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Classical 101

Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya: Speak Low

[VIDEO DEAD] Opera Columbus presents a Kurt Weill celebration, Berlin to Broadway [caption id="attachment_14683" align="alignright" width="141" caption="Kurt Weill (1900-1950)"][/caption] at the Lincoln Theater on Thursday October 7 and Friday the 8th. The show is directed by Tim Veach of the Columbus Dance Theater, with CATCO's Jonathan Putnam and the Mark Flugge Jazz Combo. I'm giving the pre- performance talks so lately I've been immersing myself in Weill's music. Along the way I'm reading Speak Low When You Speak of Love, the Letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya Here's Kurt Weill's best known tune: [youtube 4Qrjtr_uFac 490 344] Bobby Darin made a huge hit of this in the early 1960s.  No wonder.  His bounce and phrasing are impeccable.  He gets it.  Mack the Knife (Moriat von Mackie Messer) from the best known collaboration between Kurt Weill (1900-1950) and Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956).   Like Strauss and Hofmannsthal,  like Mozart and da Ponte,  these two will always be linked, not only for Die Dreigroschenoper, but Mahagonny,  Happy End and The Seven Deadly Sins. A few years ago I interviewed Joseph Volpe,  long time general manager of the Metropolitan Opera.  I asked him what had been the most memorable production of his many years at the Met. Without hesitating he answered John Dexter's production of Mahagonny back in 1979, starring the great Teresa Stratas [youtube JeozviowUGo 490 344] Kurt Weill was the son of a cantor and studied music in Berlin with Ferrucio Busoni. Not for him the high calorie orchestrations of Richard Strauss or the emotional heat of Gustav Mahler. In his early years Weill, who was adept at symphonies and chamber music as befits Busoni's protege,  was a spare, cut to the chase kind of composer. His style meshed well with Brecht's nihilism.  This was an environment less of cynicism than devoid of emotion.  It was stark truth telling in an era when money wasn't worth anything. Weill married Lotte Lenya twice. She was his leading lady in Threepenny Opera and in Mahagonny. At least in the German years Weill seldom wrote for the voice without putting his wife's talents first.  She was born Karolina Maria Blamauer in 1898 (died 1981).  In 1929 Weill wrote this about Lotte Lenya "She is a miserable housewife, but a very good actress.  She can't read music, but when she sings, people listen a if it were Caruso.  (For that matter, I pity any composer whose wife can read music.)...She married me because she enjoyed horror, and she claims that this desire has now been fulfilled sufficiently" We know Kurt Weill's music today because of Lotte Lenya. After his early [caption id="attachment_14685" align="alignright" width="101" caption="Lotte Lenya (1898-1981)"]00000178-6a23-ddab-a97a-6a3b5b1c0000[/caption] death she spent the next thirty years singing, acting and producing his works.  Lenya starred in a production of Threepenny Opera that ran for years in New York.  Her record albums, made in Berlin and New York were top sellers. If  Bobby Darin had millions of listeners, there were many people who enjoyed his pop and Lenya's authenticity.  Here she is as a young woman, as Weill heard her. This is from G.W. Pabst's 1931 film of Threepenny Opera [youtube Ec0clERjQ5A 490 344] And here she is a generation later. Weill is dead. Lenya is using a lower octave in her voice. It's sand paper and cigarettes time. She seems to have found that elusive whiskey bar, at least in her singing. This later style was often imitated, but there's only one Lotte Lenya [youtube rdc4oBnu_fw&p=DF310B4BF9F8A804&playnext=1&index=53 490 344] Speak Low, the volume of letters,  is informative and fun. Weill spent a lot of time in Hollywood, being led around and getting nowhere. Lenya toured in a play with Helen Hayes, a week here, one night there in what seemed like an endless trek. Bertolt Brecht reappeared in America, but the two men didn't get along. Lenya is unsparing in her opinions of Broadway and Hollywood producers. Her description of producer Richard Halliday (husband of Mary Martin) as arschficker is best left untranslated. It didn't keep Mary Martin from starring in Weill's One Touch of Venus, a 1943 collaboration for Broadway with Ogden Nash [youtube 3Ohc5vCrrWo 490 344] Weill and Lenya got out of Germany in the early 1930s. There were successful performances in London. Weill's stage oratorio The Eternal Road had a good run in New York but lost money. Weill went on to write wonderful shows for Broadway Knickerbocker Holiday, Street Scene,  Lost in the Stars and the superb Lady in the Dark, a musical play about psychoanalysis! It starred Gertrude Lawrence and was a smash [youtube boTITRVVlVk&feature=related 490 344] Firebrand of Florence was the only American show by Kurt Weill to feature Lotte Lenya. It bombed. It's interesting that the great years of Lenya's career in America came after Weill's death. Good for Opera Columbus for bringing Weill's music back to town. He is underrepresented. I have no idea why. He reflected the angst of pre -war Germany and he came home to the post war stasis and recovery in New York. He worked with Moss Hart, Maxwell Anderson (his next door neighbor in Rockland county, loved him, hated her)  Langston Hughes and Ira Gershwin (Weill didn't have much use for George Gershwin). Speak Low has a lot of schubi schatzi nicknames. These are letters between partners who are separated by work for long periods. There's a fair amount of "What are the taxes?" "Sign here" "Pay the mortgage" and  "Last night he dog threw up again". And Richard Halliday is still an arschficker. The letters are fun. The music and performances are impeccable. Enjoy them here, and go find more. --Christopher Purdy

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.