Operas are often about sex, death and revenge. But “The Threepenny Opera” had one big difference when it premiered to sensational success in 1928 — it was also about dirt-poor criminal low-life.
Nearly 90 years later, Tacoma Opera is finally doing its first-ever production of the jazzy, raunchy opera that launched the whole musical theater genre, recreating Kurt Weill’s post-WWI Germany in the Rialto Theater for three shows this weekend.
“This is a new direction for us,” said Tacoma Opera general director Noel Koran, who’ll be stage directing. “We were looking for something a little edgier. …This fit the bill.”
Edgy is definitely the word for “The Threepenny Opera.” It’s the story of the charming-yet-ruthless criminal Macheath — a.k.a. Mack the Knife — who marries the pretty Polly Peachum only to find that her father, who runs the city’s beggar ring, doesn’t like the idea and contrives to have Mack hanged. Originally based on John Gay’s “Beggar’s Opera” of 200 years earlier, this opera thumbed its nose at Puccini and Verdi by pulling its cast from the ranks of society’s lowest: prostitutes, thieves, beggars. Playwright Bertolt Brecht intended it as a disruption to both traditional theater and society itself; composer Kurt Weill wrote it as a backlash to Wagner, a “complete destruction of the concept of music drama.”
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Which, of course, makes it a lot of fun to produce. Burlesque costumes, raffish villains and an “orchestra” that Weill scored like a New Orleans jazz combo, with eight musicians doubling on various wind and brass. (For this production, Denes van Parys leads from the piano.)
Koran, who directed “The Threepenny Opera” 10 years ago at Northwestern University, is setting this production squarely in the poverty-stricken Germany of the 1920s, when people were lugging buckets of Deutschmarks just to buy a loaf of bread. Inspired by Expressionist painters like Heckel and Kirschner, the set and costumes will have an angular, gritty look, Koran says.
But the other big difference between “The Threepenny Opera” and Puccini is that it’s basically a musical, with lengthy dialogue and a jazzy score that pulls from the pop culture of the time — the song “Mack the Knife” became one of the most popular of the 20th century.
“It was the precursor for shows like ‘Cabaret’ and ‘Chicago,’ even the ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show,’ ” says Koran. “This was the original counter-culture musical.”
Which might explain why the company is marketing the production as “All in the Family”-meets-“Pulp Fiction.”
“I think the goal is to expand our audience,” Koran says. “To bring in people that might not normally go to the standard operatic production.”
Yet it’s still a highly-composed classical piece, sung by highly-trained singers like Northwest tenor Timothy Janecke as Macheath, soprano Ksenia Popova as Polly, Tess Altiveros as Mack’s former lover Jenny Diver and Glen Guhr as Mr. Peachum.
And that, says Koran, makes “Threepenny” very different from the average musical.
“Weill used serious operatic structure,” he says. “There’s a chorale and a fugue. And using classically trained singers puts the emphasis on the music. It makes it seem more substantial. When these singers pump it out at the finale, it’s very impressive.”
The Threepenny Opera by Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht
Who: Tacoma Opera, directed by Noel Koran.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday (April 29) and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Rialto Theater, 310 S. Ninth St., Tacoma.