Bittersweet symphony - Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny

This article is from 2008

Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny

Brecht and Weill’s Mahagonny has inspired an artistic generation. Neil Cooper analyses the pair’s enduring appeal.

When The Doors covered Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s ‘Alabama Song’ on their eponymous 1967 debut album, Jim Morrison’s pseudo-Dionysian fairground ride suggested he’d been slumming it in fantasy-wish-fulfilment solidarity with the prostitutes and drunks who’d originally sung it. That was in Mahagonny, the Brecht/Weill songspiel composed 40 years previously and later expanded to the full-length opera, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.

By the time Marilyn Manson sang the same song in 2003, he was following every would-be boho and back-alley cabaret turn from Bette Midler and a teutonically attired David Bowie flirting with decadent chic, to Swiss industrialists The Young Gods and New York Dolls’ David Johansen. For maverick Austrian composer, performer and conductor HK Gruber, as a young man in the 1960s it was the seminal recording by Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya that opened up his particular doors of perception.

‘She wasn’t a conventional opera singer,’ says Gruber, who conducts the RSNO in the Edinburgh International Festival’s Opening Concert version featuring Sir Willard White. ‘She was an actress who could sing. This was a whole new way of writing opera and attempting to make it understandable. Weill’s main interest was to simplify music without losing its symphonic complexity.’

When combined with Brecht’s libretto about a town where the biggest crime is to be poor, Weill’s mish-mash of popular ragtime made for a bawdy satire on capitalism and of opera itself. Like The Threepenny Opera, the duo’s better-known work, Mahagonny was an east/west no-man’s-land clash of Weimar cabaret and Broadway oomph.

It’s often easy to forget, however, that Brecht and Weill were finally embraced only relatively recently. Mahagonny’s 1931 Leipzig premiere was disrupted by the Nazis, and it wasn’t performed in London until 1963. New York didn’t see the show until 1979. The last major production seen in Edinburgh was by Scottish Opera in 1986, while its most recent outing came via John Doyle’s 2007 Los Angeles Opera production.

The last Brecht/Weill piece to grace the EIF was François Girard’s 2006 productions of The Lindbergh Flight and The Seven Deadly Sins. As an opening statement to this year’s programme, Mahagonny is the perfect rude intrusion. ‘Mahagonny is about now,’ Gruber maintains. ‘That’s why Weill keeps on being rediscovered.’ Gruber cites Steve Reich, John Adams and James MacMillan as Weill’s inheritors. It’s beyond the formal classical world, however, where the Brecht/Weill canon has found a natural home. ‘Alabama Song’ itself has become as much of a standard as The Threepenny Opera’s Louis Armstrong-endorsed ‘Mack the Knife.’

Beyond The Doors and Bowie, Slapp Happy and Henry Cow singer Dagmar Krause took the role of Jenny, originally played by Lenya, in a 1978 production of Mahagonny, and recorded two albums of Brecht songs. Mike Westbrook’s Brass Band performed Brecht/Weill material during the same period.

Out of the 1980s’ anti-Thatcherite climate came The Happy End, a 21-piece brass band formed from London’s alternative theatre and busking scene, modelled loosely on Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. During a 1986 Edinburgh residency, The Happy End performed Brecht/Weill numbers alongside leftist protest anthems from across the globe while the same year, their vocalist Sarah Jane Morris topped the charts duetting with Jimmy Somerville on ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way,’ dedicated to the just abolished Greater London Council.

Chicago and Cabaret star Ute Lemper recorded a version of Mahagonny alongside two albums of Weill songs. Lemper also appeared in Pina Bausch’s Kurt Weill Revue, while a post re-hab Marianne Faithfull understandably turned to such smoky material. Today, the woozy, speakeasy Brecht/Weill aesthetic can be heard in Tom Waits’ junkyard orchestra growl and Nick Cave’s demonic bark. Nouveau cabaret troupe The Tiger Lillies are similarly inspired, while Boston’s Dresden Dolls have Weill’s name emblazoned on their keyboard.

‘He was a figure who showed the way,’ Gruber says of Weill’s influence. ‘He showed how it was possible to write very modern music, but which also had the gift of saying everything in a very simple way. Together, that became revolutionary.’

Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Usher Hall, Lothian Road, 0131 473 2000, 8 Aug, 7pm, £10-£45.