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Reviewed by:
  • Brecht at the Opera
  • Howard Pollack (bio)
Joy H. Calico : Brecht at the Opera California Studies in 20th-Century Music, 9 Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008304 pages, $45.

Has any playwright of Bertolt Brecht's eminence derived so much from opera and given back so much in return? After reading Joy Calico's thoughtful and engaging monograph, one might think not.

Given that the playwright wrote the texts for only three operas as such—The Threepenny Opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, and The Judgment of Lucullus—and, moreover, had some harsh things to say about opera both as a genre and as an institution, so close a connection between Brecht and opera might come as a surprise to even the knowing observer. But Calico points out that Brecht not only continually busied himself with one or another opera project—about two dozen, she reckons, between 1926 and 1956—but also that his hate-love relationship with the form hovered in the background of his dramatic imagination and achievement, and that his texts and theories posthumously influenced the emergence of "director's opera" in the late twentieth century.

Such assertions are not entirely new, and Calico scrupulously acknowledges the work of many scholars in the course of her study. Indeed, her endnotes compose a good quarter of her text, and her bibliography runs to thirty pages. However, she not only presents many of these established ideas in a succinct, comprehensive, and highly readable fashion, but also offers her own valuable insights as well.

The book moves along chronologically, but also thematically, with the first chapter considering Brecht's collaborations with Kurt Weill, Paul Hindemith, and Hanns Eisler in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Undertaken at a critical juncture in Brecht's career, these collaborations include the two Weill operas, The Threepenny Opera and Mahagonny, as well as several Lehrstücke [learning pieces], including Lindbergh Flight (Weill and Hindemith), Lehrstück (Hindemith), He Who Said Yes (Weill), and The Decision (Eisler). (Calico uses the authorized English title, The Decision, rather than the more familiar The Measures Taken.)

This first chapter argues that the aforementioned Lehrstücke—a peculiarly Weimar genre inextricably tied to Brecht's theories about epic theater—are essentially works of musical theater. Calico enumerates the various factors that have [End Page 307] conspired to obfuscate this rather self-evident observation, including Brecht's privileging of his texts over the music (to the point that, in a number of instances, he revised these works independently of his musical collaborators, so that musicians are likely to consider some earlier text as definitive while literary critics favor a later one); the unavailability of the musical scores; the absence of these works from the repertory; and the dearth of musicological scholarship. But music, Calico asserts, played a determinant role in these works, including varied uses of melodrama, rhythmic speech, and, above all, choral singing: "The music imposes order on an otherwise loosely structured genre because it is the means whereby the collective takes the form of a chorus. This cannot be approximated or re-created simply through reading the plays or staging them any more than an opera is realized by reading the libretto or blocking the action. The Lehrstück requires the music, particularly the chorus, to concretize the lesson" (34).

Calico's argument that the Lehrstück and epic theater originated as an alternative, or at least in opposition, to Wagnerian opera finds additional support in the "Notes" that Brecht wrote regarding The Threepenny Opera and Mahagonny, leading Calico to conclude that "Brecht's simultaneous work on both Lehrstücke and opera generated the structure, performance practice, and audience experience of epic theater for the fundamental purpose of a new audience contract, and music was essential to that project" (40).

Having located the connection—even if a fraught one—between epic theater and opera, Calico, in her second chapter, similarly charts the "operatic roots" of Gestus, an important ingredient of epic theater defined by Carl Weber as "the 'ensemble' of all physical behavior the actor displays when showing us a 'character' on stage by way of his/her own...


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