All you need to know about our new production of Kurt Weill’s satirical sung ballet – right here!
What is the story?
The Seven Deadly Sins is a 40-minute long ‘sung ballet’ that tells the story of Anna, who is sent by her exploitive family on a seven-year journey through seven different American cities to earn enough money for them to build a house.
Anna is torn between the need to make money and her morals, and as such has a split personality – so much so that she is played by two different people: “Her head is in the clouds, my feet on the ground. But we’re really not two separate people – we’re so close, there’s just one of us.” — Anna I
Anna II tries to follow her heart, but every time she is scolded by practical Anna I for committing one of the deadly sins (Sloth, Pride, Anger, Gluttony, Lust, Greed and Envy), because each ‘sin’ in some way gets in the way of the money-making. In Memphis, Anna II must give up her ‘Pride’ to satisfy her clients as a cabaret dancer, and her ‘Lust’ in Boston when she wants to share her earnings with the man she loves. It’s all timelessly satirical, ironising society’s willingness to sacrifice values for the sake of financial gain.
Who are the characters?
Anna I – the practical, cynical side of Anna (mezzo-soprano)
Anna II – the passionate, idealistic side of Anna (dancer)
The family fills the role of a ‘Greek chorus’, singing as one and providing a mocking commentary on the action.
Nicholas Butterfield as Brother in The Seven Deadly Sins © Tristram Kenton
What is the music like?
Kurt Weill’s score for The Seven Deadly Sins is witty, very accessible, and plays with musical styles popular in America in the 1920s/30s, like foxtrot and barbershop.
It is also full of musical parodies which run alongside the libretto’s satire. At the end of ‘Sloth’, the family imitates a religious madrigal as they pray that Anna will make lots of money for them, while ‘Pride’ features a parody of the waltz from Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus as Anna sings about life as a cabaret dancer. ‘Envy’ (the final sin) is accompanied by a bitter and hollow victory march – Anna II has submitted to Anna I and the money is made, but at what cost?
This production is accompanied by an orchestra of 15, (slightly reduced from the original scoring due to 2020 social distancing measures), but the players can be seen on stage, becoming part of the piece.
What is this production like?
This production, first performed in November 2020, is directed by award-winning choreographer Gary Clarke. It’s set in the 1930s and is full of cultural and political references of the time – the films of Charlie Chaplin, the Dying Swan of Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova and the ‘grotesque pantomime’ of German cabaret dancer Valeska Gert.
The set, designed by George Johnson-Leigh, takes its inspiration from an abandoned film studio – a metaphor for the USA at the time, which was in the middle of the Great Depression. Each ‘sin’ is contained within a ‘sin box’ painted on the floor, with a corresponding city, year and objects assigned to each.
The family play the part of German immigrants in exile (somewhat mirroring Kurt Weill’s own life), and as such are homeless – forced to stay in the ‘no man’s land’ space between the sin boxes. Social distancing between the performers is carefully and cleverly woven into the choreographic landscape.
Shelley Eva Haden as Anna II and Wallis Giunta as Anna I in The Seven Deadly Sins © Tristram Kenton
Who was the composer?
The Seven Deadly Sins was written by German-Jewish composer Kurt Weill (1900-1950), with a libretto by Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956). The two had enjoyed great success together in Germany in the late 1920s – most notably with The Threepenny Opera, from which comes the famous ‘Mack the Knife’.
However, in 1933 Weill and Brecht were both forced to flee Nazi Germany. Weill headed straight for Paris, but Brecht stayed briefly in Prague, then Vienna, then Zurich, then Lugano in Switzerland… it was this uprooted travelling that served as a key inspiration for the journey through seven different cities in the piece! The Seven Deadly Sins would be this great duo’s last collaboration.
Kurt Weill and his wife Lotte Lenya in 1942
A little history
In late 1932, Kurt Weill was commissioned by wealthy Englishman Edward James to write a new, modern work as part of whole ballet season featuring his dancer wife, Tilly Losch. He noticed that she bore a striking resemblance to Weill’s own wife, famous singer Lotte Lenya. So the concept of one character with a split personality, played by a singer and a dancer, was born!
The ‘sung ballet’ premiered in Paris in 1933, and while it fairly baffled the audience (largely because it was in German!), Weill regarded it as “the finest score I’ve written up to now”. Today, it is one of his most frequently performed works, and is often done in concert as well as fully staged.
Shelley Eva Haden as Anna II in The Seven Deadly Sins © Tristram Kenton
Did you know?
– Weill and his wife Lotte Lenya, for whom Anna I was written, were not actually together at the time of the piece’s composition – she was having an affair with a bass singer from a recent production of Weill’s opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. So to persuade her to take part in The Seven Deadly Sins, Weill gave Lenya’s lover a role in the male quartet – as Anna’s mother!
– A whole range of singers from different musical backgrounds have taken on the role of Anna over the years, including Marianne Faithfull (transposed down an octave) in her 1997 recording.
– Opera North last performed The Seven Deadly Sins as part of the 2004 ‘Eight Little Greats’ season of short operas.