À propos the coming mayoral election here in the twin city of Torontella & Torontone, one must watch Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s operatic masterpiece, The Rise and the Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny).
What happens there? A city gets founded as a business enterprise. At first, it’s promoted as touristic resort with great outdoors, abundance of consumer goods (booze, good hookers, poker tables, horse-meat) and without all the other stuff that makes big cities so awful (arts, diversity). Then after almost getting hit by a hurricane, the city turns from a medium-size enterprise to a sort of a money-worshipping orgiastic collective run like a Lehman Brothers derivatives department circa 2007-8. The new motto of the city is Just do it! (I am not making this up. Check the libretto. Yes, Brecht knew about Nike and branding before these were even flicker in an executive’s eyes.)
After one of the characters finds himself unable to pay his tab, we find out that not having money is the only crime punishable by death in the perfect City of Mahagonny. He goes through the trial where the bar owner is also the judge, incidentally. His pleas for a loan remain politely refused by his best friends — Billy: Jimmy, you know how much I care, but with cash, it’s quite another matter. Jenny, in the most beautiful and momentous melodic line: In this world you must make your own bed /And no one will show you the trick / So go lie down and get kicked / For me, I’d rather stand and kick. After the execution, a god comes in and says he’s had enough and time for everybody to go to Hell, to which the city of Mahagonny reply, No, we are already there, we prefer this hell to yours.
The opera is like a Who’s Who of the Canadian political world of the last thirty years. (Other countries will recognize their own cast.) It’s also fitting in this pre-election time in TO. There’s a penny-pincher in the opera, and a fatty, and a furious power-grabber, then a guy who lobbies for other groups to be banned from parades, the city reps who know that having an opinion is rather unprofitable so they stay away from such activities, a collection of grandstanders, countless profit whores of all descriptions, and an editor-in-chief of the largest political weekly magazine in the country who is firm in his belief that funding arts is not in public good (if something’s valuable for the society, people will pay for it, didntja know).
But where was I?
Right. So I saw two productions of Mahagonny on DVD yesterday. A great Salzburg production from 1998 with the peculiarly cast main female roles, Gwyneth Jones as Leocadia Begbick and Catherine Malfitano as Jenny. Jones was sporting her royal white mane and playing the Mahagonny founder/bar owner as a boardroom suit with pearls and all, which was all very good, but the Wagnerian booming voice singing Leocadja was fairly… alienating, ahem. Malfitano was scary as a Goth Gramma version of Jenny whose voice is rather cracked – but maybe that was intentional, it’s a Brecht/Weill thingy after all.
Here’s a clip with the ‘must make your own bed’ segment as they arrest Jimmy (the excellent Jerry Hadley):
The second was an LA Opera production of the Mahagonny sung in English with Patti LuPone as Leocadia (who those far from Broadway might have seen as Frank Rossitano’s mother in 30 Rock) and Audra McDonald as Jenny. Worth watching on DVD, even if it’s not among the best productions ever:
Then of course there’s YouTube, which will show you that Germans know how to do their Breill. (Compound Brecht-Weill – geddit, geddit?) Find any clip from any recent production in any provincial German theatre and it’ll be fantastic. So here’s an outstanding one: the perfect voice for Jenny with Heike Susanne Daum, the perfect set and costumes, the perfect chorus, the perfect mix of angry and resigned with a dash of chillingly sinister: