Opera North Blog

Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill: In conversation with Giles Havergal


Our co-production with West Yorkshire Playhouse, Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill is a journey through the life and songs of one of the greatest musical theatre composers of the 20th century, at Leeds City Varieties Music Hall from 15 - 21 June. As rehearsals begin, we catch up with director Giles Havergal to find out more about the composer's remarkable journey, and Giles's long relationship with his work, which dates back to his time as artistic director of Glasgow's historic Citizens Theatre in the 1960s and 70s. 

"Kurt Weill’s enduring appeal – from Berlin to Broadway – is a difficult thing to put your finger on. I think that in the end it comes down to a combination of spiky tunes and brilliant words, from his collaborations with Brecht through to his work with Langston Hughes and Ogden Nash in America.

There’s no doubting that he lived through extraordinary times: the incredible poverty, unrest and hyperinflation of pre-war Germany, then fleeing Nazism – first to Paris, then to America, where he spent the Second World War. I think that these experiences must make themselves felt in some way in the music. Berlin to Broadway weaves aspects of Weill’s turbulent life and times together with some of his most brilliant songs.

At the Citizens Theatre we really got onto Weill through Brecht, back when Glasgow was a very “red” city. My predecessors had staged several Brecht plays by the time we got there, so it was really an open door; there was a time when we’d done more Brecht than Shakespeare! We put on Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera in the early 70s, followed by two more of their collaborations, Happy End and The Seven Deadly Sins.  

Philip Prowse did another version of The Threepenny Opera at the Citizens in 1978, which later came to Opera North, where Martin Pickard conducted its 1990 revival [this was Martin's conducting debut with the Company, and also his singing debut: the conductor turned to the audience and sang the recitative of the Royal Messenger at the end of the show!] It has always been very popular – I saw it most recently at the National Theatre – and for me its strength is really in its brilliant numbers rather than in its dialogue, which I think there’s too much of! It’s the score that survives, and it’s Weill’s scores that are at the heart of Berlin to Broadway.

When we think of his songs that have become standards – Mack the Knife, September Song, Lost in the Stars, Speak Low – they’re all terrific numbers, with a really good tune and really good words. It was Louis Armstrong’s 1955 recording of Mack the Knife from The Threepenny Opera that really helped Weill’s songs break through that wall into the popular canon, despite being banned by the BBC at the time, apparently because it glorified a villain.

Having settled in America in 1935, Weill developed his conviction that true American opera had to grow out of Broadway, with all the indigenous enthusiasm of that musical form rather than the rarefied culture of the Met. Street Scene, his 1946 collaboration with Langston Hughes, brings together Broadway musical, American jazz and popular song, and traditional European opera. It really is an opera, not a musical: something completely new. And nowadays Opera North goes a step further by showing us that great Broadway musicals like Kiss Me, Kate and Carousel are really operas anyway!

One Touch of Venus, Weill’s earlier Broadway collaboration with Ogden Nash, is also well attuned to American styles and sounds. It features perhaps my favourite of all of his songs, Speak Low. I love the urgency of it, which is so evocative of wartime: "Time is so old and love so brief / Love is pure gold and time a thief" – it’s marvellous! It’s all about grabbing the moment, because in five minutes you’ll be on a train, and you’ll never see each other again. There’s also – and I might be imagining this – some slight sense of his knowing that he wasn’t going to live too long, which I find very moving."

Giles Havergal directs members of the Chorus of Opera North in Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill, our co-production with West Yorkshire Playhouse at City Varieties Music Hall from Friday 15 to Thursday 21 June.

Image credits:
Giles Havergal and members of the Chorus of Opera North in rehearsals for
Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill. Credit: Opera North 
Kurt Weill photographed by Dan Grossi.
Eiddwen Harrhy as Jenny and Peter Savidge as Mack the Knife in The Threepenny Opera, Opera North, Summer 1984. Credit: John Vere Brown.

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