Macheath should not only be granted freedom, but also be granted a title of nobility, an appanage and a castle. The opera ends with a great chorale by all participants: Let’s fight injustice, but in moderation, For it will freeze to death, if left alone.
Verfolgt das Unrecht nicht zu sehr (DREIGROSCHEN FINALE) SCHLUSSCHORAL
Recording recommendation of the opera THE THREEPENNY OPERA
CBS, mit Lotte Lenya, Erich Schellow, Johanna von Koczian und Willy Trenk unter der Leitung von Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggeberg und dem Orchester Sender Freies Berlin
TPR, Lotte Lenya, Scott Merrill, Martin Wolfson, Beatrice Arthur under the direction of Samuel Matlovski.
Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide on THE THREEPENNY OPERA by Kurt Weill and Bert Brecht.