Today's world would be barely recognizable to people living in past centuries. But although there have indeed been dramatic changes in the world itself, its human inhabitants seem to have changed very little. Now, as then, our species is still fighting the same moral and societal battles.
This contention will be explored later this month when West Edge Opera presents its "City of Sin," a double bill of one-act operas telling the tales of two cities. Although each city exists in a different era and locale, the human characters in each could be interchangeable. The first, "Mahagonny Songspiel," was completed in Germany in 1927, and the second, "Vera of Las Vegas," in the United States in 2003.
"Mahagonny Songspiel" is a haunting, musically mesmerizing work born from the first collaboration between the poet-playwright Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill. It had its premiere as part of a chamber music festival in Baden-Baden. Lasting only about 45 minutes, the "Mahagonny Songspiel" was an experimental precursor to three-act opera, "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny," which premiered in Leipzig in 1930 and was banned by the Nazis three years later.
According to Brecht scholars, Mahagonny as a city seems to adopt the Marxist view of capitalism as a relentless quest to gain wealth as it equates its power-holders with a gang of bandits. One writer suggests that it was probably intended as a satirical parable of the capitalist
Mark Streshinsky, the West Edge artistic director, notes that Weill and Brecht use the cabaret and jazz styles as "musical weapons to irresistibly entertain their audiences," even as they sketch a devastating allegory of basic human desires and their inevitable frustration.
While Weill's compelling music is driven by strong, jazzy rhythms and dubious tonalities, it can still sound carefree. Nonetheless, the sometimes odd and unpredictably changing tonalities punctuating his simple and appealing melodies insidiously weave a seductive spell. Examples can be identified in his "Alabama Song," "Mandalay Song" and "Life in Mahagonny."
The Weill and Brecht collaboration eventually produced "Three Penny Opera," an international hit that was translated into 18 different languages and performed all over the world. A host of musical greats that include Lotte Lenya (Weill's wife), Louis Armstrong, Ute Lemper, Frank Sinatra, the Doors, Bobby Darin, Max Raabe, Teresa Stratas, Anne Sofie von Otter and Marianne Faithfull have all recorded and popularized many of their works, such as "Mack the Knife" and "Pirate Jenny."
Featured singers in the West Edge "Mahagonny" cast will be Laura Bohn, Aimee Puentes, Thomas Glenn, Michael Desnoyers, Paul Murray and Daniel Cilli. Director is Elkanah Pulitzer, and Jonathan Khuner will conduct.
The other half of the double bill, "Vera of Las Vegas," tells a similarly satirical tale of social pariahs ending up in Las Vegas and carousing until they collapse. The work is a collaboration of two contemporary prize-winning artists: poet Paul Muldoon and composer Daron Hagen. But, as in "Mahagonny," there is deeper meaning simmering beneath the surface. Streshinsky calls it an "American dream-gone-wrong opera, set in the quintessential city of illusory hopes."
The story depicts two former IRA operatives who, "while trying to escape their nightmares, become enmeshed in a surrealistic Vegas fantasy of sex and identity confusion." Streshinsky describes the score as a sophisticated and delightful "mashup of contemporary popular music idioms," especially reorchestrated by Hagen to be played by a 1920s-style cabaret band as a complement to "Mahagonny."
The key role of Vera, the femme fatale, will be filled by renowned countertenor Brian Asawa, a Merola alumnus and former Adler Fellow who was the first countertenor to win the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 1991. Heidi Moss Sali, Bohn, Murray, Glenn, Desnoyers, Puentes and Cilli. Khuner will conduct, and Streshinsky will direct.
Contact Cheryl North at firstname.lastname@example.org.
'city of sin'
West Edge Opera
presents Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's "Mahagonny Songspiel" and Daron Hagen and Paul Muldoon's "Vera of Las Vegas"
When: 3 p.m. July 29 and Aug. 5, and 8 p.m. Aug. 3
Where: Performing Arts
Theater at El Cerrito High School, 540 Ashbury Ave.,
Tickets: $15 to $69
Contact: 510-841-1903, www.westedgeopera.org
Warning: The show has adult situations and language not appropriate for children.