With less than two weeks until opening night at Leeds City Varieties Music Hall, we dropped in on rehearsals for Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill to find out how members of the Chorus of Opera North are getting to grips with the work of this brilliant song stylist – from his funny, sardonic and shocking portraits of low-lifes and crooks like Mack the Knife to the heart-rending ballads that found a home in the Great American Songbook.
"What I am really enjoying about preparing for Berlin to Broadway is the range of music we are singing", says soprano Lorna James. "The two pieces I am most involved in couldn't be more different - the 'Cranes Duet' from Mahagonny is a beautiful piece of almost Straussian operatic writing, and 'Polly's Song' from The Threepenny Opera is a fun, sexy cabaret number that allows me to use bits of my voice I normally wouldn't in my day job in the Chorus! All I knew of Weill before this project was from cabaret songs I learnt at college, so it's a real joy to get to know more about this fascinating composer, who really does offer something for every taste!"
Mezzo soprano Amy J. Payne, who will be singing the 'Jealousy Duet' from The Threepenny Opera among other numbers, had her first experience of the composer's work whilst reading German at university: "I was involved in a student production of The Threepenny Opera and I completely fell in love with the whole show. Since then I have seen several professional productions and heard several different recordings, both in German and in English. I'm completely delighted to be singing something from Threepenny in Berlin to Broadway and to have the opportunity to get better acquainted with other parts of Weill's oeuvre.
"I should also mention the 2014 Christian Petzold film, Phoenix, which is set in and around Weill's world of Berlin cabaret and uses his music extensively, particularly the song 'Speak Low', Nina Hoss's deeply moving performance of which forms the climax of the film. Saying too much would give it away, but this film is a wonderful example of how Weill's music, despite its 'simplicity', is layered with evocations of a distinct and very difficult period in European history.
"There is a longing in so much of his music for a time before: when dreams were alive that love would prove to be true. Heartbreak is everywhere, whether dealt with sardonically or not, and it is difficult not to see this as a comment on his home nation and its struggles. Phoenix is a fab film for experiencing some of Weill's music in the historical context in which it was composed and seeing how a 'simple' cabaret song can be emotionally devastating. I totally recommend it!"
Our director Giles Havergal also singled out 'Speak Low' as his favourite Weill work in his earlier blog - and the song has enjoyed an extraordinary life since it was first heard in 1943, in Weill and Ogden Nash's Broadway musical One Touch of Venus. In the 40s and 50s, versions by Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and Peggy Lee quickly made it a standard; in the world of jazz, John Coltrane, Bill Evans and others deconstructed it; and in recent years Dame Sarah Connolly's version has taken it back to Weill's roots in German art song.
"I am very much looking forward to this project, although I must confess that this is the first time I have come into contact with Kurt Weill’s music", says tenor Nicholas Watts, who will be performing 'Johnny’s Song' from Johnny Johnson, and joining Lorna on 'Cranes Duet'.
"One of the joys of working at Opera North is the wide variety of repertoire that we get to perform. Before coming here I had not really sung any musical theatre, but in my first year at the company we performed two Gershwins, Of Thee I Sing and Let 'Em Eat Cake. It can be quite a challenge for an opera singer to work and sing in this style (not to mention having to dance also!) but I found that I really enjoyed being in these productions, and since then I’ve had the chance to be involved in Carousel, and to play the part of Jack in Sondheim's Into the Woods, our last co-production with West Yorkshire Playhouse.
"I’m also really looking forward to singing at the City Varieties. It’s a perfect venue for this kind of show, and it’s wonderful to get the chance to perform in such an iconic venue for the city of Leeds."
Join Lorna, Amy, Nick and the rest of the ensemble from the Chorus of Opera North on the dark, funny, moving journey from Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill, our co-production with West Yorkshire Playhouse, at Leeds City Varieties from Friday 15 to Thursday 23 June.
Members of the Chorus of Opera North rehearse the 'Ice Cream Ensemble' from Kurt Weill and Langston Hughes' opera Street Scene, May 2018. Credit: Opera North
Leeds City Varieties Music Hall