With inspired theatrical and musical insight, Opera Parallèle merged two short operas – Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny Songspiel and Francis Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tiresias – into a single evening of opera, which they performed this past weekend at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. The two-operas-in-one was impressively devised by Opera Parallèle’s Concept Designer Brian Staufenbiel in concert with Artistic Director Nicole Paiement.

Daniel Cilli in Les Mamelles de Tirésias © Steve DiBartolomeo
Daniel Cilli in Les Mamelles de Tirésias
© Steve DiBartolomeo

The story is set in a world impacted by climate change and overpopulation. There is little water in this world, and humanity is reduced to starving nomadic tribes wandering vast deserts. It's a grim prediction of where our own green planet is heading under the obsessiveness of human greed. And it's a thematic approach that the original creators, Weill and Brecht, Poulenc and Apollinaire, would have been sympathetic towards. Their culture was that of Europe devastated by the horrifically senseless Great War, a culture where surrealism, impressionism and expressionism flourished, abandoning the sentimentalities of 19th century Romanticism and late neo-classicism.

The combined opera opens with Weill and Brecht’s Mahagonny Songspiel, a 20 minute cantata using six poems from a collection of Brecht's poetry and two English poems, Alabama Song and Benares Song, by Elisabeth Hauptmann, Brecht's collaborator then and for the later Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper). The Doors recorded Alabama Song in their 1967 runaway hit album.

Mahagonny’s loose-knit collection of songs makes them easily adaptable to reinterpretation. Staufenbiel presents the singers as a group of actors searching the desert for an audience so they can present a play re-enacting the reasons behind the planet's disasters. The oceans have receded, and the actors drag the empty and damaged boat that is both their home and their theater across barren sands. Dressed like escapees from the Mad Max movie series, in dark tattered jeans and leathers, they are searching for the next whiskey bar and the mythical Mahagonny, where “life is lovely”.

A raggedy tribe emerges, and the cast sets up their stage. It’s at this point that the opera slides seamlessly into Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias. Quite an achievement. Weill’s Songspiel is a turbulent mélange of jazz and classical music, with some extraordinary multi-voice pieces based on dissonance that blend into original and rather gripping harmonies. The chorale suits the extreme nature of these souls lost in a nearly uninhabitable land. After a raucous instrumentation, the music subsides like the slow drips from a drying fountain. And then the Poulenc starts, in the same key and with the same ominous pulse. Before we know it, we are ushered into witty, lush and lyrical music that is unmistakably French, witty and playful – a contrast to Weill’s bleaker and edgier Germanic soul, a sense of art recognizable in the visual sketches of Georg Grosz. The transition is helped by the Director explaining the evening’s performance to his post-apocalyptic audience.

Daniel Cilli and Rachel Schutz in Les Mamelles de Tirésias © Steve DiBartolomeo
Daniel Cilli and Rachel Schutz in Les Mamelles de Tirésias
© Steve DiBartolomeo

Poulenc’s 52 minute Les Mamelles is categorized as an opera buffa, in two acts and Prologue. It uses a play by Apollinaire of the same name that was written some 30 years previously in 1903, a contemporizing of the story of the Theban seer Tiresias, who lived as a man and then as a woman. Apollinaire turns the trope into playful social commentary.

Thérèse, in plump figure and sporting a flashy red bra, sings that she wants to be more than a wife. She could be anything: a soldier, a journalist, a leader of men… the list opens out. First, though, she has to get rid of her feminine charms. She unloosens her breasts, which turn into balloons and fly off. Then she grows a moustache and changes her name to Tirésias. Her husband, profoundly upset by her desertion, assumes her womanly attire, notably a pair of red patent leather high-heeled boots. Who, he asks, will produce babies for the people of Zanzibar? He will! And he starts cranking them out at 40,049 per day. The babies are delightfully sung by the San Francisco Girls Chorus; it’s clear they enjoy driving Le mari nuts with their lalalalalas. “Silence! Silence! Silence!” he sings to no avail.

At the end of this comic opera within an opera, the cast urges the audience to go out and make more babies, before packing up their stage and boat and disappearing into the desert night to the final chords of Weill’s Mahagonny. It’s all as smooth and fortifying as designer chocolate with a kick of chilli.

Besides having an excellent band, many from SF Conservatory, Opera Parallèle presented a gorgeous young cast. Several of the singers, who are double-cast in both operas, are associated with the Merola/Adler program: alumni tenor Thomas Glenn (Charlie; Lacouf, The Journalist and The Son) and mezzo-soprano Renée Rapier (Bessie; The Newspaper Vendor); current Adler Fellow baritone Hadleigh Adams (The Constable); and Merola alumnus Aleksey Bogdanov (Jimmy; The Bearded Man). Others have extensive international and local experience, including Daniel Cilli (Billy; The Director), and baritone Gabriel Preisser and soprano Rachel Schutz, who led the cast in Les Mamelles as The Husband and Thérèse. Preisser and Schutz were lively and splendid, ascending their challenging vocal parts with vigour, talent and grace. Schutz sang Jennie, Lotte Lenya’s role in Mahagonny Songspiel, back in the days when Lenya’s voice was less throaty.

Choreographer KT Nelson imbued the cast with some iconic and comedic gestures. Video art was integral to the set and designed by David Murakami. Christine Crook did mind-boggling work on the costumes.