The Threepenny Opera
Original German poster from Berlin, 1928
Uncredited: François Villon (four songs translated by K. L. Ammer)
|Basis||The Beggar's Opera by John Gay, translated by Elisabeth Hauptmann|
|Premiere||31 August 1928: Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, Berlin|
The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper) is a "play with music" by Bertolt Brecht, adapted from a translation by Elisabeth Hauptmann of John Gay's 18th-century English ballad opera, The Beggar's Opera, and four ballads by François Villon, with music by Kurt Weill. Although there is debate as to how much, if any, Hauptmann might have contributed to the text, Brecht is usually listed as sole author.
In the winter of 1927-28, Elizabeth Hauptmann, Brecht's lover at the time, received a copy of Gay's play from friends in England and, fascinated by the female characters and its critique of the condition of the London poor, began translating it into German. Brecht at first took little interest in her translation project, but in April 1928 he attempted to interest the impresario Ernst Josef Aufricht in a play he was writing called Fleischhacker, which he had, in fact, already promised to another producer. Aufricht was seeking a production to launch his new theatre company at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in Berlin, but was not impressed by the sound of Fleischhacker. Brecht immediately proposed a translation of The Beggar's Opera instead, claiming that he himself had been translating it. He delivered Hauptmann's translation to Aufricht, who immediately signed a contract for it.
Brecht's major addition to Hauptmann's text was the addition of four songs by the French poet François Villon. Rather than translate the French himself, he used (uncredited) the translations by K. L. Ammer (Karl Anton Klammer), the same source he had been using since his earliest plays.
The score by Weill uses only one of the melodies which Johann Christoph Pepusch wrote for the original Beggar's Opera. The title Die Dreigroschenoper was determined only a week before the opening; it had been previously announced as simply The Beggar's Opera (in English), with the subtitle "Die Luden-Oper" ("The Pimp's Opera").
Writing in 1929, Weill made the political and artistic intents of the work clear:
With the Dreigroschenoper we reach a public which either did not know us at all or thought us incapable of captivating listeners [...] Opera was founded as an aristocratic form of art [...] If the framework of opera is unable to withstand the impact of the age, then this framework must be destroyed....In the Dreigroschenoper, reconstruction was possible insofar as here we had a chance of starting from scratch.
Weill claimed at the time that "music cannot further the action of the play or create its background", but achieves its proper value when it interrupts the action at the right moments."
Weill's score shows the influence of jazz and German dance music of the time. The orchestration involves a small ensemble with a good deal of doubling-up on instruments (in the original performances, for example, some 7 players covered a total of 23 instrumental parts, though modern performances typically use a few more players).
The Threepenny Opera was first performed at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in 1928 on a set designed by Caspar Neher. Despite an initially poor reception, it became a great success, playing 400 times in the next two years. The performance was a springboard for one of the best known interpreters of Brecht and Weill's work, Lotte Lenya, who was married to Weill. Ironically the production became a great favourite of Berlin's "smart set" - Count Harry Kessler recorded in his diary meeting at the performance an ambassador and a director of the Dresdner Bank (and their wives), and concluded "One simply has to have been there."
Critics did not fail to notice that Brecht had included the four Villon songs translated by Ammer. Brecht responded by saying that he had "a fundamental laxity in questions of literary property."
In the United Kingdom, the first fully staged performance was given on 9 February 1956, under Berthold Goldschmidt, although there had been a concert performance in 1933, and a semi-staged performance on 28 July 1938. In between, on 8 February 1935 Edward Clark conducted the first British broadcast of the work. It received scathing reviews from Ernest Newman and other critics. But the most savage criticism came from Weill himself, who described it privately as "... the worst performance imaginable ... the whole thing was completely misunderstood". But his criticisms seem to have been for the concept of the piece as a Germanised version of The Beggar's Opera, rather than for Clark's conducting of it, of which Weill made no mention.
The first American production, adapted into English by Gifford Cochran and Jerrold Krimsky and staged by Francesco von Mendelssohn, featured Robert Chisholm as Macheath. It opened on Broadway at the Empire Theatre, on April 13, 1933, and closed after 12 performances. Mixed reviews praised the music but slammed the production, with the critic Gilbert Gabriel calling it "a dreary enigma".
A French version produced by Gaston Baty and written by Ninon Steinhof and André Mauprey was presented in October 1930 at the Théâtre Montparnasse in Paris. It was rendered as L'Opéra de quat'sous; (quatre sous, or four pennies being the idiomatically equivalent French expression for Threepenny).
In 1930 the work was premiered in Moscow at the Kamerny Theatre, directed by Alexander Tairov. It was the only one of Brecht's works to be performed in Russia during his lifetime. Izvestia disapproved: "It is high time that our theatres ceased playing homage to petit-bourgeois bad taste and instead turned to more relevant themes."
The first Italian production, titled L'opera da tre soldi and directed by Giorgio Strehler, premiered at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan on 27 February 1956 in the presence of Bertolt Brecht. The cast included: Tino Carraro (Mackie), Mario Carotenuto (Peachum), Marina Bonfigli (Polly), Milly (Jenny), Enzo Tarascio (Chief of Police). The conductor was Bruno Maderna. Set designs were by Luciano Damiani and Teo Otto; costume design by Ezio Frigerio.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere cast, 31 August 1928|
Conductor: Theo Mackeben
|Macheath ("Mackie Messer"/"Mack the Knife"), London's greatest and most notorious criminal||tenor/baritone||Harald Paulsen|
|Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, the "Beggar's Friend", controller of all the beggars in London; conspires to have Mack hanged||baritone||Erich Ponto|
|Celia Peachum ("Frau Peachum"), Peachum's wife; helps him run the business||mezzo-soprano||Rosa Valetti|
|Polly Peachum, the Peachums' daughter; after knowing Mack for only five days, agrees to marry him||soprano||Roma Bahn|
|Jackie "Tiger" Brown, Police Chief of London and Mack's best friend from their army days||baritone||Kurt Gerron|
|Lucy Brown, Tiger Brown's daughter; claims to be married to Mack||soprano||Kate Kühl|
|Jenny ("Spelunken-Jenny"/"Low-Dive Jenny"/"Ginny Jenny"), a prostitute once romantically involved with Macheath; is bribed to turn Mack over to the police||mezzo-soprano||Lotte Lenya|
|Filch, a misfit young man who approaches the Peachums in hopes of beggar training||tenor||Naphtali Lehrmann|
|Street Singer ("Moritatensänger"), sings 'The Ballad of Mack the Knife' in the opening scene||baritone||Kurt Gerron|
|Smith, a constable||baritone||Ernst Busch|
|Beggars, gangsters, whores, constables|
Macheath ("Mackie," or "Mack the Knife") marries Polly Peachum. This displeases her father, who controls the beggars of London, and he endeavours to have Macheath hanged. His attempts are hindered by the fact that the Chief of Police, Tiger Brown, is Macheath's old army comrade. Still, Peachum exerts his influence and eventually gets Macheath arrested and sentenced to hang. Macheath escapes this fate via a deus ex machina moments before the execution when, in an unrestrained parody of a happy ending, a messenger from the Queen arrives to pardon Macheath and grant him the title of Baron. The details of the original 1928 text have often been substantially modified in later productions.
A draft narration by Brecht for a concert performance begins: "You are about to hear an opera for beggars. Since this opera was intended to be as splendid as only beggars can imagine, and yet cheap enough for beggars to be able to watch, it is called the Threepenny Opera."
A street singer entertains the crowd with the illustrated murder ballad or Bänkelsang, titled "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" ("Ballad of Mack the Knife"). As the song concludes, a well-dressed man leaves the crowd and crosses the stage. This is Macheath, alias "Mack the Knife".
The story begins in the shop of Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, the boss of London's beggars, who outfits and trains the beggars in return for a slice of their takings from begging. In the first scene, the extent of Peachum's iniquity is immediately exposed. Filch, a new beggar, is obliged to bribe his way into the profession and agree to pay over to Peachum 50 percent of whatever he made; the previous day he had been severely beaten up for begging within the area of jurisdiction of Peachum's protection racket.
After finishing with the new man, Peachum becomes aware that his grown daughter Polly did not return home the previous night. Peachum, who sees his daughter as his own private property, concludes that she has become involved with Macheath. This does not suit Peachum at all, and he becomes determined to thwart this relationship and destroy Macheath.
The scene shifts to an empty stable where Macheath himself is preparing to marry Polly once his gang has stolen and brought all the necessary food and furnishings. No vows are exchanged, but Polly is satisfied, and everyone sits down to a banquet. Since none of the gang members can provide fitting entertainment, Polly gets up and sings "Seeräuberjenny", a revenge fantasy in which she is a scullery maid turning pirate queen to order the execution of her bosses and customers. The gang becomes nervous when the Chief of Police, Tiger Brown, arrives, but it's all part of the act; Brown had served with Mack in England's colonial wars and had intervened on numerous occasions to prevent the arrest of Macheath over the years. The old friends duet in the "Kanonen-Song" ("Cannon Song" or "Army Song"). In the next scene, Polly returns home and defiantly announces that she has married Macheath by singing the "Barbarasong" ("Barbara Song"). She stands fast against her parents' anger, but she inadvertently reveals Brown's connections to Macheath which they subsequently use to their advantage.
Polly warns Macheath that her father will try to have him arrested. He is finally convinced that Peachum has enough influence to do it and makes arrangements to leave London, explaining the details of his bandit "business" to Polly so she can manage it in his absence. Before he leaves town, he stops at his favorite brothel, where he sees his ex-lover, Jenny. They sing the "Zuhälterballade" ("Pimp's Ballad", one of the Villon songs translated by Ammer) about their days together, but Macheath doesn't know Mrs Peachum has bribed Jenny to turn him in. Despite Brown's apologies, there's nothing he can do, and Macheath is dragged away to jail. After he sings the "Ballade vom angenehmen Leben" ("Ballad of the Pleasant Life"), another Villon/Ammer song, another girlfriend, Lucy (Brown's daughter) and Polly show up at the same time, setting the stage for a nasty argument that builds to the "Eifersuchtsduett" ("Jealousy Duet"). After Polly leaves, Lucy engineers Macheath's escape. When Mr Peachum finds out, he confronts Brown and threatens him, telling him that he will unleash all of his beggars during Queen Victoria's coronation parade, ruining the ceremony and costing Brown his job.
Jenny comes to the Peachums' shop to demand her money for the betrayal of Macheath, which Mrs Peachum refuses to pay. Jenny reveals that Macheath is at Suky Tawdry's house. When Brown arrives, determined to arrest Peachum and the beggars, he is horrified to learn that the beggars are already in position and only Mr Peachum can stop them. To placate Peachum, Brown's only option is to arrest Macheath and have him executed. In the next scene, Macheath is back in jail and desperately trying to raise a sufficient bribe to get out again, even as the gallows are being assembled.
Soon it becomes clear that neither Polly nor the gang members can, or are willing to, raise any money, and Macheath prepares to die. He laments his fate and poses the 'Marxist' questions: "What's picking a lock compared to buying shares? What's breaking into a bank compared to founding one? What's murdering a man compared to employing one?" (These questions did not appear in the original version of the work, but first appeared in the musical Happy End, another Brecht/Weill/Hauptmann collaboration, in 1929 - they may in fact have been written not by Brecht, but by Hauptmann).
Macheath asks everyone for forgiveness ("Grave Inscription"). Then a sudden and intentionally comical reversal: Peachum announces that in this opera mercy will prevail over justice and that a messenger on horseback will arrive ("Walk to Gallows"); Brown arrives as that messenger and announces that Macheath has been pardoned by the queen and granted a title, a castle and a pension. The cast then sings the Finale, which ends with a plea that wrongdoing not be punished too harshly as life is harsh enough.
2. Die Moritat von Mackie Messer ("The Ballad of Mack the Knife" - Street singer)
3. Morgenchoral des Peachum (Peachum's Morning Choral - Peachum, Mrs Peachum)
4. Anstatt dass-Song (Instead of Song - Peachum, Mrs Peachum)
5. Hochzeits-Lied (Wedding Song - Four Gangsters)
6. Seeräuberjenny (Pirate Jenny - Polly)[N 1]
7. Kanonen-Song (Cannon Song - Macheath, Brown)
8. Liebeslied (Love Song - Polly, Macheath)
9. Barbarasong (Barbara Song - Polly)[N 2]
10. I. Dreigroschenfinale (First Threepenny Finale - Polly, Peachum, Mrs Peachum)
11a. Polly's Lied (Polly's Song - Polly)
12. Ballade von der sexuellen Hörigkeit (Ballad of Sexual Dependency - Mrs Peachum)[N 3]
13. Zuhälterballade (Pimp's Ballad or Tango Ballad - Jenny, Macheath)
14. Ballade vom angenehmen Leben (Ballad of the Pleasant Life - Macheath)
15. Eifersuchtsduett (Jealousy Duet - Lucy, Polly)
15b. Arie der Lucy (Aria of Lucy - Lucy)
16. II. Dreigroschenfinale (Second Threepenny Finale - Macheath, Mrs Peachum, Chorus)[N 4]
17a. Reminiszenz (Reminiscence)
18. Salomonsong (Solomon Song - Jenny)
19. Ruf aus der Gruft (Call from the Grave - Macheath)
20. Grabschrift (Grave Inscription - Macheath)
20a. Gang zum Galgen (Walk to Gallows - Peachum)
21. III. Dreigroschenfinale (Third Threepenny Finale - Brown, Mrs Peachum, Peachum, Macheath, Polly, Chorus)
The ambivalent nature of The Threepenny Opera, derived from an 18th-century ballad opera but conceived in terms of 20th-century musical theatre, has led to discussion as how it can best be characterised. According to critic and musicologist Hans Keller, the work is "the weightiest possible lowbrow opera for highbrows and the most full-blooded highbrow musical for lowbrows".
The Weill authority Stephen Hinton notes that "generic ambiguity is a key to the work's enduring success", and points out the work's deliberate hybrid status:
For Weill [The Threepenny Opera] was not just 'the most consistent reaction to [Richard] Wagner'; it also marked a positive step towards an operatic reform. By explicitly and implicitly shunning the more earnest traditions of the opera house, Weill created a mixed form which incorporated spoken theatre and popular musical idioms. Parody of operatic convention - of Romantic lyricism and happy endings - constitutes a central device.
The work's opening and closing lament, "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer", was written just before the Berlin premiere, when actor Harald Paulsen (Macheath) threatened to quit if his character did not receive an introduction; this creative emergency resulted in what would become the work's most popular song, later translated into English by Marc Blitzstein as "Mack the Knife" and now a jazz standard that Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Michael Bublé, Robbie Williams, Ray Quinn, and countless others have covered. In 2015 the Library of Congress added "Mack the Knife" by Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin to the National Recording Registry.
"Pirate Jenny" is another well-known song from the work, which has since been recorded by Nina Simone, Judy Collins, Tania Tsanaklidou, and Marc Almond, among others. In addition, Steeleye Span recorded it under the alternate title "The Black Freighter". Recently, the drag queen Sasha Velour has made an adaptation by the same name for an installment of One Dollar Drags, an anthology of short films.
Under the title "What Keeps Mankind Alive?", this number has been recorded by the Pet Shop Boys on the B-side of their 1993 single "Can You Forgive Her?", and on two albums. Tom Waits covered it on two albums, and William S. Burroughs performed it in a 1994 documentary.
After World War II the first theater performance in Berlin was a rough production of The Threepenny Opera at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm. Wolf Von Eckardt described the 1945 performance where audience members climbed over ruins and passed through a tunnel to reach the open-air auditorium deprived of its ceiling. In addition to the smell of dead bodies trapped beneath the rubble, Eckardt recollects the actors themselves were "haggard, starved, [and] in genuine rags. Many of the actors ... had only just been released from concentration camp. They sang not well, but free."
The Pabst film The Threepenny Opera was shown in its French version in 1931. In 1937 there was a production by Aufricht at the Théâtre de l'Étoile which failed, though Brecht himself had attended rehearsals. The work was not revived in France until after World War II.
In 2014, the Robert David MacDonald and Jeremy Sams translation (previously used in 1994 at the Donmar Warehouse) toured the UK, presented by the Graeae Theatre Company with Nottingham Playhouse, New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich, Birmingham Repertory Theatre and West Yorkshire Playhouse.
In 1946, four performances of the work were given at the University of Illinois in Urbana, and Northwestern University gave six performances in 1948 in Evanston, Illinois. In 1952, Leonard Bernstein conducted a concert performance of the work at the Brandeis University Creative Arts Festival in the Adolph Ullman Amphitheatre, Waltham, Massachusetts, to an audience of nearly 5,000. Marc Blitzstein, who translated the work, narrated.
Regional productions include one at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Massachusetts, in June and July 2003. Directed by Peter Hunt, the musical starred Jesse L. Martin as Mack, Melissa Errico as Polly, David Schramm as Peachum, Karen Ziemba as Lucy Brown and Betty Buckley as Jenny. The production received favorable reviews.
In 1989 an American version (renamed Mack the Knife) was released, directed by Menahem Golan, with Raul Julia as Macheath, Richard Harris as Peachum, Julie Walters as Mrs Peachum, Bill Nighy as Tiger Brown, Julia Migenes as Jenny, and Roger Daltrey as the Street Singer.
In 2009, BBC Radio 3 in collaboration with the BBC Philharmonic broadcast a complete radio production of the Michael Feingold translation directed by Nadia Molinari with the music performed by the BBC Philharmonic. The cast included Joseph Millson as Macheath, Elen Rhys as Polly/Whore, Ruth Alexander-Rubin as Mrs Peachum/Whore, Zubin Varla as Mr. Peachum/Rev. Kimball, Rosalie Craig as Lucy/Whore, Ute Gfrerer as Jenny, Conrad Nelson as Tiger Brown and HK Gruber as the Ballad Singer.
Recordings are in German, unless otherwise specified.
Newsletter of the literary division of the American Translators Association.Summer 2009