Markus Stenz © Kaupo Kikkas
Markus Stenz
© Kaupo Kikkas

This March will mark 120 years since Kurt Weill’s birth in the German city of Dessau, and 90 years since the premiere of his final collaboration with the influential Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht. Such an anniversary, one would presume, is responsible for the recent resurgence in demand for his work. But Markus Stenz, who will be conducting Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny with the Dutch National Opera early next year, believes there is more to it than simply nostalgia. “I do think the piece is incredibly relevant in our times,” he tells me over the phone from Germany. “The subject themes are as present today as they were back then, and I’m fully expecting the production to hit that chord. There’s no way you can do an historic version and not be aware of the bridge between our times.”

He should know. This isn’t the first time he’s been in the pit for Mahagonny. Back in the early 1990s, whilst chief conductor of the London Sinfonietta, Stenz took part in a production at the Staatsoper Stuttgart with legendary director Ruth Berghaus. The Berlin Wall had come down three years before, but the wounds of division still oozed, and East German-born Berghaus would have been well aware of the present-day connotations of Brecht’s caustic libretto.

As the sharks move in and vice prospers in the newly-founded Mahagonny, lumberjack Jim Mahoney realises “there is something lacking”: a running theme which reads just as well as a critique of the fake utopia of the Soviet Union as it does rampant capitalism: at the Leipzig premiere Nazi sympathisers – incensed by the agitprop subject matter – greeted it with a riot, whilst the second Frankfurt performance descended into a mass brawl after 150 Brownshirts flooded the theatre, setting off fireworks and shouting the Nazi Party slogan “Deutschland erwache!” (Germany, awake!). Such a dichotomy is bound to resonate with contemporary audiences in Holland (hopefully without instigating any riots), and although Stenz demurs when I ask if characters will be updated to acknowledge the current political climate, he clearly appreciates the opera’s renewed satirical potency.

Twenty-seven years have now passed since Stenz led that Stuttgart production, and I’m interested to know how he has matured as a musician in that time. This is something he has also been thinking about: “The fascinating thing for me will be to see how my creativity in the past three decades or so might have developed,” he tells me. “I’m sure, as opposed to then, I am much more able to put Weill’s music into context; more able to see the many connotations that were probably lost on me back in the early days of my career... but then of course that is more or less a private joke – for the public it has to work regardless of my inner game.”

The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Dutch National Opera © Pascal Victor
The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Dutch National Opera
© Pascal Victor

So what are the creative decisions he is particularly looking forward to making – and what will be different this time around? “As with most scores I conduct these days, it will be on notation,” he replies. “Weill scores – much more so than some of the contemporary scores of Strauss – are thinly notated. They give you the outlines of music, but the exact sonorities, the principal voices, the harmonic changes or the way you create momentum is not all notated. That is where the personality of the performer kicks in.”

Indeed, Weill didn’t leave a definitive version of Mahagonny and, as such, the manifold creative decisions on offer have led to no two productions being the same. Which version of “Havanna Lied” to use, for example? Weill wrote a second for his wife, Lotte Lenya, who starred in the 1931 Berlin production. Do you include the “Crane Duet”, originally written as a substitute for a censored scene in a brothel? What size should the band be? According to the president of the Kurt Weill Foundation, Kim Kowalke, Weill’s holograph full score included the numbers 6-3-2-2 next to the string parts – but nobody knows whether they refer to the number of players, stands or something else entirely. Such decisions inevitably effect the audience’s perception of a show that has, like Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, teetered between musical theatre and full-blown opera since it first hit the stage. The aforementioned 1931 production, downscaled for Berlin’s Theater am Kurfürstendamm and revised for ‘actors who sing’ like Lenya, would suggest its belonging to the former – despite Weill’s insistence that “Mahagonny is an opera... to cast it with actors is absolutely impossible”.

The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Dutch National Opera © Pascal Victor
The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Dutch National Opera
© Pascal Victor

Although he admits the addition of individual numbers, such as the infamous Alabama Song, gives the show a unique place in operatic history, there is no doubt in Stenz’s mind that Mahagonny falls under its banner. The decision to cast the likes of Doris Soffel, Nikolai Schukoff and Sir Willard White – operatic singers of no small renown – would certainly indicate a firm adherence to Weill’s assertion (similarly in John Fulljames’ opulent 2015 production at Covent Garden). He tells me that “the Weill ideal of 'this needs to be acted more than sung' is totally appropriate for the piece, but nowadays opera singers can do that. Plus, they have the benefit of being able to project above the orchestra.” Such vocal prowess will surely be necessary in the DNO’s 1,600 capacity Het Muziektheater where the opera will open this March.

Stenz found himself in the same opera house only a few months ago with his own orchestra, the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, performing György Kurtág’s Fin de partie (the same Pierre Audi production he premiered at La Scala last November). This time he’ll be leading the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra in Mahagonny – as well another run of Fin de partie – for the firth anniversary of the DNO’s Opera Forward Festival.

Is he pleased to be invited back? “Of course. It’s a beautiful opera house – incredibly capable, a well-oiled machine – but always with the desire and zest for creativity,” he assures me – and a quick scan through this year’s programme would suggest the same thing. Such a commitment to fresh, challenging opera is laudable. Thomas Larcher’s The Hunting Gun and a commission from Dutch composer Willem Jeths are among the offers that provide Dutch opera’s au courant with many great works to get their teeth into: not a Tosca or Papageno in sight. In fact, Mahagonny is the only work featured that wasn’t written in the last five years. But Stenz insists that doesn’t mean the show has lost any of its impact. “That has to be the aim for any given opera production,” he explains. “Something that strikes people and gets them thinking. And here with Mahagonny of course you have such a wonderful vehicle with which to do that”. His commitment to the art form is unwavering.

The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Dutch National Opera © Pascal Victor
The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Dutch National Opera
© Pascal Victor

When I ask him if he thinks the format is still valid 90 years after Mahagonny’s premiere he is almost baffled by the question: “It’s completely out of the question that opera will cease to be valid. It’s indestructible, because it brings together all that one can express in art. You have the visuals, the music, the live theatrical experience... it’s an incredibly robust thing.”

Mahagonny was the last opera that Weill and Brecht worked on together. By 1931 they were barely speaking, and Brecht had threatened to throw this “phony Richard Strauss” down the stairs. In 1933, in a letter to a lover, Weill wrote that Brecht was “one of the most repulsive, unpleasant fellows running around on this earth”. As their friendship broke down, Brecht’s own relationship with Mahagonny became increasingly conflicted. Several times he claimed to be the main creative force behind the opera, but his hostile attitude towards commercial theatre gradually hardened and he would later call the show “cooked up, through and through”. The onus is now on Stenz to prove him wrong – and something tells me he’ll do just that.

This article was sponsored by Dutch National Opera.