(Swans - August 27, 2012) Kurt Weill lived only 50 years, from 1900 to 1950. He achieved his highest degree of fame and household-wordism with Die Dreigroschenoper ("The Threepenny Opera") on which he collaborated with librettist Bertholt Brecht in 1928 Berlin. Brecht, having later worked in the United States, had subsequently to atone for his political leftism by testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 1950s. No doubt sobered and disgusted by this experience, Brecht left permanently for East Berlin where his theater work was better lionized and appreciated in his own, by now Soviet-dominated, country until his death. Probably Weill would have undergone a similar grilling had not his own death intervened, having fled Hitler's Germany in the early 1930s after writing with Brecht Happy End (1929; whose plot bears an uncanny resemblance to what was to appear in 1950 as Frank Loesser's Guys and Dolls. Perhaps Brecht and Loesser and company had read the same Damon Runyon stories from the 1920s); and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930; containing "Lead me the Way to the Next Whiskey Bar"). Weill eventually set up shop in the U.S. where he continued writing relevant and socially-pertinent stage and theater works until the end of his much-too-short life.
Though he had always been interested in theater and vocal music, the 12-year-old Dessau-born pianist had continued with more conventional musical training in instrumental composition as well with luminaries like Engelbert Humperdinck and Ferruccio Busoni. Eventually, by his early 20s, immersed in the current trend of advanced modernism in classical music, Weill had composed a symphony, a cello sonata, and a violin concerto said to have been influenced by Mahler and Schoenberg (I find it practically unlistenable). But then Weill discovered Brecht and the theater in the Weimar Republic's Berlin. His course was then diverted into those musical-theatrical channels he felt very much more at home in for the rest of his life.
When Weill died in 1950 he was working on an opera featuring the American fictional icon Huckleberry Finn. But Huck joined Davy Crockett of 1938 as one of two unfinished Weill operatic Americana projects. This summer the composer's first American musical, Johnny Johnson of 1936, written in collaboration with Paul Green, is being revived in excerpt form by the Glimmerglass Opera Festival (GOF). JJ is being put on as a complement to Weill's last completed American work, Lost in the Stars of 1949 which the GOF is also presenting in collaboration, appropriately enough, with visiting members of the Capetown (South Africa) Opera. I had the pleasure of attending their spectacular and highly moving production of LitS this summer but had to miss JJ. LitS had followed upon Weill's previous opera Street Scene of 1947 based on Elmer Rice's play and King Vidor's film version in the 1920s and '30s, and the one-act Down in the Valley for Indiana University of 1948. One hesitates to call LitS an opera, even an "interrupted opera" (my term for an opera whose music is interrupted by spoken dialogue.) Based on the power of the play itself, devised by author Maxwell Anderson from Alan Paton's South Africa-based novel, Cry the Beloved Country, I would rather call it (as some already have) a powerful musically-enhanced play. The list of Weill's stage works on Wikipedia calls it "A Musical Tragedy."
Just to recall some of Weill's better-known American works: After having presented JJ Weill went on to write Knickerbocker Holiday in 1938 with Maxwell Anderson (from which the show's "September Song" has justifiably been enthroned beside "Old Man River" and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" in the pantheon of the greatest songs ever composed for the American musical theater or films); Lady in the Dark of 1941 with Moss Hart and Ira Gershwin (in which Danny Kaye starred in the virtuoso wordplay of "Tchaikovsky"); One touch of Venus of 1943 with Ogden Nash (from which "Speak Low" has proven equally immortal); and finally, the three last operas mentioned. More of Weill's memorable songs include "Mack the Knife" and "Pirate Jenny" from The Threepenny Opera, "Alabama Song" (from Mahagonny), "Surabaya Johnny" (from Happy End), and "My Ship" (from Lady in the Dark).
In writing LitS Weill was the first to admit his admiration for and his use as a model of George Gershwin's audacious American opera, Porgy and Bess of 1935. Several of the numbers in Weill's work bear a striking resemblance to their counterparts in P&B, not to mention Weill's similar use of the chorus in Greek cum South Carolina fashion. But even more tellingly, Weill and Anderson got the very original Porgy of P&B, Todd Duncan (later to join the vocal faculty of Howard University in Washington), to sing the role of the hero of the new opera, African Christian minister, the Reverend Stephen Kumalo (a kind of future Desmond Tutu) and followed up this casting coup by signing up the original Crown in P&B, Warren Coleman, to sing the role of Stephen's more manipulative and politically oriented brother, John, following in Crown's "A Red-headed Woman" character footsteps. In the GOF production Eric Owens sang the Duncan role with great conviction, vocal power, and high audience approval. Amos Nomnabo sang brother John and Makudupanyane Senaoana sang Absalom, the errant son, both equally stirringly and effectively.
The unfolding of the play's politically- and racially-trenchant plot set in the worst Apartheid days in South Africa's history brought tears to my eyes twice: initially at the end of the opera's first act when Rev. Kumalo sang the title song "Lost in the Stars." This song sums up the Reverend's being spiritually lost and adrift at having to face the fact that his own son had murdered a white man and the son's insistence on taking full responsibility for his act (finally following the way his father had always tried, usually unsuccessfully, to teach him.) Then at the end of the opera's second and final act the character Stephen Jarvis, the white and extremely bigoted father of the murdered son Arthur, a son who had spent his life building bridges between the races usually in contention with his own father, finally forgives Absalom, faced with imminent execution for the crime, for the murder of his own son. Jarvis then comes over to his late slain son's political convictions to embrace Kumalo as a political inter-racial brother with whom side by side to build a new South Africa. Weill chooses this moment to incorporate Paton's own title Cry the Beloved Country into a powerfully reiterated chorus to movingly sum up the meaning of the theatrical event it had just been our privilege to have witnessed and experienced. The composer did not know that this work was to become his final political and musical farewell to the world. But his career could not have ended on a loftier and more inspiring note, and we should all be ever grateful for it.
I was in Dessau myself not long ago on the trail of some unusual operas and visited the actual Weill Center the city itself has set up to honor its most famous native son. But, of course, the composer's own home and neighborhood, a place where a truly significant memorial to this musico-political genius might have been established, had long ago been razed by the vengeful anti-Jewish Nazis who had no place in their new order for this Jew of Germany, actually the son of a cantor, who had so satirically mocked their fascistic dreams.
From the original reviews of 1949 of Lost in the Stars Brooks Atkinson said it best: Weill's music considerably added to the experience of the novel: "Here, the theatre has come bearing its most memorable gifts. In the past Mr. Weill has given the theatre some fine scores. But...it is difficult to remember anything out of his portfolio as eloquent as this richly orchestrated singing music....[It is] overflowing with the same compassion that Mr. Paton brought to his novel...The music is deep, dramatic, and beautiful."
Yes, it is.
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