The Free-Reed Journal
Articles and Essays Featuring Classical Free-Reed Instruments and Performers

Performing in Kurt Weill's Opera "Mahagonny"

by Henry Doktorski

I recently had the distinguished pleasure of performing with the Carnegie Mellon University Orchestra and vocalists from the Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama in four performances of Kurt Weill's rarely-performed 1930 opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. We performed at the Philip Chosky Theater on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, from January 29th through February 1st, 2004. (Two performances were sold out.)

A little background: the German composer, Kurt Weill (1900-1950), and poet/playwright Berltolt Brecht (1898-1956) -- best known for their most famous work: Threepenny Opera -- corroborated to create the opera Mahagonny which premiered in Leipzig and was later banned by the Nazi Party. The work is a remarkable twentieth-century classic with a haunting score which combines classical elements with jazz and folk; it also is a savage and lyrical satire on American consumerism. In the fictional city of Mahagonny, profit and pleasure are the ultimate pursuits. The destructive implications for a society organized on the value system of unrestricted economic development and unrestrained sense gratification are the themes which Brecht explores.

Weill's score calls for a standard orchestra consisting of strings: violins, violas, cellos and double basses; woodwinds: two flutes doubling on piccolo, oboes, clarinets, three saxophones, two bassoons doubling on contrabassoon; brass: two French horns, three trumpets, two trombones, tuba; percussion: timpani, bass drums, xylophone, cymbals; with the addition of some other instruments not usually found in a standard opera orchestra: piano, banjo, contrabass guitar (such as found in a Mexican guitar orchestra), zither (an instrument having from thirty to forty strings stretched across a flat soundboard and played with a plectrum and the fingers), harmonium and bandoneón (in this production played on the accordion).

The bandoneón appears four times in the opera. During Acts One and Three it discreetly blends with the orchestra to add a little distinctive color to particular moments during certain scenes. However, during Act Two the instrument shines out during a charming duet with the zither in the Valse lento.

Dr. Robert Page, conductor and music director for the production, elaborated on composer Kurt Weill's use of nontraditional orchestration:

Page concluded, "Certainly the bandoneón (accordion), although used sparingly in the score, provides an important musical color which contributes to the success of the opera."

The Carnegie Mellon University production of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny was the first time the work had been staged in Pittsburgh.

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