— At the Festival

Published on April 8 2019

MAHAGONNY, AN ICONOCLASTIC OPERA

WITH MAHAGONNY, HOLLYWOOD AND THE OPERA HAVE NEVER BEEN SO CLOSE

The 9 March 1930, the first performance of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny in Leipzig caused a controversy. The work fell victim to a momentous cabal organised by the Nazis, now on the verge of power, scandalised by its aesthetic, its subject and its political significance.

"Mahagonny is indeed a caustic opera. It opens with three crooks on the run who decide to open right in the middle of the desert a “trap-town” where money governs, a sort of modern Babylon entirely devoted to pleasure, gambling and prostitution, in order to catch in its nets the gold diggers from every country. With this vitriolic portrait of capitalist and industrial societies, Brecht implicitly expresses his ideological convictions. However, Mahagonny is not a simple political satire: it is also a programmatic work.

Brecht and Weill were both convinced of the role and of the social impact of art and they conceived this work with the idea of reforming both opera and its public. Brecht, thus broke with a long theatrical tradition and developed in his libretto a non-linear narration, built on a succession of independent tableaux proclaimed and commented upon using placards and projections. His aim was to shatter the theatrical illusion and persuade the spectators to think about the situations which were presented to them on the stage. For his part, Weill adopted an approach of openness and of syncretism which would characterise a large part of his later work produced in the United States. If he updated the Mozartian model of the opera as a series of numbers and amused himself with references to past styles, his score overflows with melodies, sonorities and rhythms borrowed from popular songs and from jazz.

In many respects Mahagonny is an iconoclastic opera, but the provocation that it displays is accompanied by a profound reflection on the place of individuals in modern cities, the pitfalls of capitalism and of unbridled consumption and the antagonism between freedom and social life. Its political and social impact, still contemporary, particularly seduced Ivo van Hove who has chosen to place the action of his staging in the interior of a cinema studio. “Mahagonny and Hollywood will never have been so close".

Extract from the pedagogical guide, written by Louis Geisler, Dramaturge

LISTENING GUIDE FOR MAHAGONNY (IN FRENCH)