By Gillian Vickers
Campus News Reporter
A gentle lilting last Friday carried audiences from Santa Cruz up the river Thames to the London of the burgeoning capitalist age, where shop proprietor J.J. Peachum sells street beggars licenses to beg and rags to arouse human pity.
The eerie melodies of German composer Kurt Weill, in collaboration with German playwright Bertolt Brecht, tell the story of “The Threepenny Opera”: an opera so cheap even beggars can afford it. Brecht’s incising social criticism and Weill’s lulling, disorienting sound transforms the typically lofty genre of opera onto a stage where beggars and whores abound.
Music director Maya Barsacq’s black curls bounced with the booming bass as she led the Santa Cruz Chamber Orchestra in the opera’s opening ballad, “Mac the Knife.”
“The music is just so incredible,” Barsacq said.
The opera’s critique of capitalism, class differences and corruption continue to affect audiences since its 1928 premier in Berlin. Anyone who has wandered Santa Cruz’s Pacific Avenue will attest: panhandling and poverty are still prevalent.
“These are eternal themes…[which relate] to us very closely,” stage director Daniel Helfgot said.
Audience members Lance Sims and Mary Offermann said affluent audiences could use a little reminding that the issues of poverty and class hegemony affect everyone.
“What you’re looking at is class differences and bringing that to the forefront for an audience of theatergoers who aren’t low-class people,” said Sims, a Santa Cruz resident for over 30 years.
His wife, Offerman, agreed.
“We need to be reminded that there are a lot of people who don’t live the way we do. And Brecht sticks it to the audience, just like Mac the Knife,” Offermann said.
Tenor Joe Raymond Meyers, starring as gangster Mac the Knife, delivered the infamous line “First feed the face, then talk right from wrong” with as much acridity as the original German.
German native and current Santa Cruz resident Silvia Busse first saw “Threepenny” in a big-city opera house in Germany, but said she prefers the intimate venue at the Pacific Cultural Center. Busse thought Marc Blitztein’s English translation was excellent and she found Meyer’s portrayal of Mac to be “just perfect.”
The locally and internationally acclaimed cast of characters had to adjust to Brecht’s unconventional style of opera. With so many spoken lines, the vocally trained opera singers learned to embrace the coarse vernacular of “Threepenny.”
“It’s difficult to get out of yourself vocally,” Meyers said. He explained that the words came more instinctively once he let go of his rigid vocal training.
“You’ve got to let your voice ride with the emotions…let go and get down and dirty with it,” he said.
Both Meyers and Krista Wigle, who portrayed Jenny, found inspiration in what Wigle termed the “beautifully creepy music.” Wigle likened the feeling of unease inspired by Weill’s music to contemporary “Sweeney Todd.”
“It’s just, ughhh,” Meyers said, clenching his fist, struggling to define how the piece affects him. “It’s in your guts.”