Hanging Out at Tanglewood

Tanglewood beats working… for anybody who gets to listen, and perhaps specially for the young performers who are pouring their talented hearts into the opportunity of a lifetime.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Doug Fitch, Christin-Marie Hill and Erik Nielsen here (27 minutes, 12 MB MP3)

erikson hill fitch

Erik Nielsen, conductor; Christin-Marie Hill, mezzo; and Doug Fitch, stage director at the Tanglewood Music Center.

In the theater shed on the western edge of the Tanglewood lawn I am sitting in on the rehearsal of the Kurt Weill-Bertholt Brecht masterpiece — not The Threepenny Opera but the cult classic of decadence and the new German music theater between the world wars, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Because the Boston Symphony Orchestra maestro James Levine is out sick this summer, the anything-might-happen atmosphere around the Tanglewood preparations feels a tiny bit like the no-net air of risk and revolution that hovered over the riotous, contentious first performances (with Lotte Lenya starring) in Leipzig and Frankfurt in 1930. The prophetic power of the show — its bite into our world — is one amazement. The spectacle of young professionals finding their way is another. Three of them talked with me after the first rehearsal in costume: the stand-in conductor Eric Nielson, the mezzo singing the villainous Widow Begbick, Christin-Marie Hill; and the stage director Doug Fitch.

brecht & weill

Bertholt Brecht and Kurt Weill

Opera is a funny world. One of the reasons “Mahagonny” is such a great thing to do is that it’s an opera at war with opera. It comes out of this Cabaret – dark, dark, dark side of burlesque… and what is opera? Opera is the polo of the culture world. It’s elite, it’s extremely expensive, you never make money on it, it’s really fun to do. And people get hurt!

Stage Director Doug Fitch in conversation with Chris Lydon, at the Tanglewood Music Center, August 1, 2008

For every age and part of the world, there is a place about which fantasies are written. In Mozart’s time it was Turkey. For Shakespeare, it was Italy. For us in Germany, it was always America. You have no idea how little we knew about America. We had read Jack London and we knew absolutely all about your Chicago gangsters, and that was the end. So of course when we did a fantasy, it was about America.

Kurt Weill, in The New Yorker: June 10, 1944

[In “Mahagonny” and our own world] …the word that comes to my mind is insatiability. It’s a constant need… For me, this opera is about the insatiable feeding of desire. It is never going to go away. And the way it’s set up… there’s no way you ever can find satisfaction or be pleased… You know, it’s called “The Rise and Fall of Mahagonny.” It doesn’t sound like it’s going to end well from the very get-go. What seems so powerful about this piece is that nobody inside the

opera knows what’s going on with them; they’re all trying to do their best. Jack, who eats himself to death, is doing this not even because he wants to eat. He’s feeling: “Have I done well enough yet?” and his friend says, “Don’t do things by half. Go all the way. Just do it,” like the Nike commercial, a major motto of our time. “Just do it.” Weill and Brecht imagined this.

Stage Director Doug Fitch in conversation with Chris Lydon, at the Tanglewood Music Center, August 1, 2008

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