The Threepenny Opera
A new co-production between Northern Ireland Opera and the Lyric Theatre
Unscrupulous knife-wielding criminal Macheath (Mack the Knife) returns to London and sets his eyes on Polly Peachum, the daughter of London’s most successful conman. Furious with Mack’s intentions, Polly’s father sets out to get Mack arrested and hanged but Mack is not a man to give up without a fight. Mr Peachum’s quest for revenge sets off a series of conflicts that expose the hypocrisy and double dealings at the heart of society.
When The Threepenny Opera was first performed in Berlin in 1928, it was referred to as a ‘play with music’. Its composer Kurt Weill and poet-playwright Bertolt Brecht are credited with creating one of the first known pieces of musical theatre, the form that became the Broadway musical. The play was their attempt to satirise traditional ‘stuffy’ opera and to create a new kind of musical theatre. With its expressionistic satirising of capitalism, prostitution, militarism and the middle classes, The Threepenny Opera was more brilliant parody than it was scandalous. The Opera’s big tune is Mack the Knife became a hit in 1959 by American singer Bobby Darin, and artists from Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra to Robbie Williams have covered the track. Underneath the veil of satire and slapstick, this is a story of cynicism, exploitation and the middle-class, as relevant today as it ever was.
The Lyric’s Executive Director, Jimmy Fay, commented:
“I am delighted that the Lyric Theatre and Northern Ireland Opera have joined forces to produce this most playful, topical and, frankly, strange musical/opera/play. In the ninety or so years since it was first produced, Brecht/Weill’s opera has lost none of its oddness. It is one of the quintessential works of art of the twentieth century and one of the most influential. But it is not pleasant, deliberately so. It has an almost hallucinogenic hold on the imagination. The characters are a charismatically nasty bunch, operating on the dark fringes of society; wide-boy pimps and vengeful prostitutes, energetic beggars and seedy venture capitalists with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. And yet, the songs have the ability to transform the mundane squalor into something close to, what a committed atheist would view as, heaven. They lift you up and elevate you over the cheap, nasty, brutishness of this sordid world of ‘exchange’ and ‘cheap commerce’ and show you the unblemished value of a person’s soul.”
“In our modern, cut-rate, theme park political world of Trump and Brexit, The Threepenny Opera has a vibrant currency in its desolate view of human progress – just think, shortly after the original premier of Brecht’s and Weill’s highly acclaimed and hugely successful musical critique of western capitalism, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party were elected to power! All the artists had to leave town! So much for popular art’s influence on liberal thinking!”
The Threepenny Opera is directed by Northern Ireland Opera Artistic Director Walter Sutcliffe, who has directed highly acclaimed opera and theatre productions internationally. His production of Tiefland for Opera Toulouse was nominated by French magazine Forum Opera as best international production 2017. His productions for Opera Frankfurt of L’Orontea and Owen Wingrave were nominated in German magazine Opernwelt in 2015 and 2010 respectively, and his production of Cosм fan tutte won Best Design and Best Female Performer at the Estonian Theatre Awards 2009. This is the first play Walter Sutcliffe has directed since taking over Artistic Director of Northern Ireland Opera in January 2017 and he commented:
“In The Threepenny Opera Brecht looks his audience in the eye and tells them what he thinks of them. Although the story comes from the early 18th centuryBeggars Opera, and the title Threepenny Opera suggests street thieves and Victorian London, Brecht is clear that his story is about us – the capitalist bourgeoisie. His story is one of exploitation. Every character is motivated solely by the desire to enrich themselves. Everything is there to be exploited. Everybody has a sense of entitlement. Truth is of little value, anything and everything can be sacrificed on the altar of property and wealth and the consequence is a bizarre yet familiar mixture of intense paranoia, apathetic nihilism and profound gallows humour. However, although the message is fundamentally bleak, the piece asks us a profound question. Do we really want to live and keep living in the way the characters do? The possibility of the characters changing the ending, no matter how ‘theatrical’ or ‘artificial’ it may appear, does confront us with the question of can we change our direction. This seems to be very pertinent in our current situation!”
“For many people Mack the Knife says Louis Armstrong and New York, or Michael Buble and somewhere else. For us it is universal, the same as the motives of the piece which are completely transferable from one western society to another – maybe we are all not so different? Our production aims to keep the spirit of Brecht, perhaps even clarifying it, while populating it with figures closer in time and location to us here and now.”