Bertolt Brecht: Opera's Voice of Reason

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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?