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Composers Datebook: Weill's "Three-Penny Opera"

August 31, 2010

Below you can find today's Composers Datebook, discussing Kurt Weill's Three-Penny Opera.


Composers Datebook audio


Weill's Three-penny Opera in Berlin


On today's date in 1928, Kurt Weill's Three-Penny Opera debuted at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, a small, but opulent Baroque-style theater in Berlin. It must have seemed a rather ironic setting for Kurt Weill's "opera for beggars," whose cast members portrayed thieves, murderers, prostitutes and other low-lifes.


The Three-Penny Opera was a 20th century updating of an 18th century British ballad-opera by John Gay, titled "The Beggar's Opera." The new German text was provided by playwright Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill provided a jazzy score, which was played by the seven piece Ruth Lewis Band, led by its keyboard player, Theo Mackeben.


The Three-Penny Opera was a smash success, and within a year was taken up by theaters all over Europe. But in 1933, when the Nazis came to power in Germany, all performances of The Three-Penny Opera were banned, since Kurt Weill was Jewish, and Bertolt Brecht a communist sympathizer.


Ironically, just as The Three-Penny Opera was being banned in Germany, its American premiere in 1933 was a flop, and the show closed after only a dozen performances in New York.


It wasn't until 1952 that The Three-Penny Opera was successfully staged in America. In a new English translation by the American composer Marc Bliztstein, the Three-Penny Opera was reintroduced by Leonard Bernstein at a Music Festival at Brandeis University, and soon reopened on Broadway to sold-out houses and rave reviews.

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