- Brecht on Opera and/in the Americas
For most of his life Bertolt Brecht thematized the topos “opera and/in the Americas” as “white people in opera and/in the United States.” In the 1920s, he recognized the rich potential for satire and parody in the combination of the opera genre—a marker of the highest, old-European culture—with the sights and sounds of the United States—the youngest, brashest, and, by many standards, least cultured of nations. Brecht was not the only one; Weimar-era Germany produced at least seven operas that exploited this apparent incongruence, including Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf, Eugen d’Albert’s Die schwarze Orchidee, Max Brand’s Maschinist Hopkins, George Antheil’s Transatlantic, Karol Rathaus’s Fremde Erde, and Weill and Brecht’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Theodor Adorno’s unfinished The Treasure of Indian Joe, based on Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, also represents the German conflation of operatic genre with American subject matter.1
For Brecht’s generation, this fascination with the United States began in childhood with the American Wild West novels of Karl May. Once the Dawes Plan permitted the importation of American products in 1924, Charlie Chaplin became the darling of the German Left with his skillful skewering of bourgeois values and sophisticated physical comedy, appealingly packaged in the latest cinematic technology.2 Brecht’s debt to Chaplin’s The Gold Rush is apparent in both the Mahagonny Songspiel and its subsequent operatic realization. Mythologized American themes of big cities, boxers, gangsters, miners, and lumberjacks dominated Brecht’s stage work in the 1920s. In the Jungle of the Cities, Happy End, Saint Joan of the Stockyards, Lindbergh’s Flight, and The Bread Shop all trade in these stock figures, as do numerous unpublished dramatic fragments, including Prairie, The Man from Manhattan, Dan Drew, The Fall of the Paradise of the City of Miami, and Joe Fleischhacker.3
Originally known as Sodom and Gomorrah, The Man from Manhattan (1924) features a long narrative in which the character Anne Smith recounts the “discovery” of America from the perspective of Native Americans: the theft of land, the reckless plunder of resources, and the construction of cities. Drafts indicate that it was conceived as an opera, as was Prairie, whose subtitle Opera after Hamsun reflects the popularity of the Norwegian Knut Hamsun’s American adventures in German translation. The Native American voice in The Man from Manhattan is unique in Brecht’s oeuvre, as his vaguely construed notion of North American [End Page 512] geography was otherwise populated entirely by Caucasians: the gangsters, miners, pimps, and prostitutes who inhabit these works are all white. With the conspicuous exception of the title character in Jonny spielt auf, this is true of all the operas listed above, despite the fact that the scores frequently availed themselves of jazz influences.
During his first visit to the United States in 1935, Brecht became aware of racial tensions and the African American experience, perhaps for the first time. A powerful nexus was just beginning to form between prominent African American intellectuals, Works Progress Administration projects, non-black members of the Communist Party of the USA, fellow travelers, and their émigré German counterparts. For a man of the theater, this manifested itself most conspicuously in the trend of all-black shows, and Brecht was keenly attuned to the social, political, and economic debates these productions generated. He saw Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, proposed an all-black production of his play Round Heads and Pointed Heads to John Houseman, and encouraged Houseman to consider an all-black production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.4 It is not clear that Brecht ever had a particularly nuanced understanding of the racism that inflected African American lives, but his conception of the United States would be less monochromatic after this.
He entered the United States again in 1941, when he began six years of exile in California. In this period he reframed the theme of “white people in opera and/in the United States” as “opera and/in the United States.” The Federal Theatre Project infrastructure that had subsidized avant-garde...