Monday 11 January 2021

Re-inventing Kurt Weill: How Lotte Lenya's performances of her husband's music in the 1950s, born of expediency, came to define how the songs were performed

Bertolt Brecht, Lotte Lenya and Kurt Weill in 1928
Bertolt Brecht, Lotte Lenya and Kurt Weill in 1928

Lotte Lenya's recordings of her husband, Kurt Weill's music effectively defined the performance style for a generation or more. Lenya's low, almost gravelly voice, the prominence of the text defined our way of think about Weill's Berlin works. Yet if you listen to Lenya's few pre-war recordings made in Berlin, [see the excerpt from the 1931 film of Die Dreigroschenoper on YouTube, or the recordings re-issued on Warner Classics], then the style is very different indeed, she has almost a soprano, soubrette voice, however still the same attention to the text. In order for her to perform Weill's music after his death in 1950, roles were transposed down to suit Lenya's voice at the time, giving rise to a Kurt Weill performance style which owed a lot to the changes in his wife's voice.

Kurt Weill & Bertolt Brecht: Die Dreigroschenoper - Lotte Lenya in the 1931 film
Kurt Weill & Bertolt Brecht: Die Dreigroschenoper
Lotte Lenya in the 1931 film

Lotte Lenya (1898-1981) was an Austrian actress working in Berlin, and she sang the role of Jessie in Kurt Weill and Bertholt Brecht's first collaboration, Mahoganny Songspiel (1927), though by this time Lenya and Weill were already married having been introduced in 1924 by the playwright Georg Kaiser with whom Weill was collaborating on the operas Der Protagonist (1926) and Der Zar lässt sich photographieren (1928). The rest of the singers in Mahoganny Songspiel were trained operatically, which meant that Lenya's voice set her apart and it was not until she was cast as Jenny in Kurt Weill and Bertholt Brecht's Die Dreigroschenoper, which premiered at Berlin's Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in 1928, that she achieved a secure place in Berlin's theatre scene. Though she is associated with her husband's work, she appeared in quite a number of major theatre productions. 

After Brecht and Weill's opera Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny premiered in Leipzig in 1930, it was rejected by all the opera houses in Berlin and Weill simplified the role of Jenny so that Lenya could sing it in the production at the Theater am Kurfürstendamm.

It is important to remember that Weill's work in Berlin extended beyond his iconic collaborations with Bertholt Brecht, and in fact the two rather diverged over politics and Weill's final major Berlin stage works are the opera Die Bürgschaft, with a libretto by Caspar Neher which premiered in Berlin in 1932 with Lenya as the protagonist's wife, and the play with music, Der Silbersee, with Georg Kaiser.

With the Nazi seizure of power following the Reichstag fire of 27 February 1933, Weill (as a Jew) and Brecht both left Germany. Despite being estranged and soon to be divorced (in 1933), Weill wrote the title role of Anna I for Lenya in his ballet chanté Die sieben Todsünden. Written in exile in Paris, this was also his final work with Brecht. The result of a commission from the dancer Boris Kochno and the patron Edward James (best known for his support of the Surrealist movement), exile seems to have brought about a change to Brecht and Weill's relationship, leading to some sort of reconciliation and the work on Die sieben Todsünden. Anna I would be another role that was re-created in a lower key for Lenya's post-war performances.

Lotte Lenya and Kurt Weill in 1942
Lotte Lenya and Kurt Weill in 1942

Once in America in 1935, the Weill and Lenya were reconciled and would re-marry. Lenya was not automatically associated with Weill's American works, though she played Miriam in Weill's Biblical drama The Eternal Road (1937), with a text by Franz Werfel, and the Duchess in The Firebrand of Florence (1944), a musical theatre piece based on the life of Benvenuto Cellini with lyrics by Ira Gerswhin. But it was Lady in the Dark, written in 1941 for Gertrude Lawrence that really made Weill's name in America and his other major shows would all appear without Lenya. She sang in cabaret in New York, toured in plays and even recorded some of Weill's songs for the war effort, but after receiving poor notices for The Firebrand of Florence she retired from the stage.

Kurt Weill died suddenly in 1950, and during that decade Lenya devoted time to his music, and she would found the Kurt Weill Foundation in 1962. It wasn't just his music theatre works, she managed to retrieve other of his scores which had been lost during the exile from Germany, including his second symphony. 

No longer confident on stage, she reluctantly agreed to appear at a memorial concert for Kurt Weill at New York Town Hall, and the success of this led to it becoming an annual event. She returned to the role of Jenny in Mark Blitzstein's adaptation of The Threepenny Opera on Broadway in 1952, and it was the success of this which set off the Kurt Weill revival of the 1950s and 1960s. 

This wasn't the first time that The Threepenny Opera had appeared in New York, there was a production in 1933 in English on Broadway. It had bewildered critics and audiences alike, and had closed in two weeks, but left a lasting mark as professionals had admired Weill's music.

Kander & Ebb: Cabaret - Lotte Lenya, Jill Hayworth in the original Broadway production in 1966
Kander & Ebb: Cabaret: Lotte Lenya, Jill Hayworth
in the original Broadway production in 1966
By the 1950s Lenya's voice was almost an octave lower than what it had been in Berlin, and her performances and recordings of Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, Johnny Johnson, Happy End, Die Dreigroschenoper, Die sieben Todsünden, and the theatre songs, led to the creation of a Kurt Weill style. Whilst there is an element of necessity to this with Lenya performing the music to ensure that it was known and heard, there is something iconic in her re-invention and the 1950s Lenya style of performing Weill chimed in with the era. It effectively re-created the idea of cabaret in Weimar Germany in a way that Lenya singing as a soubrette soprano could never have.

This was not the only revival of Kurt Weill's music following his death. Almost as soon as the war ended, works like Die Dreigroschenoper were back in German theatre repertoires, and in East Berlin Brecht's Berliner Ensemble continued to perform Die Dreigroschenoper and Mahoganny Songspiel after Brecht's death in 1956. There were even German performances of the American works, Street Scene and Lady in the Dark, but these simply cemented the view that after arriving in America, Kurt Weill ceased to be a composer to be taken seriously.

Whilst she was particularly associated with her husband's music, Lenya also branched out into other areas. She played Contessa Magda Terribili-Gonzales in José Quintero's 1961 film, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (based on the Tenessee Williams novel), for which she was nominated for an Academy Award and perhaps most memorably was Rosa Kleb in the 1963 Bond film From Russia with Love. Her re-creation of the Weimar Berlin cabaret style was brought full circle when she created the role of Fräulein Schneider in John Kander and Fredd Ebb's 1966 musical Cabaret. Based on Christopher Isherwood's Berlin stories, this was a recreation of 1920s Berlin for 1960s America, and made significant changes to the characters of Isherwood's novel.

If Kurt Weill had not died so suddenly and so young, our view of his Berlin works might be radically different. There would have been no 1950s revivals with Lenya, and in fact Weill himself was focused on his American career. Perhaps the revival the Berlin works might have then been closer to the ethos of the original performances. A fascinating what if???

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