The Kennedy Center

Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny

About the Work

Kurt Weill Composer: Kurt Weill
© Thomas May

An almost mythic aura surrounds our image of the Kurt Weill (1900-1950)-Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) partnership. Yet their collaboration was in fact fated to be short-lived. Given Brecht's unrelentingly alpha-male attitude toward his associates, it was inevitable that relations with the slightly younger Weill would sooner or later be strained to the breaking point—which is exactly what happened in the aftermath of their 1929 effort Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny).

Ironically, the impetus behind this opera was what had inspired the beginnings of their partnership just a few years earlier. The two were introduced at a wine bar in 1927, where Brecht expounded on the imaginary city he called "Mahagonny"—a place devoted to the single-minded pursuit of material pleasures—which he had explored in a series of savagely satirical poems. Weill, at the time keenly interested in finding subject matter for an opera that would resonate with contemporary Weimar society, was intrigued by the possibilities latent in "the notion of a 'Paradise City'" and decided to set five of the Mahagonny poems as a sort of mini-cantata with songs and instrumental interludes (this has since become known as the Mahagonny-Songspiel).

That first Mahagonny generated quite a buzz when it premiered at a prestigious new-music festival in 1927. For his part, Brecht had become fascinated by the potential of applying his radical ideas for "epic theater" (including his famous "alienation effect") to the tradition-corseted genre of opera. The result was to be the three-act Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny. Its creation was however beset by a series of interruptions—including a little side venture that turned into their biggest hit, Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera).

Mahagonny unfolds in a series of cinematically brief scenes—perfectly amenable to the closed-form treatment with ballads, duets, choruses, and orchestral interludes that characterizes Weill's score. The digressive plot follows the ups and downs of a new society founded by a band of outlaws. The titular city becomes a magnet for pleasure seekers and dubious schemers, survives a hurricane, and is converted to an even more-permissive gospel of "do what you want" by protagonist Jimmy Mahoney, who drifts in with a group of fellow Alaskan lumberjacks. But amid the high living, it emerges that Jimmy has committed the one unforgiveable, capital sin: He has no money. The opera climaxes with his show trial and execution, and the city falls apart in the chaotic aftermath.

Weill's score has gone on to have a colorful, unpredictable afterlife (including The Doors' cover of the "Alabama Song"). Conductor Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggeberg, who led a famous recording of the work in the mid-1950s with Weill's widow, Lotte Lenya, arranged extracts for this instrumental Suite. While there are no voices, it preserves Weill's signature jazz-band blend of saxophones, banjo, bass guitar, and percussion mixed with the orchestra. Weill embraces a polyglot vocabulary in this music, from modernist neoclassicism (more of the Hindemith than Stravinsky variety) and The Magic Flute's choral ensembles to jazz and smoky nightclub. The Overture at once introduces us to the tightly argued counterpoint that Weill juxtaposes with such elements as the "show-biz" schmaltz of the lush "Alabama Song," followed here by the jazzy syncopations of Jimmy and friends' arrival into the city.

The Suite includes two duets between Jimmy and the prostitute Jenny, which are the score's tenderest moments (though, in context, they acquire a sharper edge): the first occurs during Jimmy's dalliance after bargaining for Jenny, while the exquisitely voiced "Crane Duet" was later moved to the third act as Jimmy bids her farewell. Between this is the turbulent music of the hurricane, a parody of operatic catastrophe. The Suite concludes with the grimly determined, requiem-like music of the finale as the denizens of Mahagonny come to realize their utopia is actually a hell.