Entertainment » Theatre

Director James Darrah Makes 'The Threepenny Opera' Potent for Today

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Thursday Mar 15, 2018
James Darrah
James Darrah  

Since it premiered in 1928, "The Threepenny Opera" remains one of the most subversive musical theater pieces in the repertory. As conceived by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, the show - more musical theater than opera - provokes its largely prosperous audiences with a stinging critique on capitalism while seducing them with irresistibly catchy tunes, intriguing characters, and biting storyline.

Set on the eve of Queen Victoria's 1838 coronation, "Threepenny" centers on the exploits of Macheath (better-known as Mack the Knife), a brutish mobster whose equally comfortable working with other underworld figures and the police. But when Macheath marries the daughter of another mob boss, the hypocritical Jonathan Peachum, his downfall is put into motion.

While not often produced by opera companies, the Boston Lyric Opera opens a new staging this week at the Huntington Theatre, under the direction of James Darrah, one of the most acclaimed young directors working in opera today.

Darrah explained recently how he judges his success by the amount of time he is away from the home he shares with his husband in the Echo Park section of Los Angeles. Recently he staged the acclaimed world premiere of Missy Mazzoli's operatic adaptation of Lars von Trier's film "Breaking the Waves" for Opera Philadelphia and the Prototype Festival in New York. Next, he heads to Omaha to stage the premiere of Mazzoli's next work "Proving Up," a piece set in Nebraska at the end of the Civil War that Darrah says is "about the collapse of the American dream."

EDGE spoke to Darrah recently about his work on "The Threepenny Opera."


Kelly Kaduce in the Boston Lyric Opera production of "The Threepenny Opera." Photo: Liza Voll Photography.

EDGE: I read that you fell in love with Kurt Weill's music in college. Was it the music from "Threepenny?"?

James Derrah: It was more just knowing the music of Weill and the writing of Brecht. I had gone to theater school, so I really didn't get into opera until I was much older. I went to theater school because I wanted to be an actor for a long time, so as an actor studying in theater school, you quickly learn about Bertolt Brecht, his plays, and his works. And by going down that rabbit hole you learn about Kurt Weill and get immersed in that world. I really fell in love with his music and their collaborative work.

EDGE: What is it about "Threepenny" that speaks to you?

James Derrah: I think that the thing that speaks to me the most is that it never feels finished. There is no definitive version. There is no definitive production. It is always able to be something that is reinterpreted, reimagined, redesigned, repoliticalized. Even though it has so much of the early 20th-century energy in it, but at the same time, it is still so potent to the world today. And it is also something of an anti-success. It is not concerned with being a hit musical. It is not concerned with being a traditional opera. It is circumventing all of those things. It is challenging you as an audience member. What if we present something that is more about ambiguity and the enigmatic quality of art and abstraction, and not necessarily about spelling everything out for you all the time?


Renee Tatum (in blue) and Christopher Burchett (center, top) in the Boston Lyric Opera production of "The Threepenny Opera." Photo: Liza Voll Photography.

EDGE: Why has it endured with the audience?

James Derrah: I think because of that reason - it has resonances in any time period. Also, Kurt Weill's music is incredibly strong, deceptively simple and incredibly complex. It seems very tuneful, yet is really subversive. He is really doing complicated things harmonically. As a result, the songs are very well known - many artists have covered them. He has a sound that feels very contemporary and relevant; it also demands and requires a visceral human element that I think is really refreshing for a lot of theatergoers. So for the reason that I think there isn't a definitive or final version of the piece, it feels like it can be endlessly interpreted and that there isn't any right or wrong way to do it. You can't look at performance history and compare like you could most opera even. Opera has this staid performance tradition and is bound by them in ways that "Threepenny" is not.

EDGE: What is your approach in this production?

James Derrah: My approach is to inject energy into who these characters are and make them feel very recognizable, relevant and potent to us today. And not to worry about recreating the Victorian setting of London, which is the way it was originally conceived, which comes from "The Beggars Opera" by John Gay. Instead, we create a blank canvas. You don't really need fancy plots. You don't need big sets moving around. But you need really good story-telling and incredibly strong performances and good music making and singing all in service to this story and who these people are. Taking you on a journey on a course of an evening, and that is all is done with a lot of bite. That has been our guiding principle.

EDGE: What did you discover about "Threepenny" that you didn't know when you started working on this production?

James Derrah: I think the thing that I learned is that so much of opera is through-composed and time is controlled by the composer. No matter what a director does ultimately an opera is dictated by a composer's sense of time - how long things take in certain amounts of time. Depending on that amount of time, it can succeed and fail. What is interesting about 'Threepenny' is that there are long stretches of dialogue and the director has to set time, but I didn't know how much Kurt Weill's music is open to interpretation. I knew it was, but I didn't know to what extent. It's not as if the time signatures change, but the rhythm, the inflection of words. Opera singers have to sort-of unlearn everything they're taught in performing other repertoire. The voice really doesn't matter. What matters is communication. What matters is whether or not we hear you and understand the words.


Christopher Burchett and the ensemble in the Boston Lyric Opera production of "The Threepenny Opera." Photo: Liza Voll Photography.

EDGE: Is Macheath a hero or an anti-hero?

James Derrah: I think he's absolutely an anti-hero. I have heard people compare him to Don Giovanni. I don't think he is at all like Don Giovanni. For me, he is a mixture of Charles Manson, Cole Porter, and the Marquis de Sade. He is a sociopath who has no sense of morality, no sense of right or wrong because he doesn't think that he should. He believes fervently in whatever he believes in, and he uses whatever he needs to use, he takes whatever he needs to take, and he has the money that he needs to live. And at the end of the show when he realizes he's going to be hanged, he has his moment of reckoning. That is the moment when reality creeps in. He's an enigmatic figure; different in what you know about him. I really think of him as someone who doesn't abide by the rules of the age in which he lives.

EDGE: The piece also has three strong women - Polly, whom Macheath marries; Lucy, whom he dumps; and Jenny, the prostitute with whom he has a long-standing relationship. What do you think of the women that revolve around Macheath?

James Derrah: The women drive the story. Macheath kind-of reacts to everything that happens to him. We were discussing in rehearsal today that Jenny in a way is the most powerful person on stage at the end of the opera, yet has the least amount of dialogue or lines. And he really writes very strong, feminist and feminine character. Mrs. Peachum is a total battle-ax. I have been joking with the actress that she is wielding with her words a flamethrower at all time. She can completely take over any scene. He wrote really strong women roles. It is fascinating because in today's world it is amazing to be doing a piece where the women have a lot of power and knowledge and intellectual richness as characters. Even Polly, the ingénue, Brecht completely subverts the expectation of what the romantic lead should be like.


Chelsea Basler and Kelly Kaduce in the Boston Lyric Opera production of "The Threepenny Opera." Photo: Liza Voll Photography.

EDGE: You are setting this version in the present?

James Derrah: Yes. It is sort-of timeless. It is evocative. It is not... When they asked me about the setting, I said, it is an imagined London at some time when there is an important coronation of a Queen. That is all that matters.

EDGE: Do you incorporate Brecht's famous principle of distancing the audience emotionally from the characters and actions in the piece?

James Derrah: I like parts of it. I feel that I have a responsibility to tap into the core of what Brecht is after, if that means utilizing some of the distancing effect, then great. But at a certain point, they become trite and overused in their own way, which I don't think Brecht would have like. So we don't do anything to derail the telling of the story or the engagement of the audience in the message and moral of what Weill and Brecht are after. I am not interested in the idea of the director as auteur. I am more interested in the idea of a director as someone who is interested in stagecraft and teamwork and working with singers to really shape the piece. We have this Brechtian half-curtain and sometimes the characters speak directly to the audience and there is a lot of anger in the piece, but it all comes in service to the work for me. At least that's the goal.

"The Threepenny Opera" runs March 16 - 26 at the Huntington Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA. Performances: Friday, March 16, 7:30pm; Sunday, March 18, 3pm; Friday, March 23, 7:30pm; Saturday, March 24, 7:30pm; and Sunday, March 25, 3pm. For more information, visit the Boston Lyric Opera website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at rnesti@edgemedianetwork.com.


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