On the Weill side

TU festival salutes composer of 'Threepenny Opera'

September 25, 2010|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

Kurt Weill lived two lives. He was a German but, eventually, an American, too. He was essentially a classical composer early on, then earned his lasting fame in the popular arena, specifically musical theater.

Through it all, he followed one artistic principle: "I have never acknowledged the difference between 'serious' music and 'light' music," he said. "There is only good music and bad music." And his music was awfully good, a point that will be underlined by Towson University's Kurt Weill Festival, which opens Sunday and runs through Saturday.

"The festival coincides with the 110th anniversary of Weill's birth and 60th anniversary of his death this year," says Phillip Collister, a member of Towson's voice faculty and a key figure in organizing the event. "It's not really common to have festivals dealing with Kurt Weill. A lot of people don't know him today. They may recognize some of his songs but not realize he wrote them."

Easily the most widely recognizable of those songs comes from Weill's groundbreaking collaboration with poet/playwright Bertolt Brecht in 1928, "The Threepenny Opera," which includes the much-recorded ballad known as "Mack the Knife."

The cornerstone of the Weill festival is a new, bilingual production of "The Threepenny Opera," the product of an exchange between Towson and its partner school in Germany, Oldenburg University. The project puts students from both schools front and center.

"They designed the concept for the staging and the costumes," Collister says, "and they even did the casting. Students auditioned each other. It was very interesting for them to sit on the other side of the desk and decide who was best for the role. As far as I know, this is a unique experience for a university."

Towson students had to sign on about a year and a half ago "and be committed from the beginning to the end," Collister says. Preparations intensified during the 2009-2010 school year.

"We had the first semester to learn the history of 'The Threepenny Opera,' what it meant to American and, especially, to German society," says Emily Gradowski, who was a Towson freshman when she joined the project; she's now a junior. "We knew so much more about the show before auditioning [during the second semester]."

Gradowski won the major role of Polly, whose elopement with the disreputable Mack sparks the satirical plot about crime, politics, sex, money and power.

"I never heard of Weill before this project came along," Gradowski says. "I had only sung classical music; this is more music theater style. It took time to find the style and technique I needed for the role, but Weill's music helped me get into the mindset of Polly."

Towson students traveled overseas in May to join their Oldenburg colleagues in the debut of the production.

"I had never gone overseas before," Gradowski says. "I made so many friends in Germany. It's been absolutely amazing. I've learned so much as a young singer and as a person, really. It's been a kind of life-changing experience. And the German audiences applauded forever after the show every night."

There was discussion initially about performing "The Threepenny Opera" in its original German in Weill's native country and then in English here, but that was considered a little too challenging for the students from both schools. Instead, the dialogue will be in English, the songs in German — "to preserve the flavor Brecht was going for," Collister says. Permission for this bilingual version was granted by the Kurt Weill Foundation, which also provided funding for the festival, and the Brecht estate.

Surtitles (translations projected above the stage) were prepared for the production by Collister, who asked each of the German students in the show to translate one song, word for word. He then worked with his co-director from Oldenburg, Peter Vollhardt, to fine-tune the syntax for the surtitles.

Collister, Vollhardt and Towson voice faculty member Leneida Crawford provided a directorial hand to the production, which has a minimal look.

"We don't set the show in a specific time or place," Collister says. "The stage is basically empty. The orchestra is upstage. Most of the scenery is done with props and lighting. It has the feeling of students putting on a show with things that they have found in the wings of the stage."

The aim is to keep the focus squarely on the themes behind the plot.

"It is so relevant to today, with the recent financial crisis and the things done by Bernie Madoff and others," Collister says. "It speaks to that kind of injustice. Weill was interested in music theater that spoke to social issues and the human condition. Brecht's philosophy was that we have to do something in the world based on what we see in art and culture. We owe it to ourselves to lift up those least enfranchised for the good of society."

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