The University of the Maryland is amid an extended festival celebrating Kurt Weill, viewed as a pivotal composer in both his native Germany and his adoptive American homeland.
This week, the College Park campus is presenting a double bill with two Kurt Weill vocal works, “Zaubernacht” and “Mahagonny Songspiel,” at the Clarice Center.
“Zaubernacht” (“Magic Night” in English) is a kind of children’s ballet. Conducted by Tiffany Lu, the work is performed beautifully by the Maryland Opera Studio. The ballet has a theme revolving around children and toys, including characters of the Toy Fairy and a Bear, Ball, Horse, Doll and Toy Soldiers. The program notes raise the issue of the genre – to what extent is “Zaubernacht” opera, ballet, play or pantomime?
The production is hardly an idyllic view of childhood, as it has the theme of a Child (portrayed with flair by Eileen Cover) mourning the loss of her brother, but this leads her into sleep as – like in Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” ballet – toys come to life.
While “Zaubernacht” as Weill’s first work for the stage, is of great interest, the center of gravity for the two-show performance is undoubtedly “Mahagonny Songspiel.”
This work and the opera which it later spawned are widely considered to be modern operatic masterworks by Kurt Weill as well as literary masterpieces by librettist Bertolt Brecht. “Mahagonny Songspiel,” tells of the mythical Las Vegas-style City of Mahagonny, a town in which vice, gambling and sensuality are celebrated.
The underlying question posed to the audience is: Can a city founded on pleasure but without ethics survive?
In this particular production, with its allusions to American movie culture and celebrities, there is an additional issue to ponder: is popular culture and entertainment enough to sustain human beings?
Our trek to Mahagonny begins as an all-American road trip, sung by the four male characters to a jazz ditty: “On to Mahagonny!” This is vocalized in something between barbershop quartet and opera style, a technique which is challenging and handled expertly by singers Mike Hogue, Dallas Gray, Justin Harrison and Jeremy Harr. All of these performers, especially Hogue, are to be commended not only for their vocal qualities but also for their outstanding pronunciation of German.
Key to the production is its successful utilization of the Alienation Effect in both words and music. This technique, created by Brecht, juxtaposes contrary elements in order for the audience to be “alienated” or “distanced” from the action; the audience is forced to realize that it is watching a staged drama unfold, and not an escapist work in which the audience forgets itself in a world of literary illusion.
The goal is for the audience to be ever aware of watching a play so that it can think about the social critique being presented and go out of the theater into society to effect social change.
This alienation effect is clearly on display in several instances in the work itself. Where is the location? Is Mahagonny in the desert in the American West or on the coast of Alabama? The latter is suggested by the hauntingly lyrical “Moon of Alabama,” beautifully sung by Amanda Staub and Zyda Culpepper, representing celebrated Deco chanteuses Marlene Dietrich and Josephine Baker.
Similarly, the music incongruently mixes dissonant strains of early twentieth-century European music with American jazz rhythms and instrumentation. And even when performed in Germany, some of the songs are sung in German while others are sung in English!
In the Maryland Opera Studio production, the alienation effect is furthered as we witness an unusual and compelling blend of film and live stage show. Here famous celebrities of the past, including silent film star Charlie Chaplin, baseball legend Babe Ruth, jazz artist Nat King Coleand movie idol James Dean, make a film version of “Mahagonny” by portraying four adventurers who come to experience a life of all pleasure and no laws in this latter-day Sodom and Gomorrah.
Indeed, “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” the later full-scale operatic work based on this “Songspiel,” is a work almost biblical in scope, with a Moses figure perversely leading his people (a group of scam artists) across the desert while in pursuit from the law. Yet even in “Das Kleine Mahagonny” – this “Little Mahagonny,” as the “Songspiel” version is sometimes called – there is also a sequence “God comes to Mahagonny” which explicitly presents divine themes. This divinity, however, cannot solve problems; in this work, human beings must seek the solutions for themselves.
Remarkably, Weill and Brecht’s miniature avant-garde epic runs exactly thirty minutes. While not as expansive as the full-scale “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” this “Songspiel” version encapsulates the plot and some of the best songs of the longer work. These 30 minutes, with an engaging “Zaubernacht” before, make for a “magic night” which will truly whet one’s appetite for more works by both Weill and Brecht. Nor is this opinion confined to this reviewer, for to quote the audience member sitting next to me: “They nailed it!”
The performance at the Clarice Smith Center’s Kogod Theatre closes on April 11, with more Kurt Weill Festival productions coming to the University of Maryland in the near future.