James Conway © William Knight
James Conway
© William Knight
This autumn, under the directorship of James Conway, the English Touring Opera will be presenting their very first Kurt Weill production: Der Silbersee (The Silver Lake: a Winter’s Tale). Although not technically an opera, this epic musical drama – written with playwright Georg Kaiser – was the last work for stage that Weill completed before fleeing Nazi Germany in 1933. We caught up with Conway to find out more about this Weimar-era gem, and what to expect from the ETO’s upcoming run.

Although not as well-known as his collaborations with Bertolt Brecht, many see Der Silbersee as Weil’s masterpiece. What drew you to the work, and what makes it such a special piece of theatre?

Georg Kaiser was a special playwright, prolific and fearless. I find his work much better suited to Weill’s own musical ambitions than the more doctrinaire works of Brecht. Kaiser is fundamentally hopeful that humans can become better (not that things turn out well!). To me, this kind of hope brings out the best in Weill – something more sustained, aspirational and sincere than one finds in the collaborations with Brecht. Kaiser’s attitude to narrative reminds me of a painter like Giorgio Morandi, rather than an expressionist: always rearranging a sequence of actions in order to find how they affect man’s fate (just as Morandi rearranged the same kind of objects).

When first I listened to Der Silbersee I was struck by the poetry of the narrative. A starving man steals a pineapple, rather than loaves of bread; the policeman who pursues and wounds him becomes his protector. As their relationship is shaped by an unlikely sequence of actions, the enigmatic figure of a homeless young woman (a young woman whose two songs are as harsh and tender as could be contrived) guides them to imagine a new kind of action, surprising and redemptive. It seemed to me indescribably beautiful and austere, layered, and somehow “right”. It invites production, and I’m so happy to have the chance!

In 1928, around the time he was writing The Threepenny Opera with Brecht, Weill wrote: “Music is no longer a matter for the few.” Completed five years later, does Der Silbersee exhibit the same broad appeal – this idea of “music for use” – that propelled his earlier work?

Hmmm. It certainly is not “music for the few”. My impression, though, is that Weill tired of writing music for the use of purely ideological expression, and that in Der Silbersee (and his other work with Georg Kaiser) he found his own voice in lyric theatre.

English Touring Opera's <i>The Silver Lake</i> © Richard Hubert Smith
English Touring Opera's The Silver Lake
© Richard Hubert Smith
Der Silbersee is often interpreted as a satire of Weimar Germany – which at the time played host to Communists, Nazis, nationalists, Dadaists, Expressionists and straggling Romantics. In what way is this story applicable to contemporary Britain? Are they any parallels we can draw between the two eras?

Oh gosh. I am pretty wary of parallels between eras. In general they seem to simplify to an unhelpful degree. Certainly it is fair to say that contemporary Britain seems very fractured to me, divided and, to a degree, intolerant. There is an admiration for the bully boy and an intoxication with loud mouthed lying that does seem to find a parallel in some streets of the Weimar Republic. There is, and was, much uncertainty, and I expect that an appetite for an authoritarian solution was felt then as now. And of course there was much poverty between the wars, and stark division between those with opportunity and wealth, and those who found no way out.

In what way have you stamped your own creative mark on the piece?

I hope in every way. I am used to directing performers in a very detailed way. It may sound silly, but from the very earliest stages I want to make something (with the designers, the conductor, the performers, even the surtitlist) that is poetic.

James Conway © English Touring Opera
James Conway
© English Touring Opera
Do you expect audiences to get drawn into the drama more or less quickly with Der Silbersee than with works they know better?

Well, I expect they will be drawn in. In truth, many people are attracted to the familiar. You sense a sort of pleasant sigh when a singer begins to sing a familiar tune – and sometimes it does not seem to matter how they sing it, it will still get the applause. However, ETO audiences do have an appetite for beautiful strangeness. It is always a challenge to get people through the door, but once in their seats they become drawn into this world. They will enjoy the dark humour, the movement, the dance, the wit of the text. Is any opera text as witty and wise as the song of the Lottery Agent “Interest and Compound Interest”, or the “Duet of the Salesgirls”?

You’ll be performing the opera across the country. Are there any venues you have particularly fond memories of, or are most looking forward to performing in?

I love our openings at the Hackney Empire. I love the theatre, and I love where it is. That said, I think our shows “become themselves” on tour. I like audiences; I like talking to people in the foyer, buying drinks for young audience members to encourage them to come back with friends, explaining what we have tried to do in the pre-performance talks. People are more important to me than buildings. It does make me sad that at some of the most beautiful theatres on tour, important buildings in city centres, the audience seems to have fallen away. Often there is a great feeling in a new theatre like Durham’s Gala Theatre, or a very long-standing ETO venue like Exeter Northcott Theatre – but it can be difficult to beat the intimacy and splendour of a Matcham-style theatre with warm acoustics.

Click here to see all the upcoming productions of English Touring Opera.

This article was sponsored by English Touring Opera.