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Life is a Cabaret – or Maybe Not!

New York
The DiCapo Opera Theatre
01/16/2009 -  & January 17, 2009
Kurt Weill: Lily: Her Life, His Music
Audrey Babcock (Lily), Ray Fellman (Pianist and Music Director)
James Marvel (Director), David Majzlin (Sound, Web, and Graphic Design), Vita Tzykun (Production Design), Tlaloc Lopez-Watermann (Lighting Design), Katy Tucker (Projection Design)

(© Corey Weaver)

Mezzo soprano Audrey Babcock wrote and produced Lily, a one-woman show that is a fictionalized account of the life of Lily Weiss, a German cabaret singer, told through the music of Kurt Weill.

The story of Lily is dark and dismal. In Berlin, she is beaten by an abusive lover named Johnny and left penniless. She escapes to Paris, where she works as a prostitute. Unlucky in love once again, Lily is betrayed by her lesbian lover, Jenny, who reports her to a German officer. Lily runs for her life and stows away on a ship bound for America, hoping that her bad luck will change. And it does. In Hollywood, she finds success singing in a nightclub and, presumably, lives happily ever after.

The travels of Lily from Berlin to Paris and then to Hollywood mirror the journey of Kurt Weill. So I was rather surprised to see that (with some exceptions in the Berlin segment and the last song of the evening) the songs sung by Ms. Babcock did not reflect Weill’s location when he composed them. Nor was there a list provided of the many wonderful songs she sang. Audience members not already familiar with Weill’s music would be unable to track down a song they particularly liked. This is a serious but easily corrected omission.

Weill was born in Dessau Germany in March 1900. His father was a cantor. As a child he became interested in music and, by the age of twelve, he was mounting performances of his own music and dramatic works in the hall above the family home. He was trained in one of the bastions of the music establishment, studying with Engelbert Humperdinck at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik. Later he was taught composition by Ferruccio Busoni.

In the 1920’s, Germany – and Berlin in particular -- was a place of exciting artistic and intellectual activity. Weill could not wait to play his part. Just after his studies ended, he began his first collaboration with well-known playwright, Georg Kaiser. It was quite a coup for Weill when Kaiser asked him to rework his one act drama, Der Protagonist, and turn it into an opera. Kaiser was important to Weill for another reason: it was while visiting his house that Weill met his future wife, Lotte Lenya.

A year later, Weill received a commission to write a piece for the Baden-Baden Music Festival. By then, he had come to know the rising young playwright, Bertolt Brecht and they decided to collaborate on a musical adaptation of several of Brecht’s poems. The result was Mahagonny, a work that marked a permanent departure from the intellectual complexity of Weill’s earlier compositions. From that point on, Weill was a composer of songs, often with ravishingly beautiful melodies. One example is the “Alabama song.” Sung by Lenya in the premiere, it features in Lily as well. The audience reaction was shock. At the end, some whistled but Weill and Brecht were prepared: the cast had whistles and they blew them at the audience. Later, Weill and Brecht expanded their chamber opera to a full length work. Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny(The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny) premiered in Leipzig in March, 1930.

The Baden-Baden production made use of a simple set with backdrop projections of characteristic German expressionist scenes. Such projections were a common device in this period, most notoriously in a production of The Good Soldier Schweik. The artist Georg Grosz was arrested and charged with blasphemy for depicting Jesus wearing a gas mask. Sophisticated projections behind a mostly bare stage were also used in Lily both to reflect the context of the songs and to enhance their emotional content.

Irony and satire were very much in vogue in 1920’s Berlin. Brecht had been doing a reworking of John Gay’s eighteenth century work, The Beggars Opera – a parody of the 18th century middle class but also a parody of Handel’s operas. Weill joined the project. Jenny, a prostitute (who also figures in the Paris episode of Lily), was played by Lotte Lenya. Die Dreigroschenoper (The Three Penny Opera) premiered in Berlin in 1928 and was an enormous popular success.

The Weill – Brecht collaboration continued. One year later, they produced Happy End a comedy with music about Chicago gangsters and the Salvation Army. The plot is strikingly similar to the legendary Broadway musical, Guys and Dolls, which was based on a story by Damon Runyon. While Guys and Dolls has become a fixture of the American musical theater, Happy End is known primarily for two of its wonderful songs, “The Bilbao Song” and “Surabaya Jonny,” both of which are sung in Lily.

Weill collaborated with Kaiser again, this time on a play with music called Die Silbersee (The Silver Sea). Its social commentary was too much for the Nazi party. Riots broke out and productions in several cities were closed down. In 1933, Weill was tipped off that he was about to be arrested by the Gestapo. He fled to Paris.

In Paris, he transformed himself into a composer of very authentic-sounding French songs. He collaborated with Brecht and the young George Balanchine on Die Siebentodsunden der Kleinburger (The Seven Deadly Sins of the Petits Bourgeois). He also worked with George Deval on Marie Gallante, a play with seven songs. Its subject, a woman who is used and abused by men and forced to become a prostitute, is not unlike Lily. She, too, waits for a ship to take her away from her suffering and degradation but for Marie, liberation never comes. She is shot and killed in Panama. In 1935, Weill went to America and he became the toast of Broadway and Hollywood. The exquisite “September Song” from Knickerbocker Holiday was the concluding song in Lily.

Audrey Babcock has a beautiful, powerful, and expressive voice that is particularly rich in her lower register. She also has a keen sense of drama. Her enunciation is so good that I could actually understand her in three languages. Pianist and music director, Ray Fellman was an able and responsive partner.

It’s inevitable that Ms. Babcock would be compared with the most famous Weill interpreter of today, Ute Lemper. They could not be more different. Ms. Lemper does not have an operatic voice or even a conventionally beautiful one. Lemper is a lithe woman with a teasing, kittenish manner, whose voice can be hoarse, and whose style combines singing with talking. She does both very fast; enunciation is clearly not a priority. So who is the better interpreter of Kurt Weill? His initial intention was to compose for a voice like Ms. Babcock’s. A combination of Brecht’s persuasive ability and Weill’s love for Lotte Lenya (who was not a trained singer) altered his view. The voice that he had in mind from 1926 on was one more like Ute Lemper’s. That being said, Ms. Babcock’s performance was a revelation. I have never heard these songs sound more beautiful.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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