Bertolt Brecht: Opera's Voice of Reason

Monday, April 28, 2014 - 04:00 PM

In 1949, German playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898-1955) wrote, “By representing humanity and its development in artistic terms, literature makes its extraordinary contribution to human self-knowledge.” Brecht and his works have been on my mind a lot in the past year or so and I have seen how his aesthetic finds its place in opera.

The fact that Brecht’s creations and ideas can still divide opinion—some people see him as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century; others will go nowhere near a theater presenting anything with his name attached to it—says a great deal about his importance, his relevance and his timelessness. Brecht wrote texts for two classic operas with music by Kurt Weill (1900-1950): The Threepenny Opera (1928) and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930), perhaps his masterpiece with its chilling phrase “Nothing you can do can save a dead man.” In the world of this opera full of exploitation and lawlessness, the biggest crime of all is not having money. 

Brecht referred to his style as epic theater, a term previously used by the German director Erwin Piscator. When I studied Brecht in college, the phrase often applied to his works was “alienation and despair.” In most references nowadays, only “alienation” is used, often in connection with “epic theater.” Theorists have debated for decades what this means. I think Brecht asks his audience to react more with reason than emotion. His words, and the way his scenes are constructed, seek to distance the viewer so that the issues presented can be considered dispassionately.

Brecht also theorized about the “separation of elements” so that—unlike opera—words, music and staging would not be considered best used when seamlessly combined. Rather, these elements would “compete” for the attention of the audience and each would, separately and independently, serve to address the audience on the issues and ideas of a play.

Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, though based on a play from the 1830s by Georg Büchner, was composed in the early 1920s and had its premiere in Berlin on Dec. 14, 1925. Brecht had moved to Berlin earlier that year to become assistant dramaturg at the hugely influential Deutsches Theater headed by Max Reinhardt. I don’t know if Brecht attended Wozzeck when it opened, but the opera—a concatenation of free-standing scenes—is structured like much Brechtian theater.  

Wozzeck was recently performed at the Metropolitan Opera with James Levine leading a strong cast headed by Thomas Hampson in the title role and Deborah Voigt as his mistress Marie. The superb production, by Mark Lamos, contains the distancing and detaching aspects of Brecht. The result is that we understand the tragedy of the two leading characters and recognize the degradation and futility of war, but perhaps we do not form a deep emotional response to the drama. I would argue that in this opera and also in the works of Brecht, we may connect to the stories in a more rigorous intellectual way, but this does not prevent the heart from being tugged and the spirit moved if we allow that to happen.

The Threepenny Opera was inspired by John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. Lotte Lenya (1898-1981), became the leading advocate for Threepenny after the deaths of Weill (her husband) in 1950 and Brecht in 1955. There is a compelling production of the opera right now at New York’s Atlantic Theater Company.

The most Brechtian musical performance I have seen in a long time was Bryn Terfel as Sweeney Todd, a role I have seen him do in Chicago, London and, magnificently, last month at Avery Fisher Hall with Emma Thompson a brilliant Mrs. Lovett and Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic in stupendous form in a thrilling production by Lonny Price. I understand the performance was recorded for video and presentation on public television and you should not miss it.

To me, Sweeney Todd is Stephen Sondheim’s Threepenny Opera. Both present an ice-cold and detached view of a mass killer in London. While Threepenny is a series of scenes in different musical and structural forms, Sweeney has a more unified dramatic arc, although the music comes in many styles and we experience a Brechtian distancing from the characters that makes us understand them without developing deep emotional attachment to them.

Fundamental Questions

Brecht used history to create parables for contemporary audiences. Mother Courage and Her Children (1941), which recently had a fine production starring Kathleen Turner at Washington’s Arena Stage, asks all kinds of the most basic and existential questions about the value of human life when money and war become part of the calculation. The title character has three children whom she seeks to protect during the long and pointless Thirty Years War (1618-1648). And yet she also profits from war and, in so doing, helps perpetuate a horror that ultimately destroys her family. This play is full of music that is both entertaining and, by choice, deeply alienating.

In 1937 came The Life of Galileo, about the Italian astronomer (1564-1642) who insisted the Earth and other planets revolve around the sun. The play depicts the persecution of Galileo by the Catholic Church. It acquired new meaning in Brecht’s own life in America. Although clearly anti-Nazi (the reason he left Germany), Brecht was thought by some American politicians to be a dangerous figure and he was persecuted as World War II came to an end. This inspired a second version of the play, simply called Galileo, that premiered in Los Angeles in July 1947.

Brecht was made to testify before the U.S. House Unamerican Activities Committee on October 30, 1947 and decided to leave America the following day, settling in East Germany. Galileo is also the title character in a 2002 opera by Philip Glass that Cincinnati Opera staged in 2013.

The Good Person of Szechwan (1943) had a bracing new production last fall at the Public Theater in New York. This is the story with music of a woman who suffers deeply for her conviction that she must lead a life of goodness no matter how much cruelty she is subjected to.

Sad to say, we still live in a world in which the great artistry of Bertolt Brecht is essential for human self-knowledge. When will we learn?


More in:

Comments [3]

Glen Boisseau Becker from Harmony, Florida

Belated thanks for a very gracious response (and I'm sorry to realize that you have space constraints).

This weekend, after trying to remember where I first encountered your name, I happened on an old NEW YORK TIMES clipping, an article that mentioned your book OPERA 101. Glancing up, I immediately spotted the book on my shelf. Thank you for an especially fine contribution to the printed literature on this topic!


May. 05 2014 05:57 PM
Fred Plotkin

To Mr. Becker, Thanks for your comments. There is always a lot more to say on many topics, and that certainly applies to Brecht. You might not know that I have a word limit on my articles that I must adhere to. Some subjects can be dealt with in that space while others need a lot more. I agree that I could have surely devoted more space to any number of many Brechtian topics. The core of this piece was about how I was noting Brechtian ideas and style in many stage works recently, including plays, musicals and operas. The quotation I cite at the top of the article actually came from an exhibition (not about Brecht) at the Art Institute of Chicago. I have been seeing Brechtian influence in lots of places, so much so that there seemed to be a convergence. For example, the Sweeney Todd at the NY Philharmonic was more Brechtian than even the Brecht works I attended. My goal with the article was to inspire interest in Brecht and, frankly, to put his name before the many reasons who (sad to say) have no idea who he was and what he did.

May. 01 2014 01:12 AM
Glen Boisseau Becker from Harmony, FL

What an odd article! In somewhat random-seeming fashion, Plotkin does manage to summarize a couple of Brecht's key stylistic ideas, as well as some associations, some influences, and some sense of their importance. The Brechtian approach does indeed have the power to touch the head, the heart, and the conscience of a receptive audience member. Plotkin communicates this, however, without clearly suggesting Brecht's contempt for grand opera OR his centrality in the world of modern German musical theater (including works that might or might not be considered opera).

I would have liked to see at least four more paragraphs, discussing

(1) the evolution of Brecht's career as a scriptwriter for musical plays with songs composed, in turn, by himself, by Kurt Weill, by Hans Eisler, and by Paul Dessau;

(2) the disturbing children's opera DER JASAGER, which Weill and Brecht wrote together;

(3) the unjustly neglected modern operas DIE VERURTEILUNG DES LUKULLUS and PUNTILA, by Dessau and Brecht; and

(4) the influence of this tradition on other authors of musical plays, like Peter Weiss, and on opera composers like Hans Werner Henze.

Alas, Plotkin does not even mention which composers supplied the scores for the Arena Stage and Public Theater versions of Brecht plays he wants us to know about. Is the music important or not?

Of course, a really detailed article would have to explain, first, how Brecht liberally stole ideas from other writers, and second, why he rewrote GALILEO (twice) and revised many of the other works mentioned to reflect his changing ideological attitudes. Brecht, who may have identified with this character in some ways, strongly rejected the idea of Galileo as a heroic figure, ultimately portraying him as an abject coward who capitulated to the demands of the power elite.

Plotkin seems pleased by the opportunity to drop in a reference to Glass's opera; I happen to be more partial to Ezra Laderman's GALILEO GALILEI. But neither work has any particularly direct connection to Brecht.

In short, I somehow feel as if I've just read an article about opera librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal that briefly zeroed in on DER ROSENKAVALIER and on the play JEDERMANN before meandering around the question of how the classical past could shake the soul of a romantic artist (presumably including the journalist who authored the article). In the process, however, ELEKTRA, ARIADNE AUF NAXOS, and ARABELLA have been completely overlooked.

Apr. 29 2014 07:17 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

The WQXR e-newsletter. Show highlights, links to music news, on-demand concerts, events from The Greene Space and more.

Follow WQXR 







About Operavore


Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

Follow Operavore