Mack the Knife and his colorful entourage of petty thieves and streetwalkers return to the stage Feb. 4 in Madison Opera’s new production of “The Threepenny Opera.” By author Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill, the gritty classic on social injustice in Victorian London runs for seven performances.
Madison Opera’s more intimate mid-season offering this year, “Threepenny” distinguishes itself by employing two of American Players Theatre’s most prominent actors in key roles. James DeVita plays crime boss Macheath (a.k.a. Mack the Knife) and Tracy Michelle Arnold plays prostitute Jenny Diver. This is DeVita’s first singing role.
Other “Threepenny” cast members include baritone David Barron as Mr. Peachum and soprano Alicia Bernecke as Polly Peachum. Both performers are making their Madison Opera debut in the production, which is directed by Broadway’s Dorothy Danner, sister-in-law to actor Blythe Danner.
“‘The Threepenny Opera’ is a social satire that is basically a comedy, despite all its political and philosophical underpinnings,” Danner says. “It’s a tough, ironic, stylized piece that parallels the underbelly of society with respectable society, and so (it) must be peopled by murderers, thieves and prostitutes.”
“The Threepenny Opera,” adapted from John Gay’s 19th-century play “The Beggar’s Opera,” is appealing on multiple levels. Its dark humor, social consciousness and multiple forms of musical styles make the 1928 work highly accessible to non-opera buffs.
“Weill’s music is bawdy, it has a music hall quality, and in his vocal writings the ruffians are meant to sound harsh and aggressive, so it certainly takes on an edge reflective of the story,” says John DeMain, Madison Opera’s artistic director and maestro for the Madison Symphony Orchestra. “But when you’re talking about sophisticated composers like Weill, there is an element of craft that raises the music beyond the obvious.”
Weill’s music hall rhythms and crossover tendencies follow a structure that elevates the work compositionally, DeMain says, much like Bizet’s use of habanera and seguidilla dance rhythms in “Carmen” add an element of realism without sacrificing the opera’s artistic brilliance. Frequent use of the harmonium adds a folk quality, while the reliance on brass without the tempering influences of strings creates a stark character to the music, compositionally designed to reflect the scenario’s dark, seamy characteristics, DeMain explains.
“The counterpoint in Weill’s writing – the fugues and compositional techniques inside these numbers – make it feel as if you’re listening to a much more sophisticated piece of music than it may at first seem,” he adds.
Demain worked at length with DeVita, as did Madison vocal coach Andy Abrams, to help the actor develop the proper tone and quality for Macheath, a role that at times has been played by Raul Julia, Alan Cumming and Sting. DeVita’s lack of formal musical training did not deter him from embracing the criminal role, which he said appealed to him both for its social commentary and its artistic challenge.
“I am always intrigued by the challenge of humanizing villains, never to justify their actions but to make them plausible to the audience and, therefore, more frightening,” DeVita says. “By humanizing villainous characters, we see the potential of evil in all human beings. And that, for me, is far more frightening.”
The libretto by Brecht, whose socialist leanings turned an operatic work into social commentary, is an indictment against a bourgeois class that chose to ignore the poverty and despair of the lower classes, DeVita says. Macheath’s sentiment in the song “How to Survive” best sums up Brecht’s social commentary: “First feed the face, then talk right and wrong. For even honest folk may act like sinners, unless they’ve had their customary dinners.”
It’s a characteristic we all share, company members say, and an awareness that “The Threepenny Opera” would like to awaken in its audiences.
“Brecht was a proponent of ‘epic theater,’ which attempts to make an audience reason rather than feel, to teach the audience to identify social injustices rather than just be entertained,” Danner says. “A man loses his house, then steals to feed his family, while the banker gains monetarily by enticing him into a sub-prime mortgage that is bound to fail. Who is the more dangerous criminal?”