The Threepenny Opera is a work whose themes speak to our contemporary world. Bertolt Brecht’s secretary is said to have come across the book for John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera and translated it in sections as she passed it to the playwright. He quickly saw the satirical relevance to his own society in the Weimar Republic and made it his own. Realising that it was not possible to use the original 18th century music of John Pepusch, Brecht asked Kurt Weill to write the score. Weill’s future wife, Lotte Lenya (forever connected to the work), was in the original cast. After the dress rehearsal, rumour spread that the premier would be a disaster and the public flocked to the theatre to enjoy the expected fiasco. The company regrouped, however, on the day of the opening night (having had almost no sleep) and the show was a huge success.
Brecht and Weill didn’t set out to create a masterpiece. Their purpose was to provoke and entertain normal people with ready, urgent words and music that made a relevant political point. The Threepenny Opera, though, has proved to be a longstanding touchstone of musical and dramatic depth, well able to survive the eccentricities of modern directors’ glosses and reinterpretations. It is a surrealistic and riotous juxtaposition of 18th-century pastiche ballad texts with European swing and dance music plus American jazz, all conceived on an operatic scale; and it has proved to be as entertaining to audiences as it is provocative. The Threepenny Opera is one of those rare seminal creations that maintains a timeless relevance.
The characters are amoral. They feel free to act for their own advantage, have no scruples and rarely tell it ‘how it is’. They duck and dive for self-gain at every opportunity. They betray, threaten, cheat and bully their fellow citizens in the underbelly of city life – a stark contrast to the apparent sunlit world above. Their world is one that constantly holds a mirror to our own time, be it in banking, political peccadilloes, police corruption, fraud or civil unrest.
The Threepenny Opera premiered in the troubled Berlin of 1928, steeped in economic crisis and political turmoil. In 1933 Brecht and Weill both fled Nazi Germany. Their work, political views or religious ethnicity put had them in danger. By then The Threepenny Opera had been translated into eighteen languages and performed more than 10,000 times on European stages.
We set the scene in 1937, the year of the abdication and with war looming. Fasten your seatbelts. It may be a bumpy ride….