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More than Cabaret

Berlin/Munich double-bill at Theatre Project

by Roger Brunyate

Berlin/Munich at Theatre Project, January 24 – February 2, 2003

Other writings by Roger Brunyate

“Life is a cabaret, old chum!” The opening song of Cabaret, the 1965 musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb, immediately evokes the sleazy but heady atmosphere of Berlin between the wars, in the last years of the Weimar Republic before the rise of Hitler. The musical opens in the fictional Kit Kat Club, where the entertainment is simultaneously satirical and permissive, but one of its most chilling moments comes in the second half, when a folksong sung in an outdoor Biergarten is gradually converted into a Nazi marching song. The nightclub decadence of Berlin is apparently cleansed by this vigorous new movement spreading northwards out of Munich; but watching with the helpless hindsight of history, we see only the genocide and horror that will follow.

Berlin/Munich, the double-bill to be presented by the Peabody Chamber Opera at Theatre Project, traces a similar historical and emotional trajectory, but through historical documents rather than an invented fiction. Though not intended for performance in a nightclub, the Mahagonny Songspiel written by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht in 1927 makes deliberate use of the jazzy and satirical cabaret style, and is surely one of the most characteristically provocative artifacts of the Weimar period. Udo Zimmermann’s Die Weisse Rose (The White Rose) is based upon the actual letters and diaries of Hans and Sophie Scholl, two Munich students who led a resistance movement against Hitler in Munich, and were guillotined by the Nazis in 1943. Although originally written as a conventional opera in 1967, Zimmermann revised his work in 1986 as a series of separate songs, at times coming close to cabaret, but using the style to achieve an extraordinary penetration into the hearts of two very brave young people who stood against the sickness of their time.

Sketch of Weill and 
Brecht by Benedikt Dolbin  
Weill and Brecht
Sketch by Benedikt Dolbin (1929)
Kurt Weill first met Bertolt Brecht early in 1927. The composer, like the century, had just turned 27; the poet was two years older. Weill already had three short operas to his credit and was seeking something different to fulfill a commission for a short stage work for the Festival of New Music in Baden-Baden later that year. He thought of setting five poems from Brecht’s satirical collection Die Hauspostille (the Home Breviary) and approached the poet to write a concluding poem and a linking scenario. Their meeting also laid the ground for an eventual collaboration on a full-length opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, which was completed late in 1929. Meanwhile, Weill intended the Songspiel as a study for the new style he had envisioned – a style further developed in the headlong fecundity of his collaboration with Brecht over the next two years, in such works as The Threepenny Opera, The Berlin Requiem, and Happy End.

sketch for Jessie in Mahagonny by Caspar Neher
Jessie in Mahagonny
Design sketch by Caspar Neher
The Mahagonny style involved a return to the popular style of separate numbers, as in Mozart’s Turkish opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio. But Weill used the musical vernacular of the new century, an Americanized jazz and pop. Even before Weill set them, Brecht himself would often perform his poems in cabarets, singing them to tunes of his own composition. In the words of Lotte Lenya (the first Jessie in Mahagonny and later Weill’s wife), Brecht believed that “a kind of pidgin English would become the first world language.” Indeed, parts of the Songspiel are written in pop-record pidgin, such as the well-known “Moon of Alabama” and the Benares Song with its refrain “Is here no telephone? Oh Sir, God damn me, no!” Despite the instruction in the score that specific American references are to be avoided, the characters in the Songspiel all have American names, they sing a version of Tin Pan Alley music, and the action appears to take place somewhere between gangland Chicago and gold-rush Yukon. As Weill said in an 1944 New Yorker interview: “America was to us what Turkey was to Mozart, the land where impossible things happened.”

Even the name Mahagonny is taken from a pop song of the time. It represents a paradise where anything goes and everything is available: whisky, women, cigarettes, and cards. But life in Mahagonny does not come up to expectations. The characters decide to try somewhere else – Benares, for instance – but they read that Benares has been destroyed in an earthquake. Jimmy, one of the inhabitants, is appointed God. After questioning the others, he condemns them all to Hell. But they reply that they are in Hell already. Finally, there is a revolution, and the opera ends with one of the singers telling the audience that there is no such place as Mahagonny – the most outrageous stroke of all, since the spirit of materialism, by whatever name, is with us still.

Weill’s close collaboration with Brecht only just made it to the first performances of the full Mahagonny in 1930. Their partnership, which the musicologist David Drew has described as “the collision of two congenial yet incompatible minds,” flamed briefly like a supernova then split apart. Eventually Brecht headed eastwards towards Communism; Weill would flee west, towards Broadway. For there was no future for the authors of Mahagonny in Germany. Even the second production in Leipzig in 1930 was interrupted by Nazi-fomented riots, and three years later Hitler was elected Chancellor.

of Hans Scholl in uniform with his siter Sophie  
Hans and Sophie Scholl
Munich, summer of 1942
Between 1933 and 1945, any protest against the Nazi regime had to be underground. In this context, therefore, the resistance movement known as The White Rose, which sprang up in Munich in 1942, represented an extraordinary act of moral courage. The group was founded, among others, by a brother and sister, Hans and Sophie Scholl. Hans, who was 24, had belonged to the Hitlerjugend and fought on the eastern front, but had become deeply troubled by what he saw around him; his sister was 21; both were medical students and devout Christians. Together with some friends and one professor, they formed the movement Die Weisse Rose (the White Rose) to awaken others to the truth of what was really going on. Over the course of the next several months, they printed and distributed leaflets in Munich and several other German cities, attacking Nazi repression, the conduct of what they saw as a murderous and unjust war, and the treatment of the Jews. Although they knew they would surely be arrested, they did what they did in order to affirm for their contemporaries that the spirit of freedom could not be silenced, and to show later generations that not all Germans turned a blind eye to the evil that rampaged around them. Early in 1943, they were arrested by the Gestapo, summarily tried, and guillotined; the other members of their circle were executed soon after.

The composer Udo Zimmermann (who recently retired from the post of Intendant of the Berlin Opera) wrote his first Weisse Rose opera in 1967, using a conventional narrative style. The work’s international success, however, dates from the revision of 1986, when Zimmermann removed the linear narrative, cut out all the supporting characters, and concentrated only on the thoughts of Hans and Sophie Scholl in the moments before their death. The text is taken from their letters and diaries, from the pamphlets of the White Rose, from the writings of the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (also executed by the Nazis), and from the Bible. The disparate numbers combine in a psychological map of the Scholls’ spiritual journey.

The opera proceeds in a series of images, at once metaphorical and disturbingly concrete. There are evocations of the Bavarian mountains where Hans and Sophie loved to hike. There is the sound of children playing to the music of a hurdy-gurdy. There are starker images also: a Jewish prisoner to whom Hans gave some tobacco on his way to the eastern front; a refugee mother dragging the body of her dead child; the frozen corpse of a soldier, “another death recorded on a routine list.” Towards the end, the images are combined: the mountain climb becomes a kind of transfiguration in death; the frozen child returns to life. But the opera ends with the only overt reference to the Scholls’ political activities, as brother and sister shout their desperate challenge to humanity against the insistent march of a gathering army and the cries of a vast mob coming from loudspeakers all around the theater.

And then silence. The echoes of the music die away, but the voices of Hans and Sophie Scholl resonate still.

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