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A new kind of opera

BY JUSTUS FLAIR | NOVEMBER 07, 2013 5:00 AM

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What do Louis Armstrong, David Bowie, Julie Andrews, Sting, and the New York Metropolitan Opera all have in common? Not much, but they have all performed the music of Kurt Weill.

The University of Iowa Opera Theater will join this list Friday, when it presents Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill at 8 p.m. in the Englert Theater, 221 E. Washington St. Performances will continue through Nov. 10 with a 2 p.m. matinee. Admission ranges from $5 to $20.

Who is Kurt Weill, you ask? German-born Weill was a composer who, at age 18, moved to Berlin to compose classical and theatrical music. When the Nazis seized power, Weill, who was Jewish, moved to Paris and then America.

“The show is an integration of all the music he wrote at that time. Not only do we get to hear his music, but we also sort of go on the journey with him and see how his life changes and his music changes,” said Bill Theisen, the show’s director. “It’s really interesting to see that development, because not a lot of composers have that. It’s not just his music; it’s his life.”

That is exactly where the cast began preparations for the opera — Weill’s life.

“The first thing we really talked about was all about [Weill]. The eight members of the cast have really embraced [him],” Theisen said. “We talked a lot about him, his life, and the work he did, before each section. The show is somewhat set up chronologically. [The cast members] also did research so they would have an idea of where the excerpts came from and then incorporate them into our show and carry it through our arc.”

Going into the project, the cast members had varying levels of familiarity will Weill’s work, and they have all since come to revere the composer.

“I, honestly, am quite upset with myself for not knowing enough of this music,” said cast member Jessica Pray, a senior vocal-performance major. “When you put all these songs together in one show, you see how underrated [Weill] is in the musical world.”

His works are so widespread that even many musicians who know his work do not always recognize them as his compositions. Aly Olson, a junior vocal-performance major cast in the production, had such an experience when she began rehearsals.

“I knew mostly about his German and cabaret music,” she said. “I knew of Threepenny Opera, but did not know that Weill had written it. What I love about Weill’s music is that a lot of his music is very edgy and gritty, while other pieces are just heartbreakingly beautiful — it shows what is most exciting about humanity in terms of greed, sex, and violence but also love, belief, and hope.”

Similarly, Nicholas Miguel, a graduate student in voice performance, said he was only mildly familiar with Weill’s work going into the rehearsal process.

“I had heard a few of the famous songs and knew of a couple of shows, but I had never seen a full production or anything like that,” he said. “His music is fabulous. It’s a mixture of jazz, Tin Pan Alley, opera, cabaret, with a unique flavor to every number. It’s purposeful, ironic, satirical, and edgy but always easy to listen to. He was a top-notch composer who didn’t mind catering to popular tastes. He also worked with a lot of great librettists, which makes a huge difference.”

Weill’s collaborations with lyricists, such as his famous partnership with Bertolt Brecht, are what he is known for and actually brought about some of his greatest works.

“One of the great things about Weill is the people who he collaborated with, people who wrote the lyrics,” Theisen said. “What is also a tribute to his music is not just the tunes he wrote but his collaboration with lyricists and how amazing those lyrics are.”

The lyrics help to tell a story, moving the plot of Weill’s story forward, but they speak to the audience in a deeper way as well.

“I think Weill is challenging because a lot of the music isn’t about creating the most beautiful sound, though lots still are; there is always a story being told through his music, and it’s surprisingly blunt and honest,” Olson said. “Performers with an edge might be more willing to deliver Weill’s music like this, honestly and without pretension.”

That edge is exactly what Theisen looked for during casting.

“The most important thing for me with the cast of this show, is there had to be an edge,” he said. “They couldn’t just sing well; nearly everyone who auditioned for me sang well. I was looking for singing actors looking to take a risk and really have an edge to their performance.”

Pray’s audition was nothing if not risky.

“I auditioned with ‘Alabama,’ and I decided to speak part of the verses,” she said. “I decided to take a risk to separate myself from all the great singers here at Iowa. It showed Theisen that I am willing to take a risk and do something weird and out there and experiment and see if it works. When I listen to Weill’s music, there is that edge to his piece, that underlying tension whether it be political or romantic that he translates to paper and we translate into music to the audience.”

The audience will get an up-close and personal translation of the music during the opera, as it is being performed at the Englert.

“I love the Englert; I think it’s so quaint,” Pray said. “And we’re using the space; we’re not making a set that takes over the space.”

Theisen feels the space is perfect for Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill, because a bigger location would have swallowed the show. The Englert works with the production instead of overpowering it. The set and costumes were designed with this same idea in mind.

The opera has a very bare and basic set, which draws more attention to the music. The music is more relatable, Pray feels, because it is entirely in English and done in a mostly present-day setting.

“It’s basically modern, with a few touches of the ’30s and ’40s,” Theisen said. “A lot of the costumes are contemporary pieces that hark back to that time. Because [the show] covers such a wide range of time and the actors portray so many characters, it didn’t really make sense to place it in a specific time.”

The vision allows audiences to focus on the music and the story being told, making the opera more relatable than many.

“It’s not the typical opera production here at the UI,” Theisen said. “It really is a mix of musical theater and opera — that’s what Weill was known for. [Weill] was the first one to really plant that idea that opera and musicals do not have to be two separate things. We can blend them into a new art form, and that’s what he did. It was groundbreaking and it continues to be so today.”



Opera

What: Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill
Where: Englert, 221 E. Washington
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Nov. 10
Admission: $5 Students with IDs, $10 Youth, $15 Seniors, $20 General Public


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