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Reviewed by:
  • Brecht at the Opera
  • Michael Ewans
Joy H. Calico. Brecht at the Opera. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008. Pp. xvi + 282. $45.00.

Brecht at the Opera is a short book; of its 282 pages, only 163 are main text. The remainder contains a plethora of footnotes, together with a bibliography and index. Calico cannot be accused of inadequate documentation; indeed, her archival and other research is formidable, and the list of individuals acknowledged for assistance is exceptionally long.

In this study, Calico proposes that opera was central to Brecht’s work throughout his career, despite his polemics against the medium in general and Wagner in particular. In chapter 1 she investigates the remarkable fact that Brecht’s apparently most anti-operatic creations, the Lehrstücke, were written during the same period as his two most famous and enduring ventures into opera (both with Kurt Weill as the composer): The Threepenny Opera (which, to be precise, is a Singspiel) and the undoubted opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. She rightly cites other scholars who have pointed out that Brecht tended in his polemical theoretical writings to treat all opera as if it were the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, whereas the operatic forms practiced in The Threepenny Opera and Mahagonny strikingly resemble baroque opera seria: “The most significant similarity is the central role assigned to the song, which is equivalent in prominence to that of the aria in opera seria” (38).

Calico then takes the argument a crucial step further, claiming that, given the role which music plays in the works, the Lehrstücke themselves are indebted in form to—and should be seen as a re-creation of—pre-Wagnerian opera and oratorio, and concludes that “given its long tradition of epic properties … opera was a logical place for Brecht to find effects for epic theatre” (40). The argument of chapter 1 is undoubtedly right. Calico advances the theory further than any other Brecht scholar has and decisively demonstrates that Brecht applied a double standard during this period of his work by pursuing a rhetoric which is anti-opera while actually engaging closely with opera as a medium and developing his core concept of the “epic theatre” from it. [End Page 116]

Chapter 2 is even more pioneering. Calico argues that another core Brechtian concept, the Gestus, is also indebted to opera. By the end of this chapter she is able to argue successfully that the sounding body, absent from almost all previous discussions of Brechtian Gestus because Brecht scholars have viewed and described this concept in visual terms, is in fact central to understanding the concept. She begins by noting that Brecht inherited the concept of movement rooted in music from Dalcrozian eurhythmics, via Meyerhold’s biomechanics, and argues that there is even a parallel between Wagner’s view that gesture was “the generative kernel from which both melody and speech rhythm should grow” and Brecht’s concept. “If Brecht’s initial conception of Gestus was one of corporeality in the form of the showing body, his reconsideration of that concept in the mid-1930s entailed a shift emphasizing the sounding body” (54). As Calico correctly argues, this shift was necessitated by his collaborations with Hanns Eisler on The Mother and Round Heads and Pointed Heads. Eisler used the Gestus as a musical device to avoid sentimentality. This resulted in an important shift in the concept of Gestus; it became a device which “is simultaneously concerned both with what is fixed via text and music—that which is sung—and that which can only be realized by the performer—the act of singing” (72). A great strength of this important chapter is that it starts from the actual practice of Eisler and Brecht, and only considers previous theory at the end, so Calico’s critical view of previous theories of Gestus is solidly based on practical analysis of what actually happens in the texts and scores of the stage works.

These two chapters are of fundamental importance to our understanding of Brecht’s work. The remaining chapters of Brecht at the Opera, though they are just as thoroughly researched and documented, are...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 116-118
Launched on MUSE
2009-05-08
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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