It’s difficult to get level answers from Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser, who have been described before as “very French.” The codirectors of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny argue that rehearsals do not count as preparing for a production, that it would be “idiotic” to try a different angle with a Brecht-Weill piece, and that “alienation” is the incorrect term to use when speaking of Brecht; rather, it’s “alienation effect.” Consider the record straightened.
Leiser and Caurier maintain a steady balance of haughtiness and sincerity when it comes to their production. One could say they’ve earned the right to be a tad snobbish, with more than 60 opera productions under their belts in their 25 years as a team.
Spoleto Festival Music Director Emmanuel Villaume, who helped cast Mahagonny, will conduct. You may remember him from, most recently, Lakme and Don Giovanni, and every festival concert for the past eight years.
A 1930 product of the collaboration between librettist Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill, Mahagonny has been called many things — agitprop, morality tale, a musical mess, a masterpiece. Three escaped convicts found a city, calling it Mahagonny. As discontented men move to Mahagonny to indulge in some sin, the city is overcome with too many rules. A threat from a hurricane moves the people into action, as they decide to do whatever they want. The new system ends up being too destructive, proving a character’s claim that people are just as destructive as hurricanes.
With both the recent L.A. and Boston productions of Mahagonny receiving mixed reviews, you might expect Leiser and Caurier to have considered the criticism of those productions when approaching their own. But no. Says Leiser: “Critics are not the widows of the composer.”
You actually have to admire that isolationism, the confidence that the two directors have that theirs is the only way to go. While they, in a way, defend the other productions, they also scoff at them for attempting to place the work in a modern context or in a specific place. “[Brecht and Weill] used the myth of the far West, but it’s no precise place,” says Caurier. Leiser picks up: “It’s important that we are in Nowhere-land, so that we show that Mahagonny is everywhere.”
Leiser’s argument is a good one: “It’s important not to update it or put it in a specific place, because it reduces its realm. The important thing is that people are confronted with death coming soon, and destruction… It’s not about Katrina in New Orleans,” a likely choice of perhaps a lesser director. “The audience is intelligent enough to know how to read it.”
Caurier says that with Mahagonny, the audience learns a lot about how the material conditions of society condition the behavior of individuals.
“It’s not about good or bad,” Leiser adds. “The people of Mahagonny are good and bad. It depends on the situation.”
As such, Mahogonny is not simply a morality play. The message, Leiser says, is, “Do what you want as long as you can pay for it. Money is what leads this world, and it’s what will destroy it.”
In spite of all the bleakness inherently involved in such a point, the opera contains lots of black humor. The contrast between what you hear and what is said fuels the music, since Brecht and Weill despised “bourgeois” opera, in which the music and lyrics depicted the exact emotion of the character (and also in which a character was depicted as one personality from beginning to end, not allowing for circumstances to change a person’s behavior).
Mahagonny is simply a great piece of music theatre to these directors, who feel it’s too intelligent to be mere political or moral propaganda.
In consideration of Mahagonny‘s eclectic music styles, fascinating presentation and themes, and some people’s reluctance to see opera, the directors put it thusly: “Opera is a wonderful experience. You don’t have to prepare yourself for it.”
Leiser makes the analogy, “If you eat a great meal, you don’t have to be an expert in biochemistry of vegetables to enjoy it.” Caurier agrees, “It’s a very obvious work. It speaks right away.”
“People still come to opera because they think they’re going to see a lavish set and beautiful costumes, and that’s ridiculous,” says Leiser. “You don’t go see Hamlet to see a beautiful set of Elsinore.” From their perspective, the biggest draw of Mahagonny should be that its creators had something to say about human existence.
And for many, the creators — Brecht and Weill — will be the biggest reason to attend this opera. “Our greatest privilege as opera directors is that we get six weeks to be in the very narrow companionship of geniuses,” says Caurier. “The audience only gets one night. We’re trying to stage it so that the audience gets even a glimpse of what we’ve found.” — Jennifer Corley
Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny • Spoleto Festival USA • $25-$130 • (2 hours 30 min.) • May 25 at 7 p.m.; May 28, 30, June 1, 3, 9 at 8 p.m. • Sottile Theatre, 44 George St. • 579-3100
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