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Brecht’s Threepenny Opera (Dreigroschenoper) 1928
As with other forms used by Brecht in epic theatre, such as allegory and
parable, the parody refers to something outside itself, re-presents something
else and is not a self-contained piece of drama which would allow the
audience to become involved in its world. A sort of comparative reading or
viewing is needed, cross-referencing to other things.
The Threepenny Opera refers parodically to a play which was itself a parody –
John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera of 1728. This satire of eighteenth-century political
life in London was a critique of Walpole and the corruption of those in power.
It was based formally on Handelian opera, which it lampooned. The revival at
the Lyric Hammersmith ran from 1920 and was hugely successful (also in the
context of the 1920s revival of Handel’s music).
Written 200 years later, Brecht’s is a travesty of it in some respects (most of
original plot, but new music).
He satirises and subverts the operatic tradition and the opera-going public, as
a new group of opera-goers emerges after the War, a wealthy group who
expected more boisterous fun.
This is about an underclass, but regardless of class, all sing with the same
emotion – noble does not mean exclusively of the nobility.
Brecht’s play targets aspects of the Weimar Republic, not as specifically as
Gay’s attack on people, it is the system which is corrupt. National socialists
saw Jews and communists as subversive of genuine German culture
(degenerate / cultural bolshevism). 1928 urbanised society shared some of
the social conditions of Gay’s time.
Staunen (‘amazement’) is the main technique – the unexpectedness for the
spectator of that kind of music with that kind of play, a mix of high and popular
culture (as Gay’s composer had mixed classical and popular tunes also).
There is a mix of genres, jazz, dance music, operetta and Wagnerian tunes –
centuries of musical styles to draw on for Kurt Weill (who broke off from
writing the opera Mahagonny to work on this play).
Epic delivery – ‘discontinuities’ - actors step outside of their characters to sing;
narrative is broken off, songs almost announced as in cabaret. The lighting
goes up when the songs start, banners raised on which the words appear –
not all the songs relevant to the text of the play.
Cast sang each other’s numbers on different evenings in the original
production. They were to be actors ‘acting’ the role of singers – staccato
style, unusual pitch, speech rhythms against the rhythm of the music (not
supposed to be good, trained singers).
‘Happy Ending’ – a swipe at the theatrical and operatic convention of the
aristocracy or the deus ex machina coming in to solve all the problems at the
end. Macheath is pardoned, recitative, fanfares and big finale.