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To-Do List: Indy Opera's 'Threepenny'

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Rudolf Forster played Mackie Messer in the director GW Pabst's 1931 film version of The Threepenny Opera.
  • Rudolf Forster played Mackie Messer in the director GW Pabst's 1931 film version of The Threepenny Opera.

The leaner, perhaps meaner Indianapolis Opera kicks off its all 20th-century season this weekend with The Threepenny Opera, a 1928 product of Weimar Germany that gave us "Mack the Knife," "Pirate Jenny" and the "alienation effect."

A little more on that last one: "alienation effect." One one level, the plot of Threepenny — about a marriage between London's most successful thief and the daughter of the king of all of London's beggars — subverts and parodies all that is thought good by the middle classes (the free market, marriage, not begging).

But if that weren't enough of a challenge to the audience, Bertolt Brecht, who wrote the libretto to Kurt Weill's music, also made use of techniques that compromised the "believability" of the play: unnatural acting, a fragmented narrative, titles describing the action of a scene before the beginning of said scene (during an era when an audience wasn't accustomed to reading a synopsis of the entire play or opera before they sat down to watch it).

In other words, Brecht was looking to give the audience both more and less than it expected in terms of entertainment. A little bit of sugar (song, dance, action) helped the medicine of political agitation go down much more easily. And Weill's music, which was as radical for its time as Brecht's libretto in its incorporation of jazz and cabaret music, was meant, according to Brecht, to be "an active collaborator in the stripping bare of the middle-class corpus of ideas."

Spoiler alert: Capitalism and the middle class proved more than able to withstand the attacks of hard-line Marxists like Brecht. But Threepenny is performed today because it works on other levels. It's musically satisfying, psychologically acute — and, maybe above all, it affords us the sort of morbid pleasures that we've found in listening to accounts of violence and underworld chicanery since time immemorial. From the time of the troubadours through "Mack the Knife" and "Sweeney Todd," there's just something about murder ballad set to a snappy beat. Which makes The Threepenny Opera a perfect Halloween show.

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TO-DO LIST

(For those who'd like to do a little more research)

SEE The Threepenny Opera (1931, dir. G.W. Pabst)

Released three years after Threepenny's stage premiere, then banned in 1933 by the Nazi Party, Pabst's film adaptation is a Weimar Germany time capsule that departs significantly from the opera's script but retains its blunt, uncompromising tone and politics. Available on a typically loaded Criterion DVD.

READ The Beggar's Opera (1728, by John Gay)

Gay answered Jonathan Swift's challenge to write a "Newgate pastoral" — that is, a sentimental, sympathetic work about London's Newgate prison — with a parody of Italian opera starring and celebrating prostitutes and thieves. Brecht and Weill used much of the plot and many of the characters for Threepenny.

HEAR "Pirate Jenny," performed by Nina Simone (Nina Simone in Concert, 1964)

Jenny, Macheath's prostitute buddy, moves from London to a flophouse in the South in Simone's unforgiving, vengeful rendition. Simone's whispered answer to "Kill them now or later?" is just about heart-stopping; peace and reconciliation are out of the question here.

HEAR "What Keeps Mankind Alive?" performed by Tom Waits (Lost in the Stars, 1985)

Who better than Waits, accompanied by his Salvation Army band from hell, to croak out Brecht's hard truths? "What keeps mankind alive? / The fact that millions are daily tortured / Stifled, punished, silenced and oppressed."

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