The Threepenny Opera
For the 1931 film, see The Threepenny Opera (1931 film).
For the 1990 film, see Mack the Knife (1989 film).
The Threepenny Opera
|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:
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."
By 1933, when Weill and Brecht were forced to leave Germany by the Nazi seizure of power, the play had been translated into 18 languages and performed more than 10,000 times on European stages.
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".
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 conductor was Bruno Maderna.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere cast, August 31, 1928|
|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.
Die Moritat von Mackie Messer ("The Ballad of Mack the Knife" – Street singer)
Morgenchoral des Peachum (Peachum's Morning Choral – Peachum, Mrs Peachum) 14.
Anstatt dass-Song (Instead of Song – Peachum, Mrs Peachum) 15.
Hochzeits-Lied (Wedding Song – Four Gangsters) 16.
Seeräuberjenny (Pirate Jenny – Polly) 17.
Kanonen-Song (Cannon Song – Macheath, Brown) 18.
Liebeslied (Love Song – Polly, Macheath) 19.
Barbarasong (Barbara Song – Polly) 10.
I. Dreigroschenfinale (First Threepenny Finale – Polly, Peachum, Mrs Peachum)
11.a Melodram (Melodrama – Macheath) 11a.
Polly's Lied (Polly's Song – Polly) 12.a Ballade von der sexuellen Hörigkeit (Ballad of Sexual Dependency – Mrs Peachum) 13.a Zuhälterballade (Pimp's Ballad or Tango Ballad – Jenny, Macheath) 14.a Ballade vom angenehmen Leben (Ballad of the Pleasant Life – Macheath) 15.a Eifersuchtsduett (Jealousy Duet – Lucy, Polly) 15b.
Arie der Lucy (Aria of Lucy – Lucy) 16.a II.
Dreigroschenfinale (Second Threepenny Finale – Macheath, Mrs Peachum, Chorus)
17.a Lied von der Unzulänglichkeit menschlichen Strebens (Song of the Insufficiency of Human Struggling – Peachum) 17a.
Reminiszenz (Reminiscence) 18.a Salomonsong (Solomon Song – Jenny) 19.a Ruf aus der Gruft (Call from the Grave – Macheath) 20.a Grabschrift (Grave Inscription – Macheath) 20a.
Gang zum Galgen (Walk to Gallows – Peachum) 21.a III.
Dreigroschenfinale (Third Threepenny Finale – Brown, Mrs Peachum, Peachum, Macheath, Polly, Chorus)
Credits to the contents of this page go to the authors of the corresponding Wikipedia page: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The Threepenny Opera.