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Rise And Fall Of The City Of Mahagonny - City Sickness

When The Doors covered Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s ‘Alabama Song’ on their eponymous 1967 debut album, Jim Morrisson’s pseudo-Dionysian fairground ride suggested he’d been slumming it in fantasy-wish-fulfilment solidarity with the prostitutes and drunks who’d originally sung it. That was in ‘Mahogonny,’ the Brecht/Weill songspiel composed 40 years earlier and expanded to the full-length opera, ‘Rise And Fall Of The City Of Mahogonny’, in 1930. By the time Marilyn Manson sang the same song in 2003, he was following every would-be boho and back-alley cabaret turn from Bette Midler and a teutonically attired David Bowie flirting with decadent chic, to Swiss industrialists The Young Gods and The New York Dolls’ David Johansen.

For maverick Austrian composer, performer and conductor HK Gruber, as a young man in the 1960s, it was the seminal recording by Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya that opened up his particular doors of perception.

“She wasn’t a conventional opera singer,” says Gruber, who conducts the RSNO in the Edinburgh International Festival’s Opening Concert version featuring Sir Willard White. “She was an actress who could sing. This was a whole new way of writing opera and attempting to make it understandable. Weill’s main interest was to simplify music without losing its symphonic complexity.”

When combined with Brecht’s libretto about a town where the biggest crime is to be poor, Weill’s mish-mash of popular ragtime made for a bawdy satire on capitalism and of opera itself. Like the duo’s better-known ‘The Threepenny Opera,’ ‘Mahogonny’ was an east/west no-man’s-land clash of Weimar cabaret and Broadway oomph.

“Weill had his own musical language,” says Gruber, a towering figure and some-time collaborator with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

It’s easy to forget, however, how recently Brecht and Weill were embraced. ‘Mahogonny’s 1931 Leipzig premiere was disrupted by the Nazis, and it wasn’t performed in London until 1963. New York didn’t see a production until 1979. The last major production seen in Edinburgh was by Scottish Opera in 1986, while its most recent outing was in John Doyle’s 2007 Los Angeles Opera production.

The last Brecht/Weill piece to grace EIF was Francois Girard’s 2006 production of ‘The Lindbergh Flight’ and ‘The Seven Deadly Sins.’ Yet, from this year’s EIF programme’s stencilled block lettering onwards, as an opening statement, ‘Mahogonny’ is the perfect rude intrusion.

“’Mahogonny’ is about now,” Gruber maintains. “That’s why Weill keeps on being rediscovered.”

Gruber cites Steve Reich, John Adams and James MacMillan as Weill’s inheritors. It’s beyond the formal Classical world, however, where the Brecht/Weill canon has found a natural home. ‘Alabama Song’ itself has become as much of a standard as ‘The Threepenny Opera’s Louis Armstrong endorsed ‘Mack the Knife.’

Beyond The Doors and Bowie, Slapp Happy and Henry Cow singer Dagmar Krause played Jenny, originally played by Lenya, in a 1978 production of ‘Mahogonny,’ and recorded two albums of Brecht songs she later performed in Edinburgh. Mike Westbrook’s Brass Band performed Brecht/Weill material during the same period.

Out of the 1980s anti Thatcherite climate came The Happy End, a 21-piece brass band formed from London’s alternative theatre and busking scene and modelled loosely on Charlie Haden’s Liberation Orchestra. During a 1986 Edinburgh residency, The Happy End performed Brecht/Weill numbers alongside leftist protest anthems from across the globe. The same year, vocalist Sarah-Jane Morris topped the charts duetting with Jimmy Somerville on The Communards version of Thelma Houston’s 1970s disco hit, ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way,’ dedicated to the just abolished Greater London Council.

‘Chicago’ and ‘Cabaret’ star Ute Lemper recorded a version of ‘Mahogonny’ alongside two albums of Weill songs. Lemper also appeared in Pina Bausch’s ‘Kurt Weill Revue,’ while a post re-hab Marianne Faithfull understandably turned to such smoky material.

Today, the woozy, speak-easy Brecht/Weill aesthetic can be heard in Tom Waits’ junkyard orchestra growl and Nick Cave’s demonic bark. Nouveau cabaret troupe The Tiger Lillies are unmistakably Brecht/Weill inspired, while Boston duo The Dresden Dolls have Weill’s name emblazoned on their keyboard.

“He was a figure who showed the way,” Gruber says of Weill’s influence. “He showed how it was possible to write very modern music, but which also had the gift of saying everything in a very simple way. Together, that became revolutionary.”

The Opening Concert; ‘Rise And Fall Of The City Of Mahagonny’, Usher Hall, Friday August 8th, 7pm

The List, August 2008

ends

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