Dreigroschenoper_1280x680_1516 © beyond/André Sanchez


In the 1920s, George Frideric Handel’s operas experienced a revival, and this led to the rediscovery of the parody of Handel, The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay and Christopher Pepusch. In 1928, Bertolt Brecht wrote Die Dreigroschenoper for the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in Berlin on the basis of a translation of The Beggar’s Opera (1728) by Elisabeth Hauptmann. When he learned that Kurt Weill, with his avant-garde leanings, had been entrusted with writing the music, Brecht was initially worried about the accessibility of the melodies, but the first samples of songs convinced him. Weill made use of forms and rhythms current at the time as well as classical patterns: the tango and shimmy are represented, as are baroque polyphony and arias, but in Weill everything is given a second layer; for example, Peachum’s morning choral becomes a provocative caricature of the Protestant work ethic. Overall, the work is a cynical satire on the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie in the era of capitalism. Weill himself described Die Dreigroschenoper as the “most logical reaction to Wagner”. The ballad of Pirate Jenny was written as a contrast to Senta’s ballad in Der fliegende Holländer. The premiere was the start of a global success which, though interrupted by the National Socialists’ denunciation of it as “degenerate art”, continued unabated after World War II. Today, the work has lost none of its topicality.

Peachum controls and exploits all the beggars in London. However, he cannot control his daughter Polly. Without his permission she marries his adversary, the criminal Macheath, known as Mack the Knife. Polly’s parents hatch a plot to eliminate Macheath: they want him handed over to the police, and consequently the gallows. Polly warns Macheath and he escapes. There is only one thing Macheath cannot resist, and that is his weekly visit to the brothel. The prostitute Jenny is bribed by Mrs Peachum and grasses on Macheath to the police. He is arrested, and a tug-of-war involving bribery and blackmail begins about whether he should be released or executed. In the end, no one is prepared to pay the hundred-pound bribe for Macheath’s release, and the gangster is led to the gallows. At the last moment, a mounted messenger from the Queen arrives and announces that Macheath has been pardoned because today is coronation day.