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Esther Nelson Stanford Calderwood General & Artistic Director David Angus Music Director John Conklin Artistic Advisor

March 14, 2018

Dear Educator, Boston Lyric Opera is pleased to invite high school and college students to attend Final Dress Rehearsals throughout our Season. We look forward to seeing you and your students at the Huntington Avenue Theatre for BLO's production of Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera. The experience of seeing and hearing live, professional opera is second to none. And we encourage you to explore the world of the opera in your classroom as well. We are proud to offer this Study Guide to support your discussions and preparations for The Threepenny Opera. We’ve included special insights into this particular production as well as the opera’s history with connections to Social Studies and English Language Arts. Boston Lyric Opera’s mission is to build curiosity, enthusiasm, and support for opera. This Study Guide is one way in which we support the incredible work of educators like you, who are inspired by this beautiful art form and introduce it to your students. As we continue to develop additional Study Guides this Season, we want your feedback. Please tell us about how you use this guide and how it can best serve your needs by emailing If you’re interested in additional opera education opportunities with Boston Lyric Opera, please visit to discover more about our programs. We look forward to seeing you at the theatre!


Rebecca Ann S. Kirk Manager of Education Programs

TABLE OF CONTENTS HISTORY OF OPERA: AN OVERVIEW .................................................................................................................................................................................................................................... 4 THE SCIENCE AND ART OF OPERA......................................................................................................................................................................................................................................... 7 THE THREEPENNY OPERA SYNOPSIS.................................................................................................................................................................................................................................. 11 BEGGARS FOR PENNIES................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................ 12 OPPOSITES ATTRACT......................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................... 14 MACK THE KNIFE................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................. 16 MUSICAL THEATER OR OPERA?....................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................... 18 LISTEN UP!................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................. 219 RESOURCES.............................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................. 23 NOTES TO PREPARE FOR THE OPERA........................................................................................................................................................................................................................... 24

THE HISTORY OF OPERA Toccata from L’Orfeo. Claudio Monteverdi Favola in musica. Reprint of the First Edition of the Score, Venice 1609, via Wikimedia Commons

People have been telling stories through music for millennia throughout the world. Opera is an art form with roots in Western Europe dating back hundreds of years. Here is a brief timeline of its lineage.

RENAISSANCE 1573 The Florentine Camerata was founded in Italy, devoted to reviving ancient Greek musical traditions, including sung drama. 1598 Jacopo Peri, a member of the Camerata, composed the world’s first opera – Dafne, reviving the classic myth. 1607 Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) wrote the first opera to become popular, Orfeo, making him the premier opera composer of his day and bridging the gap between Renaissance and Baroque music. His works are still performed today. BAROQUE


1637 The first public opera house, Teatro San Cassiano, was built in Venice, Italy. 1673 Jean Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) Italian-born composer, brought opera to the French court, creating a unique style, tragédie en musique, that better suited the French language. Blurring the lines between recitative and aria, he created fast-paced dramas to suit the tastes of French aristocrats. 1689 Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) simple and elegant chamber opera, Dido and Aeneas, premiered at Josias Priest’s boarding school for girls in London. 1712 George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), a German-born composer, moved to London, where he found immense success writing intricate and highly ornamented Italian opera seria (serious opera). Ornamentation refers to stylized, fast-moving notes, usually improvised by the singer to make a musical line more interesting and to showcase their vocal talent.

Dido and Aeneas, 1747, Pompeo Batoni, via Wikimedia Commons




1750s A reform movement, led by composer Christoph Gluck (1714-1787), rejected the flashy ornamented style of the Baroque in favor of simplicity refined to enhance the drama. 1767 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) wrote his first opera at age 11, beginning his 25-year opera career. Mozart mastered, then innovated in several operatic forms. He wrote operas serias, including La Clemenza di Tito, and operas buffas (comedic operas) like Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). He then combined the two genres in Don Giovanni, calling it dramma giocoso. Mozart also innovated on the form of Singspiel (German sung play), featuring spoken dialogue, as in Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute).

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

1805 Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) although a prolific composer, wrote only one opera, Fidelio. The extremes of musical expression in Beethoven’s music pushed the boundaries in the late Classical period and inspired generations of Romantic composers.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)


Giuseppe Verdi

Giacomo Puccini

Richard Wagner

ROMANTIC — THE GOLDEN AGE OF OPERA 1816 Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) composed Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), becoming the most prodigious opera composer in Italy by age 24. He wrote 39 operas in 20 years. This new style created by Rossini and his contemporaries, including Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini, would, a century later, be referred to as bel canto (beautiful singing). Bel canto compositions were inspired by the nuanced vocal capabilities of the human voice and its expressive potential. Composers employed a strategic use of register, the push and pull of tempo (rubato), extremely smooth and connected phrases (legato), and vocal glides (portamento). 1842 Inspired by the risqué popular entertainment of French vaudeville, Hervé created the first operetta, a short comedic musical drama with spoken dialogue. Responding to popular trends, this new form stood in contrast to the increasingly serious and dramatic works at the grand Parisian opera house. Opéra comique as a genre was often not comic, rather realistic or humanistic. Grand Opera, on the contrary, was exaggerated and melodramatic. 1853 Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) completed La Traviata, a story of love, loss, and the struggle of average people, in the increasingly popular realistic style of verismo. Verdi enjoyed immense acclaim during his lifetime, while expanding opera to include larger orchestras, extravagant sets and costumes, and more highly trained voices.

A scene from a 19th-century version of the play The Barber of Seville by Pierre Beaumarchais. Its origins in the commedia dell’arte are shown in this picture which portrays Figaro dressed in the costume and mask of Harlequin. 1884, via Wikimedia Commons

1865 Richard Wagner’s (1813-1883) Tristan und Isolde was the beginning of musical modernism, pushing the use of traditional harmony to its extreme. His massively ambitious, lengthy operas, often based in German folklore, sought to synthesize music, theater, poetry, and visuals in what he called a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art). The most famous of these was an epic four-opera drama, Der Ring des Nibelungen, which took him 26 years to write and was completed in 1874. 1871 Influenced by French operetta, English librettist W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911) and composer Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) began their 25-year partnership, which produced 14 comic operettas including The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado. Their works helped inspire the genre of American musical theater. 1874 Johann Strauss II, influenced largely by his father, with whom he shared a name and talent, composed Die Fledermaus, popularizing Viennese musical traditions, namely the waltz, and shaping operetta. 1896 Giacomo Puccini’s (1858-1924) La Bohème captivated audiences with its intensely beautiful music, realism, and raw emotion. Puccini enjoyed huge acclaim during his lifetime for his works.

Mikado theatre poster, Edinburgh, 1885, via Wikimedia Commons


Hammerstein and Kern

Leonard Bernstein

Scott Joplin

20TH CENTURY 1911 Scott Joplin, “The King of Ragtime,” wrote his only opera, Treemonisha, which was not performed until 1972. The work combined the European late-Romantic operatic style with African American folk songs, spirituals, and dances. The libretto, also by Joplin, was written at a time when literacy among African Americans in the southern United States was rare.


1922 Alban Berg (1885-1935) composed the first completely atonal opera, Wozzeck, dealing with uncomfortable themes of militarism and social exploitation. Wozzeck is in the style of 12-tone music or Serialism. This new compositional style, developed in Vienna by composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), placed equal importance on each of the 12 pitches in a scale, removing the sense of the music being in a particular key. 1927 American musical theater, commonly referred to as Broadway, was taken more seriously after Jerome Kern’s (1885-1945) Show Boat, words by Oscar Hammerstein, tackled issues of racial segregation and the ban on interracial marriage in Mississippi. 1935 American composer George Gershwin (1898-1937), who was influenced by African American music and culture, debuted his opera, Porgy and Bess, in Boston, MA, with an all-African American cast of classically trained singers. 1945 British composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) gained international recognition with his opera Peter Grimes. Britten, along with Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), was one of the first British opera composers to gain fame in nearly 300 years. 1957 Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), known for synthesizing musical genres, brought together the best of American musical theater, opera, and ballet in West Side Story—a reimagining of Romeo and Juliet in a contemporary setting.

Porgy and Bess by the New York Harlem Theatre, 2009

1987 John Adams (b. 1947) composed one of the great minimalist operas, Nixon in China, the story of Nixon’s 1972 meeting with Chinese leader Mao Zedong. Musical Minimalism strips music down to its essential elements, usually featuring a great deal of repetition with slight variations. TODAY Still a vibrant and evolving art form, opera attracts contemporary composers such as Dominick Argento (b. 1927), Philip Glass (b. 1937), Mark-Anthony Turnage (b. 1960), Thomas Adès (b. 1971), and many others. These composers continue to be influenced by present and historical musical forms in creating new operas that explore current issues or reimagine ancient tales.


So Young Park as Queen of the Night Photo: Eric Antoniou.

THE SCIENCE AND ART OF OPERA WHY DO OPERA SINGERS SOUND LIKE THAT? Opera is unique among forms of singing in that singers are trained to be able to sing without amplification, in large theaters, over an entire orchestra, and still be heard and understood! This is what sets the art form of opera apart from similar forms such as musical theater. To become a professional opera singer, it takes years of intense physical training and constant practice—not unlike that of a ballet dancer—to stay in shape. Additionally, while ballet dancers can dance through pain and illness, poor health, especially respiratory issues and even allergies, can be severely debilitating for a professional opera singer. Let’s peek into some of the science of this art form.

HOW THE VOICE WORKS Singing requires different parts of the body to work together: the lungs, the vocal cords, the vocal tract, and the articulators (lips, teeth, and tongue). The lungs create a flow of air over the vocal cords, which vibrate. That vibration is amplified by the vocal tract and broken up into words by consonants produced by the articulators. Breath: Any good singer will tell you that good breath support is essential to produce quality sound. Breath is like the gas that goes into your car. Without it, nothing runs. In order to sing long phrases of music with clarity and volume, opera singers access their full lung capacity by keeping the torso elongated and releasing the lower abdomen and diaphragm muscles, which allows air to enter into the lower lobes of the lungs. This is why we associate a certain posture with opera singers. In the past, many operas were staged with singers standing in one place to deliver an entire aria or scene, with minimal activity. Modern productions, however, often demand a much greater range of movement and agility onstage, requiring performers to be physically fit, and disproving the stereotype of the “fat lady sings.”

Vibration: If you run your fingers along your throat you will feel a little lump just underneath your chin. That is your “Adam’s Apple,” and right behind it, housed in the larynx (voice-box), are your vocal cords. When air from the lungs crosses over the vocal cords it creates an area of low pressure (google The Bernoulli Effect), which brings the cords together and makes them vibrate. This vibration produces a buzz. The vocal chords can be lengthened or shortened by muscles in the larynx, or by increasing the speed of air flow. This change in the length and thickness of the vocal cords is what allows singers to create different pitches. Higher pitches require long, thin cords, while low pitches require short, thick ones. Professional singers take great pains to protect the delicate anatomy of their vocal cords with hydration and rest, as the tiniest scarring or inflammation can have noticeable effects on the quality of sound produced.

Resonance: Without the resonating chambers in the head, the buzzing of the vocal cords would sound very unpleasant. The vocal tract, a term encompassing the mouth cavity, and the back of the throat, down to the larynx, shapes the buzzing of the vocal cords like a sculptor shapes clay. Shape your mouth in an ee vowel (as in eat), then sharply inhale a few times. The cool sensation you feel at the top and back of your mouth is your soft palate. The soft palate can raise or lower to change the shape of the vocal tract. Opera singers always strive to sing with a raised soft palate, which allows for the greatest amplification of the sound produced by the vocal cords. Different vowel sounds are produced by raising or lowering the tongue. Say the vowels: ee, eh, ah, oh, oo and notice how each vowel requires a slightly lower tongue placement. This area of vocal training is particularly difficult because none of the anatomy is visible from the outside!

Articulation: The lips, teeth, and tongue are all used to create consonant sounds, which separate words into syllables and make language intelligible. Consonants must be clear and audible for the singer to be understood. Because opera singers do not sing with amplification, their articulation must be particularly good. The challenge lies in producing crisp, rapid consonants without interrupting the connection of the vowels (through the controlled exhale of breath) within the musical phrase.

Perfecting every element of this complex singing system requires years of training, and is essential for the demands of the art form. An opera singer must be capable of singing for hours at a time, over the top of an orchestra, in large opera houses, while acting and delivering an artistic interpretation of the music. It is complete and total engagement of mental, physical, and emotional control and expression. Therefore think of opera singers as the Olympic athletes of the stage, sit back, and marvel at what the human body is capable of! 7


Somewhat equivalent to the lower female alto role in a chorus, mezzosopranos (mezzo translates as “middle”) are known for their full and expressive qualities. While they don’t sing frequencies quite as high as sopranos, their ranges do overlap, and it is a “darker” tone that sets them apart. One of the most famous mezzo-soprano lead roles is Carmen in Bizet’s Carmen.

Occasionally women have an even lower range that overlaps with the highest male voice. This voice type is rare, and they often play male characters, referred to in opera as trouser roles.


The highest male voice; tenors often sing the role of the hero. One of the most famous tenor roles is Roméo in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliet. Occasionally men have cultivated very high voices singing in a range similar to a mezzo-soprano, but using their falsetto. Called the Countertenor, this voice type is often found in Baroque music. Countertenors replaced castrati in the heroic lead roles of Baroque opera after the practice of castration was deemed unethical.

A middle-range male voice, baritones can range from sweet and mild in tone, to darker dramatic and full tones. A famous baritone role is Rigoletto in Verdi’s Rigoletto. Baritones who are most comfortable in a slightly lower range are known as Bass-Baritones, a hybrid of the two lowest voice types.

Baritone Bass


Opera singers are cast into roles based on their tessitura (the range of notes they can sing comfortably). There are many descriptors that accompany the basic voice types, but here are some of the most common ones:

The lowest male voice, basses often fall into two main categories: basso buffo, which is a comic character who often sings in lower laughing-like tones, and basso profundo, which is as low as the human voice can sing! Doctor Bartolo is an example of a bass role in The Barber of Seville by Rossini.



The highest female voice; some sopranos are designated as coloratura as they specialize in being able to sing very fast moving notes that are very high in frequency and light in tone, often referred to as “color notes.” One of the most famous coloratura roles is The Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute.









Tenor Contralto


110 HZ











220 HZ








440 HZ









880 HZ

Each of the voice types (soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone, bass) also tends to be sub-characterized by whether it is more Lyric or Dramatic in tone. Lyric singers tend toward smooth lines in their music, sensitively expressed interpretation, and flexible agility. Dramatic singers have qualities that are attributed to darker, fuller, richer note qualities expressed powerfully and robustly with strong emotion. While its easiest to understand operatic voice types through these designations and descriptions, one of the most exciting things about listening to a singer perform is that each individual’s voice is essentially unique, thus each singer will interpret a role in an opera in a different way. 8



THE PHYSICS OF OPERA SINGERS What is it about opera singers that allows them to be heard above the orchestra? It’s not that they simply sing louder. The qualities of sound have to do with the relationship between the frequency (pitch) of a sound, represented in a unit of measurement called hertz, and its amplitude, measured in decibels, which the ear perceives as loudness. Only artificially produced sounds, however, create a pure frequency and amplitude (these are the only kind that can break glass). The sound produced by a violin, a drum, a voice, or even smacking your hand on a table, produces a fundamental frequency as well as secondary, tertiary, etc. frequencies known as overtones, or as musicians call them, harmonics. For instance, the orchestra tunes to a concert “A” pitch before a performance. Concert “A” has a frequency of about 440 hertz, but that is not the only pitch you will hear. Progressively softer pitches above that fundamental pitch are produced in multiples of 440 at 880hz, 1320hz, 1760hz, etc. Each different instrument in the orchestra, because of its shape, construction, and mode in which it produces sound, produces different harmonics. This is what makes a violin, for example, have a different color (or timbre) from a trumpet. Generally, the harmonics of the instruments in the orchestra fade around 2500hz. Overtones produced by a human voice—whether speaking, yelling, or singing—are referred to as formants. As the demands of opera stars increased, vocal teachers discovered that by manipulating the empty space within the vocal tract, they could emphasize higher frequencies within the overtone series—frequencies above 2500 hz. This technique allowed singers to perform without hurting their vocal chords, as they are not actually singing at a higher fundamental decibel level than the orchestra. Swedish voice scientist, Johann Sundberg, observed this phenomenon when he recorded the world-famous tenor Jussi Bjoerling in 1970. His research showed multiple peaks in decibel level, with the strongest frequency (overtone) falling between 2500 and 3000 hertz. This frequency, known as the singer’s formant, is the “sweet spot” for singers so that we hear their voices soaring over the orchestra into the opera house night after night.

Listen Up!

Prof. Tecumseh Fitch, evolutionary biologist and cognitive scientist at the University of Vienna, explains the difference between a fundamental frequency and formant frequency in the human voice. For an opera singer, the lower two formants (peaks on a graph) determine the specific vowel sound. The third formant and above add overtones that are specific to each particular singer’s voice, like a fingerprint. When two people sing the same note simultaneously, the high overtones allow your ear to distinguish two voices. 9


Boston Opera House

The final piece of the puzzle in creating the perfect operatic sound is the opera house or theater itself. Designing the perfect acoustic space can be an almost impossible task, one which requires tremendous knowledge of science, engineering, and architecture, as well as an artistic sensibility. The goal of the acoustician is to make sure that everyone in the audience can clearly understand the music being produced onstage, no matter where they are sitting. A perfectly designed opera house or concert hall (for non-amplified sound) functions almost like gigantic musical instrument. Reverberation is one key aspect in making a singer’s words intelligible or an orchestra’s melodies clear. Imagine the sound your voice would make in the shower or a cave. The echo you hear is reverberation caused by the large, hard, smooth surfaces. Too much reverberation (bouncing sound waves) can make words difficult to understand. Resonant vowel sounds overlap as they bounce off of hard surfaces and cover up quieter consonant sounds. In these environments, sound carries a long way but becomes unclear or, as it is sometimes called, wet–as if the sound were underwater. Acousticians can mitigate these effects by covering smooth surfaces with textured materials like fabric, perforated metal, or diffusers, which absorb and disperse sound. These tools, however, must be used carefully, as too much absorption can make a space dry–meaning the sound onstage will not carry at all and the performers may have trouble even hearing themselves. Imagine singing into a pillow or under a blanket. The shape of the room itself also contributes to the way the audience perceives the music. Most large performance spaces are shaped like a bell–small where the stage is, and growing larger and more spread out in every dimension as one moves farther away. This shape helps to create a clear path for the sound to reach every seat. In designing concert halls or opera houses, big decisions must be made about the construction of the building based on acoustical needs. Even with the best planning, the perfect acoustic is not guaranteed, but professionals are constantly learning and adapting new scientific knowledge to enhance the audience’s experience.

Boston Symphony Hall, opened in 1900, with acoustical design by Harvard physicist Wallace Clement Sabine, was the first concert hall to be designed with scientific acoustic principles in mind. Each seat was mathematically designed and placed for maximum acoustical perfection.



Dreigroschenoper Original Poster, 1928.

London, 1838. Leading up to the Coronation of Queen Victoria Prologue: A street singer croons “Mack the Knife,” a cautionary tale of the notorious crime lord, Macheath. ACT I: The mob boss of London’s beggars, Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, is the process of recruiting a new beggar, Filch, to his gang. Filch must bribe his way into the protection of Peachum’s gang by agreeing to pay over 50 percent of whatever he makes, or risk a beating for begging on Peachum’s turf. After finishing with Filch, the Peachums note that their grown daughter Polly did not come home the previous night. Peachum suspects she has snuck out to see Macheath, a.k.a. Mack the Knife, Peachum’s rival. Peachum vows to thwart their relationship and destroy Mack. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the city, Mack prepares to marry Polly, as his gang steals and assembles all the necessary food and furnishings. They marry without ceremony and everyone sits down to a banquet. Since none of the gang members can provide fitting entertainment, Polly entertains the party with a song about a scullery maid turned pirate queen who orders the execution of her bosses and customers. Suddenly the Chief of Police, Tiger Brown, arrives turning everyone on edge, yet Mack calms any fears by introducing the Chief as his friend, explaining that they served in England’s colonial wars together. Chief Brown has promised to keep Mack out of jail ever since. Polly returns home to defiantly announce that she has married Mack and stands her ground against her parents’ anger. She accidentally mentions, however, the comradery between her new husband and the Chief of Police.

his favorite brothel, to see his ex-lover, Jenny. As they reminisce about their days together, Mack never suspects that she has lured him into a trap! Mrs. Peachum bribed Jenny to turn Mack in to the authorities beyond Chief Brown’s jurisdiction. As Mack sits in jail, both Polly and another of Mack’s girlfriends, Lucy, come to visit him at the same time. They hurl insults at each other, each insisting that Mack only loves her. Mrs. Peachum arrives to break up this fight and drags her obstinate daughter home. Meanwhile, Lucy helps Mack escape from jail. When Mr. Peachum finds out he has escaped, Peachum confronts Chief Brown and threatens to unleash all of his beggars during Queen Victoria’s coronation parade, ruining the ceremony and costing Chief Brown his job. ACT III: Jenny comes to collect her bribe money from Mrs. Peachum and accidentally reveals that Mack is currently hiding at the house of her friend. When Chief Brown arrives to arrest Peachum and the beggars for attempting to disrupt the coronation, he is horrified to learn that they are already in position and only Mr. Peachum can stop them. Backed into a corner, Chief Brown’s only option is to re-arrest Mack, which sentences him to execution. As the gallows are being assembled, Mack desperately tries to raise enough money to bribe his way out again. All of a sudden, in a comic turn of events, Chief Brown announces that Macheath has been pardoned by the Queen and granted a castle and pension. Epilogue: The moral of the story is to not punish criminals too harshly especially as they often already have the deck stacked against them.

ACT II: Knowing just what her father is capable of, Polly pleads with Mack to leave London for his own safety. Finally persuaded, Mack hands over his business dealings to Polly to manage in his absence. Before he leaves town, however, Mack makes a stop at


CHARACTERS Jonathon Jeremiah Peachum, baritone head of a gang of beggars Celia Peachum, mezzo-soprano Jonathon’s wife Polly Peachum, soprano daughter of Jonathon Peachum, and new wife of Macheath Macheath, baritone notorious crime lord Tiger Brown, baritone Chief of the London Police Lucy, soprano Brown’s daughter and Macheath’s ex-girlfriend Jenny Diver, mezzo-soprano a prostitute and Macheath’s ex-girlfriend BEGGARS FOR PENNIES: AN OLD OPERA GETS A NEW LIFE The Threepenny Opera is a 1928 German adaptation of an English ballad opera, The Beggar’s Opera, which premiered in 1728—200 years prior! The Beggar’s Opera was a musical comedic play by poet John Gay with spoken lines in plain English (as opposed to verse, like Shakespeare) that satirized current events. The Beggar’s Opera, often referred to by scholars as an “antiopera,” used popular tunes and recognizable characters (like wellknown celebrities and political figures of the time) to make fun of social issues while turning the familiar conventions of Italian grand opera on their head. This new style of comedic musical play, is considered the first ballad opera, and greatly influenced other works that followed including the works of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, often called the fathers of Musical Theater, who together penned The Mikado, H.M.S. Pinafore, and Pirates of Penzance, among others.

Costume renderings by designer Charles Neumann for BLO's production of The Threepenny Opera.

when The Beggar’s Opera was brought to their attention by Brecht’s lover, Elisabeth Hauptmann. Inspired by the still-relevant themes in the piece, Brecht and Weill used the plot and rewrote the libretto and music calling it Die Dreigroschenoper, or The Threepenny Opera, therefore keeping the intention of the original name that (in theory) any beggar could afford to see it—thus an opera for all.

Why would two German artists choose such an old English opera to inspire their next collaboration? Composer Kurt Weill and playwright Bertolt Brecht were contemporaries in Germany who met in 1927, and began to collaborate after Weill read a book of Brecht’s poems and was inspired to set them to music. They were working on expanding that project into an opera

12 12

Engraved print of The Beggar’s Opera by William Hogarth, 1728.

The story satirizes and critiques capitalist systems, social hierarchy, survival, and love—themes we can still relate to today! For instance, the mob boss Peachum often quotes the Bible, using a façade of morality to justify the exploitation of others for his own benefit. The rival gangster Macheath, however, aspires to a better life, but ultimately is not willing to compromise his pride in order to renounce a life of crime and attain his dreams. These characters and themes present in The Beggar’s Opera, translated clearly to the socio-political climate and the rise of Fascism in Germany in the late 1920s. As a ballad opera, The Beggar’s Opera relied on the convention of borrowing melodies from other well-known tunes of the day including Scottish and French folk melodies. When Weill wrote the score for The Threepenny Opera, he used the same concept, but updated the musical references so that contemporary audiences would connect to them. Weill was particularly drawn to the style of dance music found in the jazz clubs of Berlin—originally from the United States, which we now refer to as Dixieland. He also added references to familiar German folk tunes. To orchestrate the score, Weill ditched the traditional orchestra of strings, woodwinds, and percussion, in favor of a big band jazz ensemble with seven players playing over twenty instruments! In addition to using a German translation of the original libretto from The Beggar’s Opera, Brecht also borrowed or quoted other famous writers in his adaptation including French poet, François Villon, British author Rudyard Kipling, and the Bible to draw clear literary references that the audience would have been familiar with. The premiere of The Threepenny Opera in 1928 was wildly successful throughout Germany, especially among the middle class, and the performers became stars overnight for their portrayals of such a witty social satire. Despite this, however, the political climate was changing rapidly and as the Nazi party gained power, the opera was soon banned. The Threepenny Opera premiered on Broadway a month after Weill’s arrival to New York City in 1933, but it did not translate well to the current social climate and garnered mixed reviews. It was not until 1952 that the opera was revived by Leonard Bernstein in his inaugural Festival of the Creative Arts at Brandeis University with a new libretto translation by composer and librettist Marc Blitzstein. The work has since become well loved among generations of American audiences with Broadway and Off-Broadway runs.

A popular American jazz band, the Wolverine Orchestra, 1924.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery! There is a long history of artists borrowing and stealing musical and spoken word bits, or quotes. This practice, more common than ever today, we now refer to as sampling. Sampling in pop, hip-hop, rap, R&B, blues, jazz and many other contemporary genres of music is VERY common especially since the dawn of the recording industry. Why do artists do this?

The Blitzstein version of Threepenny Opera performing at the Theater de Lys in Greenwich Village

DISCUSS: If you were to write an opera, what music or text might you borrow or sample from to make specific references and help you tell your story more effectively? Why would you choose those sources? 13

Was Kurt Weill a German opera composer or an American Broadway musical composer? The answer is both! While some of his contemporaries viewed popular music as inferior, Weill sought to bridge the gap between classical and popular music claiming that there was no difference between them, only that music could be good or bad. Kurt Weill (pronounced “VILE,” but not to be confused with Kurt Vile, the rock musician!) was born in Germany in 1900, at the beginning of a new century—a time of tumultuous political and social change. He lived through World War I as a teen, and later was greatly impacted by World War II. Weill was the son of a prominent Jewish cantor and influenced by music from an early age. He studied under composer Engelbert Humperdinck (known for his opera Hansel und Gretel) and admired the work of contemporaries Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, and Igor Stravinsky. He was interested in how popular music could be fused with his classical training. At age 26, Weill married singer and actress Lotte Lenya and wrote many roles and pieces for her throughout their marriage. Bertolt Brecht, only two years older than Weill, was raised in a Christian middle-class household and was deeply influenced by watching his friends enlist to fight in World War I (and in many

Portrait of Kurt Weill at age 32


cases, never return). He began to write in response to this, and quickly developed a rebelliously vocal reputation. He was once nearly suspended from school for openly criticizing fallen soldiers as “empty-headed,” thus being accused of being unpatriotic. As he continued to push back, reacting to professors and critics alike, he developed a strong voice through his plays as a political activist and a witty wordsmith. Though many had strong opinions on Brecht’s work, his comedic brilliance aided his growing popularity. At the age of 24, he won Germany’s most prestigious literary prize of the time, the Kleist Prize, normally intended for established writers with a lifetime of publications. Brecht and Weill first began collaborating in 1927, on a small piece for a music festival, The Little Mahagonny, which would eventually be reworked into their full-scale opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. If Brecht’s motivations for writing were socio-political, and Weill’s tended toward modern (pushing away from opera traditions that came before), adapting The Beggar’s Opera seemed to be the perfect next collaboration. Brecht was eager to highlight the still-relevant socio-political themes of this old ballad opera. Weill used popular German

The Unsung Women Although officially married only twice—first to Marianne Zoff and later to Helene Weigel—Brecht had many affairs with women throughout his life. Often these women were more than muses, rather, they were writers in their own right and have been described as the genius behind his plays. The most prominent of these lovers were Paula Banholzer, Elisabeth Hauptmann, Margarete Steffin, and Ruth Berlau, all of whom helped propel Brecht’s career. Elisabeth Hauptmann was in the process of translating The Beggar’s Opera from English to German when Brecht decided to offer the idea of an adaptation to his producers and to Weill. Some literary scholars believe that Hauptmann likely wrote most of the libretto for The Threepenny Opera with the exception of a few song texts. Did he steal it or was there an agreement between them? Do you think she should be credited for her work? 14

Photo of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya at home in 1942, World Wide Photos.

As the Nazi regime gained power, Weill was forced to emigrate to America in 1933. Rather than cede to pressures from this tyrannical force that demanded he stop composing, he reaffirmed his music, starting again in America in a statement of resilience. A month after Weill arrived in New York City, The Threepenny Opera premiered on Broadway, but closed after only twelve performances. It was not until the early 1950s that Threepenny garnered critical acclaim among American audiences with a new English translation by Marc Blitzstein. Leonard Bernstein conducted a revival performance in 1952, and Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya, won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Jenny in 1956. American musicians were enamored by

Inspired by the American Broadway style, Weill’s work melded the tuneful songs of American stage with his own European classical-jazz fusion to create a unique sound and making significant influences on the musical theater genre. He composed many works for the stage and concert halls and in 1947, collaborated with American poet Langston Hughes, winning the first Tony Award for Best Original Score for Street Scene. Kurt Weill remained in America for the rest of his life, dying of a heart attack at the young age of 50. It was said at his funeral that even though his life was tragically cut short, he still managed to define an entire genre of musical theater. Brecht also emigrated to escape persecution, due though to his political activism rather than his cultural and ethnic background. He moved around Europe for several years before finally immigrating to the United States in 1941. Instead of embracing the American Dream like

Weill vs. The Nazi Regime Weill was forced to flee Germany in 1933 due to Nazi persecution. The Nazi Regime encouraged all Germans to boycott Weill’s music, not only because he was Jewish, but also because they classified his style of music as degenerate. The Nazis sought a narrow ideal of perfection and in the realm of music, held the works of Richard Wagner as the gold standard in German opera. Weill rebelled against the Wagnerian style of composition, favoring modern melodic forms and instrumentation. Weill’s work therefore was not music at all according to Nazi censors.

Portrait of Bertolt Brecht, 1954.

Weill’s jazz influences, and the opera’s most famous song, “Mack the Knife,” soon became a jazz standard recorded by legends including Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Bobby Darin.

Weill, Brecht’s political radicalism and outspoken support of communism put him on a government investigation list. He testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, stating that he had never been a member of the Communist Party. As he did in his writing, Brecht used wit and humor to diffuse the government’s suspicions, joking that the Committee was taking advantage of him for not speaking English well. Immediately after his testimony however, he returned to Europe making his way back to East Berlin. He remained there until his death in 1956. He too defined an entire era of theater with his body of work. DISCUSS: How do you think artists’ work is affected by religious or political persecution? Can you name other artists of any art form that you know who fled their country of origin due to persecution? How did this change their art?

Berlin Cathedral 1937

musical themes and jazz influences to compose the score, keeping the intent of the original by using musical convention that would be familiar to the public. The Threepenny Opera was met with critical acclaim, becoming popular throughout Europe with its tuneful melodies and witty spoken lines. After the success of Threepenny, Brecht and Weill collaborated on one final work—three operas in total—titled Happy End, but after it premiered, it was deemed a failure.


MACK THE KNIFE As the opera begins, you may find yourself humming along to the first aria, “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer,” as you’ll likely find it familiar. So how did an opera aria become so ingrained in American culture? In fact, this most famous piece in The Threepenny Opera almost never existed! The rehearsal process for this opera was chaotic, with many strong personalities and opinions in the mix. The perfomer playing Macheath felt that his character was not introduced dramatically enough to be taken seriously as a crime lord. Weill and Brecht quickly penned what would become a Prologue, a very grim murder ballad describing all the terrible things Macheath has done. They decided it was best to be sung by a neutral character, a wandering minstrel playing a barrel organ which was an old convention in the style of ballad operas. During the dress rehearsal however, the barrel organ broke! Scrambling, Weill asked the orchestra to improvise an accompaniment. A few years later, when the opera was introduced to American audiences, Weill kept this improvised arrangement in the score. It wasn’t until the opera was revived off-Broadway more than twenty years later that it became a hit. Marc Blitzstein, in his translation, toned

The cover of one of Bobby Darin’s most successful albums, 1959.

down the lyrics, eliminating dark stanzas describing arson and rape and—ironically to the song’s original intent—described the protagonist gangster, Mack, in a softer, more attractive way. Louis Armstrong was the first jazz artist to record the song in 1956, under the supervision of Lotte Lenya, whose name was added in the new English translation of the lyrics by Armstrong in homage to her. Bobby Darin was warned by American radio personality, Dick Clark, not to record the song because covering a song from an opera could tarnish his teen idol image. Ignoring this advice, Darin recorded “Mack the Knife” in 1959, releasing it as a single. It not only became more popular than the Armstrong version, it hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart for that year and earned him a Grammy Award! Frank Sinatra also recorded a version with Quincy Jones; Ella Fitzgerald recorded a live performance in Berlin, improvised when she forgot the words, and earned critical acclaim for her new version.

Murder Ballads were songs written in the style of a ballad dating back to the mid-17th century whose lyrics graphically depicted the details of a murder either from the perspective of the murderer or of the victim. The fascination with grim details of murder carries into present day and is often found in country, blues, folk, and rock traditions performed by greats including Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash, and Bruce Springsteen.

Louis Armstrong with his trumpet, 1955. 16

Cover of one of Ella’s most successful jazz albums released in 1960.

To this day, “Mack the Knife” is taught as a jazz standard and has been performed by current artists including Michael Bublé and Robbie Williams. Many jazz greats have also recorded instrumental versions. Popular shows including Saturday Night Live and The‌‌ ‌‌Muppet Show have parodied the song. It was also featured in a McDonald’s commercial for Big Macs in the 1980s (ironically juxtaposing an iconic symbol of American capitalism against the original creators’ socio-political commentary). Even the hard-to-please Simon Cowell of America’s Got Talent deemed “Mack the Knife” to be the greatest song ever written! REFLECT: Can you think of any Broadway musical songs that pop artists have covered? Can you think of any songs that came from different musical traditions that are often covered by pop singers?

The Muppet Show, Season 3, Episode 63. December 16, 1978.

Barrel Organ played by Austrian street performer.


You may notice that The Threepenny Opera does not sound like Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, Puccini’s La Bohème, or Wagner’s Die Walküre. Weill and Brecht did not want their opera to sound like any that came before them; and more specifically, they wanted their opera to not just be for the social elite, but accessible to everyone. One of the ways they did this was to write Threepenny with spoken lines like a play, rather than sung dialogue called recitative that characterizes much of opera. Their orchestra was not made up of the traditional balance of string, woodwind, brass, and percussion instruments, rather it more closely resembles a jazz band with saxophones, trumpets, stand-up bass, guitar, and even an accordion! For these reasons, scholars argue that The Threepenny Opera is perhaps more of a musical than an opera. And, yes, this brings up the age-old debate of opera vs. musical theater, but in fact, the line between them is very blurry. Interestingly, The Threepenny Opera is not always performed by trained opera singers, in fact it wasn’t even originally composed for opera singers. The music is separated by lengthy dialogue, so the keys and tempos for each song can be adjusted to fit each particular singer’s abilities. Some scholars speculate that this was because Lotte Lenya (the composer’s wife) was not a strong singer and experimented in several keys before settling on one for the performance. Regardless of the reason, productions of The Threepenny Opera are often cast with musical theater actors rather than opera singers. Another reason The Threepenny Opera blurs the line between opera and musical theater is because of the works that influenced it, including the ballad opera, The Beggar’s Opera, as well as its influences on Broadway musicals that followed. The art form of opera began to incorporate other forms of performance over 100 years prior to Threepenny, mixing in elements of burlesque, vaudeville, ballad opera, and even commedia dell’arte tropes. In England, W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan began collaborating on satiric operettas that are often now regarded as some of the first musical theater works. The Threepenny Opera did run on Broadway once it was introduced to American audiences. Its unique mix of American jazz music with German political and comedic content directly influenced Broadways musicals that followed it, in particular the 1966 musical, Cabaret. In a story that takes place in 1930s Berlin, Lotte Lenya premiered the role of Fraulein Schneider.


Lotte Lenya. Photo by Carl Van Vechten 1962.


So is Threepenny an opera or a musical? Producers take liberties with how The Threepenny Opera is performed. Some productions cast trained opera singers, while others use musical theater actors. The line between defining Threepenny as either opera or musical theater often depends more on how the creative team chooses to produce it, than on Weill’s indications in the score. He, after all, aimed to compose a work to appeal to and connect with audiences from all walks of life. Boston Lyric Opera will showcase the expertise of our accomplished cast of singers, and will stay true to the intent of the time period paying homage to the Weimar culture that was born in Berlin in the time between the two World Wars. This was a time of great cultural rebellion birthing modern, minimalist, and subversive thinking in realms of politics, social life, the arts, science, architecture, design, education, and philosophy. Movements during this period include Marxism in socio-political thinking, German Expressionism and Dada in art, Bauhaus style in design and architecture, and quantum mechanics in science. Yet BLO’s Production will also draw clear associations to contemporary social issues as many of the themes of the opera still ring true with today’s audiences. And still, blurring the line that Threepenny walks, in keeping with the musical theater tradition, BLO’s production will not include supertitles above the stage—a common convention in opera today. REFLECT: Do you think Threepenny is an opera or a Broadway musical? Why or why not? Would the opera sound different if the singers were performed using a jazz style of singing? How so?

LISTEN UP! What a difference 200 years makes! Listen to this scene from The Beggar’s Opera Act I, where Macheath and Polly sing of their love for each other right after their marriage.

Now listen to the same scene from The Threepenny Opera. Compare the two songs. How is the instrumentation different? Do you hear similarities in the melodies?

Listen Up!

Listen Up!

Mack the Knife – Louis Armstrong Compare the original version of “Mack the Knife” to the one Louis Armstrong recorded. Armstrong’s voice sounds very different from the voice in the opera production. What liberties does Armstrong take with the tempo, instrumentation, melody, and lyrics? Which one do you prefer? Why?

Weill’s Jazz Inspiration


Threepenny’s Cannon Song:

One of the most popular jazz tunes that hit Germany in the early 1920s is called the “Tiger Rag.” Compare this tune to Weill’s piece for his characters Tiger Brown and Macheath in Threepenny. What similarities and differences can you hear?

Listen Up!

Listen Up!

Tiger Rag:

Louis Armstrong’s Version:

Listen Up!

Listen Up!


Opera or Musical Theater? The Threepenny Opera (1928) is not the first opera to blur the line between opera and musical theater. Compare Threepenny with Pirates of Penzance (1879) by Gilbert and Sullivan. Then compare with the music of Porgy and Bess (1932) by George Gershwin. What similarities do you notice? In what ways do you think each influenced the next? “Poor Wandering One” from The Pirates of Penzance:

Lotte Lenya Lotte Lenya, Kurt Weill’s wife, originated the role of Jenny Diver in Threepenny at age 20. Years later she also originated the role of Fraulein Schneider in Cabaret at age 68. What similarities do you hear between the two songs? How has Lotte’s voice changed over the course of her life? Threepenny:

Listen Up!

Listen Up!

Cabaret: “Pirate Jenny” from The Threepenny Opera:

Listen Up! Listen Up!

“Summertime” from Porgy and Bess:

Listen Up!


Threepenny Finale Remixed! In 1988, The Pet Shop Boys, an English synthetic pop group released a cover of “What Keeps Mankind Alive,” the finale of Threepenny. Compare it to the original opera finale. How does the message in the song—which is meant as a “moral of the story”—change or stay the same in the covered version? Which version do you like best? Why? Threepenny Finale

The Pet Shop Boys

Listen Up!

Listen Up!

GENERAL QUESTIONS TO GUIDE YOUR LISTENING • What instruments are playing? • How fast is the music? Are there sudden changes in speed? Is the rhythm steady or unsteady? • Key/Mode: Is it major or minor? (Does it sound bright, happy, sad, urgent, dangerous?) • Dynamics/Volume: Is the music loud or soft? Are there sudden changes in volume (either in the voice or orchestra)? • What is the shape of the melodic line? Does the voice move smoothly or does it make frequent or erratic jumps? Do the vocal lines move noticeably downward or upward? • Does the type of voice singing (baritone, soprano, tenor, mezzo, etc.) have an effect on you as a listener? • Do the melodies end as you would expect or do they surprise you? • How does the music make you feel? What effect does the above factors have on you as a listener? • What is the orchestra doing in contrast to the voice? How do they interact? • What kinds of images, settings, or emotions come to mind? Does it remind you of anything you have experienced in your own life? • Do particularly emphatic notes (low, high, held, etc.) correspond to dramatic moments? • What type of character fits this music? Romantic? Comic? Serious? Etc.



Barone, J. (2017, March 9). Kurt Weill: How Germany Finally Unearthed a National Treasure. Retrieved from Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera premieres in Berlin. (2015, December). Retrieved January, 2018, from Fuegi, J. (2007, May 31). “Bertolt Brecht: the man who never was”: The Life and Lies of Bertolt Brecht (D. Riley, Ed.). Retrieved from Garelick, J. (2014, August 28). Tre Corda harmonizes classical and jazz. Retrieved from SoPMmASBJnd7FtJlnAhKmO/story.html Garfield, D., McLeod, K., & Shocklee, H. (2011, January 28). Digital Music Sampling: Creativity Or Criminality? Retrieved January 30, 2018, from Gutmann, P. (2004). Kurt Weill--Bertold Brecht Die Dreigroshenoper. Retrieved January 25, 2018, from Hensher, P. (2015, March 3). When Brecht met Weill: a dazzling but doomed partnership. Retrieved from Hinton, Stephen (1990). Kurt Weill: The Threepenny Opera. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Keys, V. (2016, September 13). Partners in crime: when Bertolt Brecht met Kurt Weill . Retrieved from Kovacs, I. (1998, February 7). Ghosts of Brecht’s women lay claim to his plays. Retrieved from Simon, J. (1992, December 13). The Threepenny Verdi. Retrieved from Stein, D. (Ed.). (n.d.). The Threepenny Opera. Retrieved November, 2017, from Taruskin, Richard (2010). Music in the Early Twentieth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


NOTES TO PREPARE FOR THE OPERA You will see a full dress rehearsal–an insider’s look into the final moments of preparation before an opera premieres. The singers will be in full costume and makeup, the opera will be fully staged, and a full orchestra will accompany the singers, who may choose to “mark,” or not sing in full voice, in order to save their voices for the performances. A final dress rehearsal is often a complete run-through, but there is a chance the director or conductor will ask to repeat a scene or section of music. This is the last opportunity the performers have to rehearse with the orchestra before opening night, and they therefore need this valuable time to work. The following will help you better enjoy your experience of a night at the opera: • Arrive on time! Latecomers will be seated only at suitable breaks in the performance and often not until intermission. • Dress in what you are comfortable in so that you may enjoy the performance. For some, that means dressing up in a suit or gown, for others, jeans and a polo shirt fit the bill. Generally “dressy-casual” is what people wear. Live theater is usually a little more formal than a movie theater. Please do not take off your shoes or put your feet on the seat in front of you. • Respect your fellow opera lovers by not leaning forward in your seat so as to block the person’s view behind you, and by turning off (not on vibrate) cell phones and other electronic devices that could make noise during the performance. Lit screens are also very distracting to your neighbors, so please keep your phone out of sight until the house lights come up. • Taking photos or making audio or video recordings is strictly forbidden. • Do not chew gum, eat, drink, or talk while the rehearsal is in session. If you must visit the restroom during the performance, please exit quickly and quietly. • At the very beginning of the opera, the concertmaster of the orchestra will ask the oboist to play the note “A.” You will hear all the other musicians in the orchestra tune their instruments to match the oboe’s “A.” • After all the instruments are tuned, the conductor will arrive. Be sure to applaud! • Feel free to applaud or shout Bravo! at the end of an aria or chorus piece if you liked it. The end of a piece can be identified by a pause in the music. Singers love an appreciative audience! • It’s OK to laugh when something is funny! • When translating songs and poetry in particular, much can be lost due to a change in rhythm, inflection and rhyme of words. For this reason, opera is usually performed in its original language. In order to help audiences enjoy the music and follow every twist and turn of the plot, English supertitles are projected.

• Sit back, relax and let the action on stage pull you in. As an audience member, you are essential to the art form of opera—without you, there is no show!


Boston Opera House

• Listen for subtleties in the music. The tempo, volume, and complexity of the music and singing depict the feelings or actions of the characters. Also, notice repeated words or phrases; they are usually significant.

The Threepenny Opera: A Student Study Guide  

A Study Guide to BLO's production of Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera, part of the 2017/18 season.

The Threepenny Opera: A Student Study Guide  

A Study Guide to BLO's production of Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera, part of the 2017/18 season.