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Theater 30.3 (2000) 63-75

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Die Bürgschaft, or "Brecht ohne Brecht"

Michael Evenden



To hindsight--and, indeed, to contemporary eyes--the premiere of the opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, on March 9, 1930, seemed likely to be the sum and conclusion of a particular theatrical partnership, Brecht/Neher/Weill, a temporary tripartite entity that had (as librettist, designer, and composer) altered theatrical history with productions of the Mahagonny "Songspiel," the Threepenny Opera, and now the Mahagonny opera as well. Brecht's "Notes on the Opera," published that year in his Versuche 2, encapsulates their shared accomplishment and constitutes Brecht's most developed and complete statement to that date of his theater aesthetic (familiar to many a college classroom under John Willett's title "The Modern Theatre Is the Epic Theatre"). 1 In that crucial essay, Brecht sets forth the Brecht/Neher/Weill synthesis by incorporating Kurt Weill's ironic, popular-song music and Caspar Neher's designs, which layered actors against projected words and satiric cartoons as crucial elements of the "epic" style Brecht sought to develop. 2 At this early point of clarification, then, the "epic" theater, despite Brecht's efforts to appropriate its innovations to his own credit, is a trilateral creation--not of Brecht' s individual imaginings, but of a small, vital body of collaboration by Brecht, Neher, and Weill.

Nevertheless, that 1930 union was fragile, and shortly afterward each of the members of the Brecht/Neher/Weill troika took steps to turn his back on that shared artistic identity and its style, under various sorts of pressure. For each, this would necessarily mean turning away not only from former collaborators, but from his own work to date, and developing new styles and themes. Their breakup is in fact a historical crux, and much critical energy and commonplace wisdom has spent itself dividing Brecht's and Weill's careers into distinct periods, before and after this break. For Weill and Neher, this moment of splitting from the past was captured in Weill's next opera, Die Bürgschaft. [End Page 63]

Suppression and Revival

Die Bürgschaft (the title means The Pledge or The Surety) premiered March 10, 1932, at the State Opera in Berlin, two years almost to the day after Mahagonny, and that political moment determined both the conception and the future of the opera. According to Weill scholar Kim H. Kowalke, this was "the last progressive opera to be premiered in a German state theater before Hitler became Chancellor," 3 as he would do some ten months later. Already the storm clouds were gathering: on the night before the opening, a Nazi newspaper blasted this unmistakably pacifist and antifascist work as morally offensive and "un-German," citing Weill's Jewishness and the outrage of his previous work (specifically his work with Brecht and Neher, although neither is named in the attack). 4 This opposition was effectively fatal: despite a positive critical reaction to the Berlin premiere and new productions in Wiesbaden and Düsseldorf that opened three days later, plans for five other productions of Die Bürgschaft and for further performances of the Berlin run were quickly canceled. 5

This de facto suppression of his largest musical score to date brought the frustrated Weill one step closer to his European and American exile. As for Die Bürgschaft, it essentially disappeared--productions stopped and orchestral scores were destroyed, to be recovered only after Weill's death in 1950. That recovery led to one restaging, in revised form, at the Berlin Festival twenty-five years after the premiere, in 1957. 6 Another thirty years would pass until the director Jonathan Eaton, a Weill specialist, staged the opera for the Bielefeld Opera in Germany in 1998. That production was followed by the American stage premiere at the 1999 Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina, also staged by Eaton and conducted by no less than Julius Rudel. The Spoleto production was recorded and released in May 2000 by EMI Classics. So, on the occasion of the Weill centenary, critical reappraisal of Die...


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