Other productions within Europe waited until the end of the Second World War, some notable ones being in January 1963 in London at Sadler's Wells Opera conducted by Colin Davis and in Berlin in September 1977 by the Komische Oper.
In the U.S., a short-lived April 1970 production at the Phyllis Anderson Theatre off Broadway, starred Barbara Harris as Jenny and Estelle Parsons as Begbick. Finally, in November 1979 it received its New York premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in a John Dexter production and conducted by James Levine. The cast included Teresa Stratas as Jenny, Astrid Varnay as Begbick, Richard Cassilly as Jimmy, Cornell MacNeil as Moses, Ragnar Ulfung as Fatty and Paul Plishka as Joe.
The Los Angeles Opera presented the opera in September 1989 under conductor Kent Nagano and with a Jonathan Miller production. That company's February 2007 production directed by John Doyle and conducted by James Conlon included Audra McDonald as Jenny, Patti LuPone as Begbick, and Anthony Dean Griffey as Jimmy. This production has been recorded on DVD.
Other notable productions in Europe from the 1980s included the March 1986 presentation by the Scottish Opera in Glasgow; a June 1990 production in Firenze by the Maggio musicale fiorentino; In October 1995, the Paris Opéra staged by Graham Vick, under the baton of Jeffrey Tate. The July 1998 Salzburg Festival production featured Catherine Malfitano as Jenny, Gwyneth Jones as Begbick, and Jerry Hadley as Jimmy.
Productions within the US in the last ten years have included those in November 1998 by the Lyric Opera of Chicago directed by David Alden. Catherine Malfitano repeated her role as Jenny, while Felicity Palmer sang Begbick, and Kim Begley sang in the role of Jimmy.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere Cast,|
9 March 1930
(Conductor: Gustav Brecher)
|Leocadia Begbick, a fugitive||mezzo-soprano|
|Dreieinigkeitsmoses (Trinity Moses), another fugitive||baritone|
|Fatty der Prokurist (Fatty the Bookkeeper), a third fugitive||tenor|
|Jimmy Mahoney, an Alaskan lumberjack||tenor|
|Sparbüchsen Billy (Moneybags Billy), Jimmy's friend||baritone|
|Jacob Schmidt, Jimmy's friend||tenor|
|Alaskawolfe Joe, Jimmy's friend||bass|
|Jenny Smith, a whore||soprano|
Scene 1: A desolate no-man’s land
A truck breaks down. Three fugitives from justice get out: Fatty the Bookkeeper, Trinity Moses, and Leocadia Begbick. Because the federal agents pursuing them will not search this far north, and they are in a good location to attract ships coming south from the Alaskan gold fields, Begbick decides that they can profit by staying where they are and founding a pleasure city, where men can have fun, because there is nothing else in the world to rely on.
The news of Mahagonny spreads quickly, and sharks from all over flock to the bait, including the whore Jenny Smith, who is seen, with six other girls, singing the “Alabama Song,” in which she waves goodbye to her home and sets out in pursuit of whiskey, dollars and pretty boys.
In the big cities, where men lead boring, purposeless lives, Fatty and Moses spread the gospel of Mahagonny, city of gold, among the disillusioned.
Four Alaskan Lumberjacks who have shared hard times together in the timberlands and made their fortunes set off together for Mahagonny. Jimmy Mahoney and his three friends—Jacob Schmidt, Bank Account Billy, and Alaska Wolf Joe - sing of the pleasures awaiting them in “Off to Mahagonny,” they look forward to the peace and pleasure they will find there.
The four friends arrive in Mahagonny, only to find other disappointed travelers already leaving. Begbick, well-informed about their personal tastes, marks down her prices, but for the penurious Billy they still seem too high. Jimmy impatiently calls for the girls of Mahagonny to show themselves, so he can make a choice. Begbick suggests Jenny as the right girl for Jack, who finds her rates too high. She pleads with Jack to reconsider (“Havana Song”), which arouses Jim’s interest, and he chooses her. Jenny and the girls sing a tribute to “the Jimmys from Alaska.”
Jimmy and Jenny get to know one another as she asks him to define the terms of their contact: Does he wish her to wear her hair up or down, to wear fancy underwear or none at all? “What is your wish?” asks Jim, but Jenny evades answering.
Begbick, Fatty and Moses meet to discuss the pleasure city’s financial crisis: People are leaving in droves, and the price of whiskey is sinking rapidly. Begbick suggests going back to civilization, but Fatty reminds her that the federal agents have been inquiring for her in nearby Pensacola. Money would solve everything, declares Begbick, and she decides to soak the four new arrivals for all they’ve got.
Jimmy, restless, attempts to leave Mahagonny; it’s too peaceful for him. His three friends, in close harmony, try to persuade him to stay. Eventually their threats drive Jim, his anger vented, back to the city.
Scene 9 In front of the Rich Man’s Hotel, Jimmy and the others sit lazily as a pianist plays Thekla Badarzewska's “The Maiden’s Prayer.” With growing anger, Jimmy sings of how his hard work and suffering in Alaska have led only to this. Drawing a knife, he shouts for Begbick, while his friends try to disarm him and the other men call to have him thrown out. Calm again, he tells Begbick that Mahagonny can never make people happy: it has too much peace and quiet.
As if in answer to Jimmy’s complaint, the city is threatened by a typhoon. Everyone sings in horror of the destruction awaiting them.
Tensely, people watch for the hurricane’s arrival. The men sing a hymn-like admonition not to be afraid. Jim meditatively compares Nature’s savagery to the far greater destructiveness of Man. Why do we build, he asks, if not for the pleasure of destroying? Since Man can outdo any hurricane, fear makes no sense. For the sake of human satisfaction, nothing should be forbidden: If you want another man’s money, his house or his wife, knock him down and take it; do what you please. As Begbick and the men ponder Jimmy’s philosophy, Fatty and Moses rush in with news: The hurricane has unexpectedly struck Pensacola, destroying Begbick’s enemies, the federal agents. Begbick and her cohorts take it as a sign that Jimmy is right; they join him, Jenny, and his three friends in singing a new, defiant song: If someone walks on, then it’s me, and if someone gets walked on, then it’s you. In the background, the men continue to chant their hymn as the hurricane draws nearer.
Magically, the hurricane bypasses Mahagonny, and the people sing in awe of their miraculous rescue. This confirms Begbick’s belief in the philosophy of “Do what you want,” and she proceeds to put it into effect.
Scene 13 At the renovated “Do It” tavern.
The men sing of the four pleasures of life: Eating, Lovemaking, Fighting and Drinking. First comes eating: To kitschy cafe music, Jimmy’s friend Jacob gorges until he keels over and dies. The men sing a chorale over his body, saluting “a man without fear.”
Scene 14: Loving.
While Begbick collects money and issues tips on behavior, Moses placates the impatient men waiting in line to make love to Jenny and the other whores. The men sing the “Mandalay Song,” warning that love doesn’t last forever, and urging those ahead of them to make it snappy.
Scene 15: Fighting.
The men flock to see a boxing match between Trinity Moses and Jim’s friend Alaska Wolf Joe. While most of the men, including the ever-cautious Billy, bet on the burly Moses, Jim, out of friendship, bets heavily on Joe. The match is manifestly unfair; Moses not only wins but kills Joe in knocking him out.
Scene 16: Drinking.
In an effort to shake off the gloom of Joe’s death, Jimmy invites everyone to have a drink on him. The men sing “Life in Mahagonny,” describing how one could live in the city for only five dollars a day, but those who wanted to have fun always needed more. Jim, increasingly drunk, dreams of sailing back to Alaska. He takes down a curtain rod for a mast and climbs on the pool table, pretending it is a ship; Jenny and Billy play along. Jimmy is abruptly sobered up when Begbick demands payment for the whiskey as well as for the damage to her property. Totally broke, he turns in a panic to Jenny, who explains her refusal to help him out in the song “Make your own bed” – an adaptation of the ideas he proclaimed at the end of Act One. Jim is led off in chains as the chorus, singing another stanza of “Life in Mahagonny,” returns to its pastimes. Trinity Moses assures the crowd that Jimmy will pay for his crimes with his life.
At night, Jim alone and chained to a lamppost, sings a plea for the sun not to rise on the day of his impending trial.
Scene 18: In the courtroom
Moses, like a carnival barker, sells tickets to the trials. He serves as prosecutor, Fatty as defense attorney, Begbick as judge. First comes the case of Toby Higgins, accused of premeditated murder for the purpose of testing an old revolver. Fatty invites the injured party to rise, but no one does so, since the dead do not speak. Toby bribes all three, and as a result, Begbick dismisses the case. Next Jimmy’s case is called. Chained, he is led in by Billy, from whom he tries to borrow money; Billy of course refuses, despite Jim’s plea to remember their time together in Alaska. In virtually the same speech he used to attack Higgins, Moses excoriates him for not paying his bills, for seducing Jenny (who presents herself as a plaintiff) to commit a “carnal act” with him for money, and for inciting the crowd with “an illegal joyous song” on the night of the typhoon. Billy, with the chorus’s support, counters that, in committing the latter act, Jimmy discovered the laws by which Mahagonny lives. Moses argues that Jim hastened his friend Joe’s death in a prizefight by betting on him, and Billy counters by asking who actually killed Joe. Moses does not reply. But there is no answer for the main count against him. Jim gets short sentences for his lesser crimes, but for having no money, he is sentenced to death. Begbick, Fatty and Moses, rising to identify themselves as the injured parties, proclaim “in the whole human race / there is no greater criminal / than a man without money.” As Jim is led off to await execution, everyone sings the “Benares Song,” in which they long for that exotic city “where the sun is shining.” But Benares has been destroyed by an earthquake. “Where shall we go?” they ask.
Scene 19: At the gallows
Jim says a tender goodbye to Jenny, who, dressed in white, declares herself his widow. He surrenders her to Billy, his last remaining companion from Alaska. When he tries to delay the execution by reminding the people of Mahagonny that God exists, they play out for him, under Moses’s direction, the story of “God in Mahagonny,” in which the Almighty condemns the town and is overthrown by its citizens, who declare that they can’t be sent to Hell because they are already in Hell. Jim, chastened, asks only for a glass of water, but is refused even this as Moses gives the signal for the trap to be sprung.
A caption advises that, after Jim’s death, increasing hostility among the city’s various factions has caused the destruction of Mahagonny. To a potpourri of themes from earlier in the opera, groups of protesters are seen on the march, in conflict with one another, while the city burns in the background. Jenny and the whores carry Jim’s clothing and accessories like sacred relics; Billy and several men carry his coffin. In a new theme, they and the others declare, “Nothing you can do will help a dead man.” Begbick, Fatty and Moses appear with placards of their own, joining the entire company in its march and declaring “Nothing will help him or us or you now,” as the opera ends in chaos.
Weill's score uses a number of styles, including rag-time, jazz and formal counterpoint, notably in the Alabama Song (covered by The Doors and later David Bowie). The lyrics for the Alabama Song and another song, the Benares Song are in English (albeit specifically idiosyncratic English) and are performed in that language even when the opera is performed in its original (German) language.
In the spring of 2007, the opera was staged by John Doyle in the L.A. Opera. This production starred Patti LuPone as Begbick and Audra McDonald as Jenny. It was taped and was broadcast as part of PBS' Great Performances on Dec 17, 2007, and released on a region-free DVD the day after. It features an interview with conductor James Conlon.
Brecht and Weill were evidently under the misapprehension that the Irish surname "Mahoney" is accented on the first syllable, an error which cannot be corrected because the songs are written to fit the mispronunciation. (In fact, in Ireland, the surname "Mahony" is accented on the first syllable, while in the US, the accent falls on the second syllable.) Accordingly, in the L.A. Opera production the character was renamed "Jimmy McIntyre."
To an extent, Mahagonny is an opera that satirizes operas. Brecht said that “[i]t attacks the society that needs operas of such a sort” and Weill said that it “pays conscious tribute to the irrationality of the operatic form”. Both thought operas had become too full of ritual and bereft of substance, and Mahagonny in part sought to deflate the pompous arrogance of traditional opera. With this aim, many traditional operatic themes are subverted and made grotesque; love becomes a commodity, the deus ex machina tells everyone to go to hell, the law is run by criminals, etc. A traditional opera theme is true love, but in Mahagonny the closest such thing is the love between Jimmy and the prostitute Jenny. Furthermore, when given the choice to pay off Jimmy's debt and save his life, she tearfully regrets that while she loves him and will miss him dearly, she cannot part with her money. This commodification of love is brought to a grotesque apex after the hurricane spares Mahagonny; the residents now feel free to do what they want, and naturally they want to love. Consequently, in Act 2 scene 3, the largely male population take turns having sex with the prostitutes. In contrast to the supposed theme of love, the scene portrays a perverse form of love; the prostitutes are carted around like giant slabs of meat and the “love” is regimented by the queue of men each waiting impatiently for their own turn. The Mandalay Song also heightens the ongoing tension. At no point is the music entirely tonal, and while the tune is seemingly jazzy and carefree, the tonalities betray an uneasiness about the whole business. In Mahagonny, operatic love is mutated from a grand aspiration to a mere commodity.
Another trope of operas is the deus ex machina, in which the protagonist is saved at the last minute by divine intervention. This is a useful technique to quickly wrap up a story and make a happy ending, and has been used in drama many times. In Mahagonny, though there are no supernatural occurrences for most of the opera, there is in fact a deus ex machina; God himself comes to Mahagonny right before Jimmy is executed. The typical opera would have God solving all the problems just in time for the end of the opera, but Mahagonny's god does not. He does not even acknowledge that Jimmy is tied up and ready to be killed, but at least tries to fix the moral problems in Mahagonny. He tries to convince them to give up their degraded way of life, but the residents all refuse the offer. God then tells them literally to go to hell, but the people are not even offended; they proclaim that they already are in hell so that is no punishment. After fixing nothing, God then lets Jimmy have his say. Jimmy realizes that money did not buy him happiness or freedom, and he has learned his lesson. However, God does not spare him even then, and Jimmy is executed off-stage.
Mahagonny as Capitalism
Mahagonny as a city was also intended to be a parable of capitalism stripped of its veneer of bourgeois respectability, as it “arose to meet the needs and desires of the people, and it was these same needs and desires that brought about its destruction”. Ultimately, this was also intended as a commentary on the state of Weimar Germany; underneath that facade of prosperity and happiness, lay corruption and savagery. Under Brecht's (and to some extent Weill's) Marxist-influenced view of capitalism, it is created to provide people the goods and services they need, but it does so at the expense of reducing everything to a mere commodity. Furthermore, since obtaining wealth in capitalism is a cutthroat enterprise, the powerful are no better than a gang of bandits, and the law in turn is run by such thugs.
The city of Mahagonny embodies many of these characteristics. Mahagonny was originally created to provide people with useful services; the gold prospectors wanted a relaxation spot, and the three criminals needed to stay there. However, this led to the commodification of everything the tourists desired, especially love. In the end, nobody could buy true happiness; Alaska Wolf Joe and Jacob Schmidt died, the city is burning down, and Jimmy declared before his death that “[t]he happiness I bought was no happiness”. His death was also ordered by the court of law, which was run by the three criminals. To make matters even more farcical, they let a murderer bribe his way to freedom while Jimmy is sentenced to death for petty crimes. The parallels between the events of Mahagonny and the Marxist view of capitalism are clear.
To make the comparison more obvious, the opera is set in a pseudo-Wild West America, with Mahagonny itself placed somewhere far from the rest of civilization. America was the land of unbridled capitalism, the frontier just as much so. The only difference is that bourgeois civility and civilization has yet to occupy the frontier, and thus there is no hiding the nature of capitalism beneath the facade of gentlemanly conduct. In Mahagonny, the characters are prostitutes, lumberjacks, criminals, and the like. Not one of them comes from the moneyed class, and yet the same system of exploitation was set up, but in a more naked manner. Instead of seducing a woman's love with power and influence, the residents of Mahagonny pay for a prostitute. But in Mahagonny, poverty is not just a condition the poor bring upon themselves, but a crime to be punished. Thus, Brecht and Weill tried to display capitalism as the meatgrinder they believed it to be.
Though Kurt Weill was not a vocal proponent of the Gebrauchsmusik movement in Germany, many of his works, including the music for Mahagonny, share many of its characteristics. Loosely defined, Gebrauchsmusik is the idea that music can be more than just pure music. For example, music that accompanies a silent film is perfectly respectable, so long as it is done well. Also, simple music to be performed by amateurs is also acceptable. Weill's musical setting of Mahagonny exemplifies many of these characteristics. In the first place, this is music composed for the stage and not for the concert hall, and Weill intentionally chose that so. He wished to make his music speak out to as many people as possible, so throughout his career his mostly wrote music for the stage, and all the while in Europe he was considered a real composer and not just some hack pandering to the playwright to make a living.
For example, in Act 1, scene 2, the scenario is that Jenny and other girls are walking to Mahagonny. The music is surprisingly simple; just a simple solo with a short chorus and sparse orchestration. The music is not some baroque contrapuntal scheme, nor is it a Romantic forest of sound; rather, the music is very easy to listen to. This music setting matches with the idea of making music accessible to the public, and not just for educated artists. The music style also displays influences from popular music. During this time, American jazz was a sensation in Europe; since opera is set in America, it is not surprising that the tune and the beat have a jazz influence. The orchestration, also includes such non-classical instruments as a saxophone, a decidedly jazz instrument. By using a jazz style in the music, Weill immediately associates the action as happening in America. In addition to making a relatively exotic sound, Weill manages to incorporate the jazz style in the song without making it seem incongruous; the American and European music are seamlessly joined under Weill's hands.
Elsewhere Weill uses other such non-classical instruments as the accordion, and he uses other popular influences, including those of his native Germany. The most enduring feature of Gebrauchsmusik in Mahagonny, however, are the tunes. This reflects Weill's greatest desire to create simple music that would go straight to the heart of the audience. Many of the songs in Mahagonny are very simple and accessible. The Alabama Song, for example, can be picked up absentmindedly and hummed. And while it seems carefree, something seems wrong with it, despite or perhaps because of its simplicity.
Since Mahagonny was co-produced by Brecht, there is a prominent display of the Verfremdungseffekt, often translated as the “alienation effect”. Brecht and Weill wished to replace the old dramatic theater and its emphasis on emotions with epic theater and its emphasis on reason. In the case of Brecht, it was more as a didactic tool for communist propaganda, but for Weill, it was more of a social scheme, a way to get people involved and thinking. The general scheme was to shake up people's preconceived notions and make them think about what is happening on stage, or to emotionally distance the audience from the action thus making logical evaluation of the play's events easier. Brecht and Weill used different methods to achieve this effect.
One of the most noticeable methods Brecht uses are the inscriptions at the beginning of most of the scenes. Before the majority of the scenes, there is a short summary of that scene recited to the audience. By being already aware of what will happen, the audience can then better concentrate on what is going on in the scene. Often, Brecht will also have seemingly bizarre events occur, seemingly just to keep the audience unable to guess what will happen next. For example, Jimmy is going crazy at having nothing to do, when all of a sudden a hurricane starts heading towards Mahagonny. The audience is forced to give up concentrating on how Jimmy feels and think about what the meaning of this sudden hurricane is.
Weill also contributed greatly to the Verfremdungseffekt by his music. Often the music would intentionally be unsuited for the onstage action, preventing the audience from getting carried away by the onstage emotion. For example, in Act 2, scene 13, the hurricane has spared Mahagonny, and the people feel free to do whatever makes them happy. For Jacob Schmidt, this means eating a lot. He sings of how he has not had his fill yet with such lines as “Not enough by half! / I may eat myself for supper.”. And yet, the music betrays the seeming unbridled ecstasy of Jacob; he is singing to a discordant melody, and the accordion accompaniment sounds stark and rather macabre. The intention is that the audience realizes that all this is very wrong; Jacob claims to be having a great time, but the music suggests all may not be well, thus the audience needs to pay attention and think about what is really going on. To further this point, Jacob then dies and the chorus sings of how happy he was while dragging out his corpse. This last twist of welcoming death is unexpected and contributes to the alienation.
Another example of Verfremdungseffekt in the music is in the Alabama Song. This time, instead of the music sounding deeply disturbing compared to the stage action, it is the reverse. When the Alabama Song first appears, the women are going to Mahagonny. The second time the song appears is near the end of the opera, after Jimmy has been executed. Mahagonny is in decline, and there are street protests. The entire stage is singing about how rotten the world and man are, when all of a sudden Jenny and the prostitutes come walking through singing the Alabama Song, a total departure from the previous mood. What is more, they are carrying Jimmy's corpse through the stage. The music refuses to set and keep the audience in a particular mood, and the conflict between the lighthearted Alabama Song and the imagery of the funeral procession is confusing. This tension serves to distance the audience from the action, even at an exceptionally powerful moment of the opera, giving the audience one last chance to digest all the contradictions and perversions of Mahagonny.