A Night At The Opera

Kurt Weill
Sidra and I went to see the Israeli Opera's performance of "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" a couple of nights ago, which, like other Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht collaborations, was an odd combination of the sophomoric and prophetic, musically interesting without being moving--yet, days later, haunting.

I won't go into the dystopia Weill and Brecht present us. I'll say only that it is a burgeoning city in the American desert, built up almost overnight, whose businesses sell nothing but food, drink, sex, gambling and spectacle (that is, boxing). The buyers are ordinary stiffs who have earned their bankrolls through dignified but exhausting physical labor; our hero is a lumberjack from "Alaska." They have come to Mahagonny to let things rip. This is payback time, they guess, and lose themselves in gluttony and whoring.

The whores, in turn, are women freed from (what Brecht, an evangelical Marxist) seems to consider bourgeois constraints and have a kind of spunk that often seems more admirable than pathetic, which the score (especially the famous "Moon of Alabama") reinforces. All are finally worn out by cynicism, far more than by any work or memory of work. The only thing that gives life meaning (if that's the word for it) is the fear of mass death from a great natural storm, which narrowly misses the city in the opera, but also leaves the inhabitants empty of hope.

I naturally assumed, before reading the notes in the playbill, that Brecht and Weill managed to write this together when the got to the United States in the 1940s, though the former, I knew, found himself in Hollywood and the latter in New York. I figured they somehow got wind of Las Vegas taking shape in Nevada, near the Hoover Dam, and Mahagonny was a kind of satire of that emerging city, a useful embodiment of where the bourgeoisie takes us.

I was a little shocked to read that work on the opera actually began in 1927, and was first performed in Berlin in 1930. Shocked, because Mahagonny was just an imaginative projection from things happening all around Brecht and Weill in Berlin, not America. It was Brecht's "Pottersville," the nightmare place George Bailey found himself in when he envisioned a world stripped of decency. The opera was not a specific satire of America but a general warning about human nature, well, human nature under "capitalism." (The ruinous storm Brecht and Weill assumed people needed to give themselves a kind of consoling drama was not the Second World War but the First. The nightmare was even worse than the pair could imagine.)

Bertolt Brecht

I CAN'T QUITE explain why seeing the opera in Tel Aviv in 2012, knowing it was dreamed up in in Berlin in 1930, touched me the way it did. In part, it was simply the irony that operas like "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" almost certainly had an effect very different from the one Brecht and Weill were hoping for. The Nazis came to power largely because, in the middle of a shattering economic crisis, Hitler was able to spread the idea that "the Jews"--not capitalism in general--were profiteering from decadence. ("The part which the Jews played in the social phenomenon of prostitution, and more especially in the white slave traffic, could be studied here better than in any other West-European city," Hitler rails in Mein Kampf.)

But I suppose the thing that got to me, in a scatter of feelings, was that 1930 was also the year Ben-Gurion formed Mapai, which promised Palestinian Jews a kind of permanent "Alaska," quite different, he thought, from the fate of Jews in the bourgeois diaspora. Yet Israel's current prime minister is bankrolled by an American sidekick, Sheldon Adelson, who made his fortune spreading Mahagonny around the globe. He is the closest living thing the audience might imagine to the grotesque "hotel" owner, Leocadia Begbick, whose manipulations and creepy self-pity cast a shadow over the entire production. (I was told by someone who knows that Adelson introduced himself to George W. Bush in the Oval Office as "Sheldon Adelson the third." When Bush said that he thought Jews did not name children in this way, Adelson responded: "The third richest man in America, and soon to be the second.")

Adelson's fortune has been used to subsidize Israel's largest circulation tabloid, given away for free, pushing an agenda of "markets" and "toughness," all-Bibi-all-the-time. It is also helping to revive Newt Gingrich's surging campaign, of course, though I suspect a great many of the latter's voters in the Republican primaries think of Adelson and his casinos pretty much the way Germans who voted for the Nazis for the first time in 1931 felt about "the Jews." Anyway, bloggers can turn on ironies only so far.

The symbolism is a little contrived, I admit, but it was hard to leave the theater not fearing that the bad guys already won, that Brecht's prophesy proved more powerful than Ben-Gurion's. Then again, this was the wonderful Tel Aviv mall for the performing arts. It was not an accident (as evangelical Marxists like to say) that this opera was chosen, of all times, now. Besides, just last summer the streets of the city for were alive with tens of thousands of young people hungry for "social justice" and excoriating the consumerism Mahagonny brought to an exaggerated climax.

Then again, again, when masses march for meaning and social solidarity, as in Berlin in the 1930s, it is not usually social democrats who keep their place at the head of the line. Soon after the first performance of "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny," Brecht and Weill would be running for their lives. Weill's parents made it to Tel Aviv, where the story, as it were, continues.