Zeitung Heute : The Fight over Mahagonny

Kurt Weill and the failed project of socialist operatic reform in Berlin

John Rockwell

The commercial musicals that Kurt Weill composed in New York – from the Broadway hits of Knickerbocker Holiday and Lady in the Dark to Street Scene – were a direct consequence of the failure of state-mandated operatic reform in Berlin and in particular the failure of a planned Berlin premiere in 1930 of Der Aufstieg und der Fall der Stadt Mahagonny at the state supported Kroll Opera. What happened to opera in the wake of the 1918 revolution was a transferal of the former royal operas to the new democratic states.

The shift in funding did not in itself invariably affect the policies of these companies, which, especially in the large cities, remained museums of the operatic past. In Berlin, the peak of experimentation came only in the late 1920s. Still, Berlin is important not only because Weill and Brecht were living there: Prussia dominated Germany numerically, geographically, and economically, and Berlin dominated Prussia. Thus, reform efforts in Berlin had a national resonance that no other city could match.

In Prussia prior to the revolution, the ministry of culture had had nothing to do with opera and theater; rather, its domain had been education and religion, and the royal theaters had been funded and administered directly by the Hohenzollerns. But with the collapse of the monarchy, the ministry of culture ended, almost by default, with the Prussian theaters. The independent Socialist co-minister at the outset of the Republic was Adolf Hoffmann, portrayed by his detractors as a buffoon but by his champions as a populist hero. Hoffmann took personal responsibility for the theaters and brought in Leo Kestenberg for music and Ludwig Seelig for theater. They shared opera, but it was Kestenberg who was the more directly involved. He became the dominant figure in Berlin's operatic reform – and the prime villain, the chief Jewish musical Bolshevist of Weimar, in the eyes of the increasingly vocal right wing in the Prussian Landtag – until nearly the end of the Weimar Republic. Despite all the shifts of power within the Prussian cabinet and the various Ministers for Culture, Kestenberg and Seelig remained in their posts from 1919 to 1932.

Like Kaiser Wilhelm before them, both Kestenberg and Seelig were unquestioning believers in the government's role in dispensing culture to the masses. Yet the two bureaucrats disagreed with the emperor as to what that culture should be. Seelig was a violent opponent of commercial theater, which he considered to be an insidious corruption of German idealism and the inherent good taste of the working classes. In the heady, optimistic early days of the Weimar Republic, Kestenberg and Seelig dreamed that they could not only reform opera from above, but that they could also thereby elevate popular taste and play a role in the creation of an earthly socialist paradise.

The ministry found itself in possession of a large opera house called the Kroll, which eventually became the highpoint of Weimar operatic progressivism – the darling of the left-wing intelligentsia, the principal forum in the capital for the earlier provincial operatic experimentation and, not least, the springboard for Otto Klemperer's erratic but important international career as a conductor. But the Kroll ceased to exist in 1931 because the Prussian Landtag decided that in a time of depression there was not enough money to support three public opera companies in Berlin, and that the Kroll had less justification for survival than either the Staatsoper Unter den Linden or Bruno Walter's Städtische Oper.

Many within the Kroll regarded the controversy between Kurt Weill and the opera's conductor over whether Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny was to be performed at the Kroll as a turning point in the history of the company. Brecht and Weill had assumed during the composition of this full-scale opera that it would be performed there. But after indecisive agony, Klemperer rejected the score in 1929 – despite fervent enthusiasm for it by his chief administrators at the Kroll. Although this seems to have been exclusively the conductor's aesthetic and moral decision, the rejection was interpreted by Weill as sad timidity on the part of both Klemperer and Kestenberg in the face of growing right-wing opposition to the ministry's reform policies and to the theater's artistic and social mandate.

Socialist operatic reformism had come full circle - and this when the Weimar Republic was still ostensibly at its peak. What had begun as an idealistic hope that the state could reform the depravities of royal and private opera had turned into a bitter despair that nothing could be expected from the ministry, and that composers like Weill had to enter the capitalist arena to reach the people and reform a dangerously moribund art form.

Despite his disappointment about the failure of a Kroll production of Mahagonny, Weill shared with other republican intellectuals a bitter sense of defeat when the Kroll collapsed in 1931. His newspaper articles of 1931-32 returned time and again to the need for a broadly accessible opera that would reach out and solve not just the crisis of opera, but that of operatic subsidy, about which he had grown disillusioned after the Kroll's demise. Weill now felt that composers must strive to write operas that did not descend to the level of the cheap popular operetta or revue but that would continue to command a broader audience. His commercial musicals, both in Europe and in the United States, were a logical response to his experiences in Berlin. They were also the appropriate avenue for his efforts to reach a broader public and to make an economically viable, self-sufficient form of musical theater. John Rockwell

From The New Orpheus, © Yale University Press. The author is a Culture Critic for the New York Times.

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