Letter from Dessau

There’s more to Germany in 2006 than the biggest sporting event of the year, the World Cup. The country is also celebrating an artistic milestone that will engage many impresarios, performers and composers. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Bertolt Brecht who, together with the composer Kurt Weill (1900-1950), created a kind of artistic mirror of their age. Theirs was truly contemporary art of the utmost significance. This year’s Kurt Weill Festival – running from February 24 to March 5 in Dessau, the city of his birth and home to the revolutionary Bauhaus architecture of his contemporaries – is titled «Weill and Brecht» and aims to stage many of the works the two artists created together. Their collaboration ended in 1933. Having lived in my formative years as a student in Berlin and having occasionally worked at the Berliner Ensemble, the Brecht theater there, I couldn’t miss this Weill-Brecht event in Dessau, a midsize city in eastern Germany. From the window of my room in the four-star Steigenberger Hotel, across from the Anhaltisches Theater Dessau, I can see a whole row of uninhabited family apartments. Unemployment has reached 20 percent in this city, once home to the inventor and engineer of aircraft Hugo Junkers (1859-1935), the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), and now home to the modern Federal Environmental Agency plus the wrecked remnants of factories of the former East German state. Resentment toward what is still called «the West» also runs high. Beyond money and jobs, many people describe a moral void in which everyone seeks to advance themselves at all costs. Dessau’s problems, common to many towns in the former East, reflect the way Germany has been caught in a vicious circle that has accentuated division until today, 17 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Appropriately, the Kurt Weill Festival 2006 opened with a premiere of the opera «The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.» Helmut Polixa’s colorful stage direction was a big plus. «Mahagonny» – which was also staged by the Greek National Opera in the good old Hadjidakis-direction-times of the late 1970s – is a brutal satire of Weimar Germany and contemporary capitalism, set in a degenerate (American) utopia where everything is permitted and the only crime is lack of money. However, as far as reunited Germany goes, one can hardly speak of a lack of money. The immense transfers of funds from the prosperous West to a formerly dilapidated East – more than $1 trillion since 1990 – prove that there was a lot of money in this case. Sure enough, someone had to pay for all this. Social security charges now represent 42.3 percent of wages, compared with 35.5 percent 15 years ago. These increased wage costs have, in turn, made businessmen reluctant to hire and have led to the elimination of more than 2.5 million jobs in the last 15 years. Writing about «Mahagonny» in 1933, Weill did not miss the opportunity to ride on the dialectical bandwagon: «The content of this opera is the history of a city, its emergence, its first crises, then the crucial turning point in its development, its most scintillating time, and then its downfall.» «Mahagonny» works far more as a composition than a narrative. As in other collaborations, the real star of the show is Weill’s tidy, saucy, sizzling score. Like him or not, Brecht is one of the geniuses who made the theater what it has been over the last century. His influence has also changed my life as well; ultimately, I chose to write about theater over architecture. During my years in Germany (that is for anyone old enough to remember the 1950s and the 1960s) the very adjective «German» cried out to be followed with the words «economic miracle.» Not anymore. No wonder Mr Schroeder lost the elections. Another sort-of opera – «Happy End» – premiered in Berlin on September 2, 1929, and closed after six performances, due to its scandalous revolutionary theme. In the third act, the mysterious ringleader, «The Fly,» played at the time by Brecht’s wife Helene Weigel, made a sudden move toward the audience and said: «What’s a jimmy alongside a stock certificate? What’s robbing a bank alongside founding one?» Brutally aroused from lethargy, the audience demanded that the curtain fall. A lot of water has flowed along the river Spree. Directed as a parody by Herbert Olshok, «Happy End» was repeated on Saturday after the success it had received last year. Of course, no one protested. Weill wrote some of his most infectious tunes for it. However, their most provocative piece, in a Chicago set in 1919, with intrigues of backrooms, bedrooms and leading ladies, does not disturb anyone anymore. The same spoken conclusion – which is nothing but the opera’s sardonic treatment of America – is also heard these days in the Veakio Theater in Piraeus, where one can see the best-ever Polly in «The Three-Penny Opera,» directed by Themis Moumoulidis. Her name is Tania Tripy. When Weill (who, incidentally, met Greek composer Nikos Skalkottas while in Berlin) went to the USA he enthusiastically embraced American life, insisting that he and his wife Lotte Lenya speak only English to each other. And Weill’s Broadway work is hardly second-rate, as some Greek intellectuals still insist. This annual festival in Dessau, dedicated to the composer’s American work, has proven this.

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