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Cast of ''Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny''''Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny'' from LA Opera

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Premiered on December 17, 2007 on PBS
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The worst excesses of American capitalism are clearly targeted by Brecht, who was becoming a more and more committed Marxist at the time, but he seems to have been thinking of the growing Nazi threat too. At any rate, the "Mahagonny Songspiel" made an explosive impression at its premiere in Baden-Baden. The loaded text offered a vision of a world propelled by twisted values, while the music was unexpectedly songfulat a time when many composers were taking much more complex paths (Weill replaced "dissonance with insolence," as Sanders writes). The jolt ignited very different reactions in the first audience. Some applauded and cheered heartily at the end; others made catcalls. Cast members whistled right back at the dissenters.

The response to the "Mahagonny Songspiel" provided a foretaste of what was to come when Brecht and Weill expanded upon the material to create the opera, which had a richer plot and made even sharper digs at American culture. Weill had a softer spot for the United States than Brecht (the composer would eventually emigrate to and flourish here), and that difference in outlook likely played a part in the gradual cooling of the relationship between the two men. But whatever disagreements they had over details or tone, they still managed to fashion a remarkable, combustible vehicle.

Today, it is easy to find in "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" not just Brecht's original dim view of capitalism, but also messages about the dangers of Nazi philosophy and, perhaps unknowingly on Brecht's part, a slap at the nirvana conjured up by communist governments. When the residents of Mahagonny learn that they are in the path of a horrible hurricane, one of the characters delivers what may be the most stinging observations in the opera: the destruction of a hurricane is nothing compared to what human beings can do to each other.

None of this went down well with the audience at the premiere in Leipzig. By that point, the Nazis were a force to be reckoned with, and had no use for satire, irony, or anything else remotely out of step. There were intimidating thugs in brown shirts outside the theater, Nazi sympathizers inside. Brecht stayed away, but Weill and his wife braved the situation, which got downright riotous by the end of the performance and was quelled only by the arrival of a large contingent of police. On the second night, the police were back to keep order, this time standing along the aisles. Performances in some other cities were canceled or disrupted. Clearly, the opera struck a raw nerve. It can still do that, as the vivid Los Angeles Opera production makes plain.

In 1931, while preparing for a Berlin performance of "Mahagonny," Weill and Brecht were at odds over revisions and cuts being made at the producer's request. Although the collaborators had by then created several other successful works together, they could not compromise here. In the end, there was shouting and the hiring of lawyers. At one point, as Weill walked away in a huff, Brecht screamed: "I'm going to throw that phoney Richard Strauss right down the stairs." It was the end of an exceptionally dynamic duo.

But, although short and bittersweet, the association of Weill and Brecht left a legacy that, more than 70 years later, remains as startling as ever.

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Top banner photo: Cast of ''Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny''

Steven Humes
photo: Steven Humes

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