Adam Benzwi Discusses “Dreigroschenoper” & Singing Brecht/Weill Today

Kevin Clarke
Operetta Research Center
6 March, 2021

Pianist and musical director Adam Benzwi was slated to premiere “his” Dreigroschenoper interpretation – in collaboration with stage director Barrie Kosky – at Berliner Ensemble in January 2021. Because of Corona and the prolonged lockdown for theaters in Germany, that didn’t happen. Most likely, the production will open after Easter, or even more likely in May 2021. We spoke with Mr. Benzwi about his take on the Brecht/Weill show and how it compares to the operettas which he did with Mr. Kosky at Komische Oper Berlin in the recent past. We also discussed Fritzi Massary and her magic, asking whether her 1920s style work in combination with Kurt Weill, too. And whether English speaking fans can understand that magic better, now that a first English language biography is about to come out.

Musical director and 1920s expert Adam Benzwi. (Photo: Private)

Musical director and 1920s expert Adam Benzwi. (Photo: Jan Windszus)

When did you start rehearsing Dreigroschenoper with your soloists from Berliner Ensemble?
It was a year ago, in April or May 2020.

What knowledge did these actors bring along of the 1920s entertainment world in Berlin?
Everybody knows Threepenny Opera. Josefin Platt, one of our performers, has been in three different productions already. She was Jenny, she played Mrs. Peachum, plus something else, now she’s our “Moon over Soho” and sings Die Moritat von Mackie Messer. Everyone was familiar with the songs beforehand to some extent. That was different to the operettas by Paul Abraham and Oscar Straus that I’ve been doing at Komische Oper Berlin or Offenbach’s Die Prinzessin von Trapezunt I did in Hildesheim, where the material is practically unknown.

Adam Benzwi rehearsing at Berliner Ensemble with Barrie Kosky. (Photo by Jörg Brüggemann from the book "Die Dreigroschenoper – Making Of," Spector Books 2021)

Adam Benzwi rehearsing at Berliner Ensemble with Barrie Kosky (r.) and the soloists Kathrin Wehlisch and Denis Riffel. (Photo by Jörg Brüggemann from the book “Die Dreigroschenoper – Making Of,” Spector Books 2021)

Is that a good or a bad thing?
When I began rehearsals, I was afraid it could make things difficult. I usually don’t like singers to know anything about a song beforehand. I don’t even want them to know who wrote the words or the music. Because the second they know it’s Gershwin, for example, they start singing it in a particular way. And especially with Bertolt Brecht many think it has to be sung in a certain style. I prefer a ‘virginal’ singer who just looks at the melody and the words and looks for his/her own personal path. To give you an example of the particular challenges with Dreigroschenoper: it’s become a tradition to over-pronounce everything, such as rolling the Rs in “Mackie Messerrrrrrrrrr” endlessly. In speech and singing, this last R is simply a “shwa” (or to be really exact: the near-open central vowel, similar to English, the last syllable in “mother”); you would never roll that last R. That was something I wanted to get rid of and start from scratch: see what the text and the music does with this actor today, with all the things going on around us… like Corona, lockdown, demonstrations by Corona opponents, Donald Trump.

Another example: in Die Ballade der sexuellen Hörigkeit, Mrs. Peachum uses two words “Weiber“ and “Huren“ in it. Both of these words can be used in a derogatory way, but they do not have to be. In the recordings of this song I have heard, the singers sing these words in a judgmental way, the subtext being “cheap broads, despicable whores,“ usually over-acting, in my opinion. Constanze Becker and I chose the other route: you can say “Weiber“ and “Huren“ with no judgement at all. Subtext: these women are going about their profession, just as anybody does. Berliner Ensemble arranged a meeting with the prominent prostitute, feminist and activist Salomé Balthus. She confirmed our view: she herself even prefers the term “Hure“ (whore) in describing her profession. When you discard the traditional way on interpreting this song, a whole new spectrum on the character and how to interpret the music comes to life. We believe Mrs. Peachum may have been a whore herself, she certainly knows what she is singing about in that song and doesn’t need to condemn it. I feel like this song and character can breathe now!

How do things like Corona and Donald Trump affect the way you sing Dreigroschenoper?
When you look at the text, certain words trigger something in you. And that’s what I’m looking for in the music, too, although music is not as specific as the words. The text is so rich with Threepenny Opera that a lot gets triggered. In one of the songs we hear the line “Was hilft da Freiheit…” For me, as an American, this word “Freiheit” is a problem, because I think in modern-day America (and Germany, too) it’s one of the most misused  words. It’s a word used to manipulate people. I’m allergic to this word. When we were rehearsing the song with Nico Holonics, our Macheath, it was the time of the anti-Corona measures demonstrations in Germany, and they were also using this word “freedom.” Back in 1928 Brecht was already asking what good freedom is, because it was misused back then, too. Don’t get me wrong, I love freedom of speech. I respect freedom. I want freedom. I just think it’s one of those words that’s misused too often.

Adam Benzwi rehearsing at Berliner Ensemble. (Photo by Jörg Brüggemann from the book "Die Dreigroschenoper – Making Of," Spector Books 2021)

Adam Benzwi rehearsing with Kathrin Wehlisch at Berliner Ensemble. (Photo by Jörg Brüggemann from the book “Die Dreigroschenoper – Making Of,” Spector Books 2021)

What about you as a conductor: I assume you also have a history with Dreigroschenoper. Is it possible to erase past interpretations from your memory?
It’s always good to be informed. So I listened to all the recordings I could get my hands on. I’ve been working on these Brecht/Weill songs passionately for 30 years with my students and actors in various Liederabends; I have also worked with the celebrated Brecht interpreter Gisela May in master classes on these songs. I think that is beneficial. Our cast from Berliner Ensemble was eager to try something new.

Older recordings of Dreigroschenoper go off in very different directions…
The original 1928 production in Berlin had a colorful mixture of performer types: Harald Paulsen as Mackie Messer was an operetta buffo, there were cabaret performers like Rosa Valetti, and singing actors such as Lotte Lenya, Kurt Gerron and Peter Lorre, not to mention Ernst Busch. So back then there wasnt’ a homogenous cast. For some reason, a particular way of singing Dreigroschenoper has taken over since then. Barrie Kosky calls this style “park, bark and snark”! The show had a legendary production in the United States in 1954 with Bea Arthur and Lotte Lenya, Jo Sullivan and Scott Merrill, Marc Blitzstein translated the lyrics into English. It was a time of great prosperity in the United States, when no one wanted to think about anything serious. It was also the time of McCarthyism with political repression and fear that communist ideas could spread in the USA. I believe the Off-Broadway version of Threepenny Opera was a success because it was the opposite of all the sugary, sentimental musicals of the era. It was socially critical; it was not beautiful in the sense of the standard musicals of the 1950s. And I believe the German language sounds hard and aggressive to English speaking ears, which gives Germans a reputation of not having any humor. As a result, many believe Dreigroschenoper has to be harsh and devoid of humor to be authentic.Of course there’s a famous recording of that 1954 version which most Americans will be familiar with, which kind of cemented a certain attitude.

In Germany, there also was a counter movement to the saccharine style of the 1950s and 60s with Peter Alexander singing operettas and Schlager. So you get Lotte Lenya’s 1958 German version of Dreigroschenoper – with the orchestra of Sender Freies Berlin – as a dark alternative. When I worked with Gisela May, we talked a lot about the war. She was 20 years old when it was over in 1945, and she told me of her experiences. She could not understand how something like this could have happened. She had anger in her. And I think many people in Germany in the 1950s were overwhelmed by the question how all of this could have happened. They needed to get something out. And the text by Brecht – and the topic of Dreigroschenoper – is a good place to get frustration out. That was right for that era, to sing his songs with the message “Never let this happen again!” But now we’re living in different times. We have other problems today. You can’t reach people by screaming or barking at them, you have to meet them eye to eye. People don’t want to be guilt-tripped. And I think that Brecht’s texts benefit from this kind of interpretation. He addresses the audience as equals, never in a condescending tone. Many of his songs begin with “Meine Herren” and not “listen, you idiots.” I think you should apply that to your manner of singing, too.

When Dreigroschenoper premiered in 1928 in had to compete with famous revues and operettas playing in Berlin. Karl Westermeyer in his 1931 operetta history calls Dreigroschenoper a model of a modern syncopated operetta, pointing the way to the future. Do you see traces of operetta in the show?
Yes, very much. There are wonderful melodies, and there are popular dance rhythms and formats. There are also texts you can compare with the best of operetta from that time. Often, people don’t know what to call Dreigroschenoper. Is it a musical comedy? Someone called it a “farce operetta.” That was what Barrie Kosky and I liked most.

When your BE actors hear the word operetta” does that scare them?
On the contrary, it inspires them. I think operetta has a new meaning these days; it’s overcome that stereotypical image of stuffy nostalgia. Our Macheath told me he would love to do an operetta at Komische Oper. Now that the genre is being performed by people such as Stefan Kurt, Max Hopp and Dagmar Manzel it’s become something enticing for other actors to try.

What is enticing about it?
The delicious music, the humor, the wonderfully playful lyrics, the particular kind of emotion. In our Dreigroschenoper we decided to do the “Liebeslied” (“Und gibt’s auch kein Schriftstück vom Standesamt”) not as a parody, but with true emotion. Our performers enjoy doing that because the music and text are so rich. Most of the recordings I have heard spoof this song.

Someone who ideally balanced meaning, real emotion and parody was Fritzi Massary, the greatest operetta star of the 1920s in Berlin. What is special and worth remembering about her today?
The way she brought text and music together was radical. I think that’s unique about Berlin in the 1920s and early 30s in general, and especially with Massary. Key words were treated like diamonds. She represents a golden age of “Sprechgesang.” When she sang, every thought was  flavored with wonderful colors.

Musical director Adam Benzwi. (Photo: Private)

Adam Benzwi at home. (Photo: Jan Windszus)

One of the people you work with, who represents such as Massary type of singing, is Dagmar Manzel. Did you ever listen to Massary recordings with her, when you were preparing the two Massary operettas Eine Frau, die weiß, was sie will and Die Perlen der Cleopatra for Komische Oper?
Dagmar and I are both big fans of Massary. So we have those recordings ‘in’ us. It’s like when I did the production of Marlene with Judy Winter, we knew every breath from Dietrich’s recordings. With Dagmar it is the same. We looked at the text and music and then discovered the material and the jokes in our own way. We even came across one or two “Pointen” (jokes) which Massary missed. We don’t imitate her, instead, we channeled into Massary’s spirit. Dagmar takes her own time to pause, for example, depending on the audience and whether they are getting the joke. It’s the same with Dreigroschenoper. You have to be flexible, pick up the tempo or slow down, depending on how the audience reacts. You need to give your performers space; you can’t stick religiously to the tempi Theo Mackeben used in 1928 for the premiere.

In a recent interview conductor Florian Ziemen pointed out that operetta scores leave conscious ‘gaps’ for performers to fill with meaning. Does this apply to Dreigroschenoper, too?
I see what Florian means. Some of the numbers in Dreigroschenoper stick to popular song forms. But then Weill alters them in an ingenious way. You recognize you’re in a typical foxtrot, but suddenly something unexpected happens, either in the rhythm or in the harmony. I agree: these songs benefit from performers “filling in the gaps“ with their personalities and individual interpretations. (To read the interview with Florian Ziemen, click here.)

When you have such gaps in the score, are your BE performers happy to fill them?
Yes, they’re passionate about it. It takes time to find the right way. And we are still finding new ways during each performance. Ideally, we have the structure and know what we want to say, what we are fighting for, and then continue the process of treasure hunting when the audience gets there.

You also work with students at UdK, a much younger generation. Do they have any knowledge – or interest – in Massary & Co. or the 1920s?
Basically, they do not know too much about that era. But they enjoy exploring the repertoire. Up until they work with me, they’ve been working with their singing teachers where they do modern musicals and get their instrument working. When I come in, with chansons where they get to speak and sing, it’s another perspective. Melodies have a tendency to just take you over, and you fly on that melody. Which is lovely, and at the same time, it becomes a richer experience if you sing from one ‘thought’ to the next, to navigate towards key words, to expose the conflicts the lyrics express. And do it as if you’re saying something for the very first time. For this purpose the repertoire of the 1920s is perfect.

Musical director Adam Benzwi. (Photo: Private)

Musical director Adam Benzwi in his living room. (Photo: Jan Windszus)

When you work with singers a year ahead of the premiere, how important is it to have the stage director involved at such an early stage?
It’s important to talk to the director early on. I always tell the singers and the director that I can’t do just music. Singing is heightened acting for me, so it has to come from an acting place. I tell everyone: “When the director gets here, he/she may change things. The main point is that your inner actor is always switched on while singing, and then we can change things again later.” Usually we don’t change things, because I really think things out thoroughly beforehand and confer with the director, but sometimes we do. And that’s good.

When you collaborate with Barrie Kosky, how does that work?
He loves to be inspired. In the case of Dreigroschenoper I believed that we should not be parodying the songs, that we should start from true characters. I think that inspired Barrie, because he was also tired of the way these songs are usually done. The song “Liebeslied” is like operetta, and I wanted to take it seriously. Nico Holonics, our Mackie, was a member of the Thomaner Choir in Leipzig as a child, so he’s worked with great conductors. He has a wonderful, sexy timbre in his voice and he is highly musical:  he can sing and interpret “Liebeslied” beautifully. Barrie liked this. We are both historically informed, yet passionate about experimenting and finding what’s right for our production, for our actors, for our musicians, for our audience at this particular theatre.

Talking of being historically informed: Most people outside of the German speaking world will know who Lotte Lenya was and what she sounded like, whereas Fritzi Massary is probably not a familiar name, even though she spent the last three decades of her life in Beverly Hills. Now, Robert Wennersten is writing the first English language biography.
If you don’t speak German and listen to Massary’s recordings, you can’t really understand her magic. Maybe you can sense it, if you’re a sensitive listener. I hope English readers will understand, through the new book, that these German songs and shows are full of humor, pain, passion and sexiness, maybe not the same kind of humor and sexiness we have today, but still expressive, and unique. When I hear Massary sing I can’t even start to describe what is so exquisite about her interpretations. I can’t translate it. Just like you can’t describe why Mel Brooks or Absolutely Fabulous are funny. That’s where globalization has its limits. (To read an interview with Massary’s English language biographer Robert Wennersten, click here.)

Adam Benzwi rehearsing at Berliner Ensemble. (Photo by Jörg Brüggemann from the book "Die Dreigroschenoper – Making Of," Spector Books 2021)

Adam Benzwi rehearsing with Nico Holonics and Kathrin Wehlisch at Berliner Ensemble. (Photo by Jörg Brüggemann from the book “Die Dreigroschenoper – Making Of,” Spector Books 2021)

When you look at Massary’s life, what do you find the most inspiring about it?
The fact that she came from a working class Viennese background and developed into a great performer. She learned a lot from working in revues at Metropoltheater (today’s Komische Oper Berlin) in her early years, before she moved on to becoming a leading lady in operetta. I love her recordings. When she sings “Jede Frau hat irgend eine Sehnsucht” I have to cry every time. She’s touching, and she’s funny. It’s what I also love about Bette Midler. She, too, could be funny and touching. It’s a wonderful combination.

Bette Midler started her career at the Continental Baths of New York, in front of gay men at the sauna. Massary started at Metropoltheater where members of the Imperial Army were not allowed in wearing uniform, because it was seen as improper for official representatives of the state to be seen in such a venue full of prostitutes, nudity and entertainment. Massary in her 1965 TV interview says she played the “Grande Cocotte.” Is that a dimension of operetta modern day performers cannot adequately recapture?  
Back then it was daring to present that sort of entertainment. Today such things are not considered to be audacious anymore. We’re living in different times where everything is allowed. When I researched for Perlen der Cleopatra at the National Library in Berlin and looked at all the chansons Oscar Straus wrote, I was surprised that the songs up until 1920 were totally tame, because they had to be approved by a censor. The double entendres were held back, unlike later in the 1920s, it’s nothing like Perlen which has decidedly risqué lyrics. It’s not shocking to use sexual language on stage in Germany anymore.

The one and only Fritzi Massary.

The one and only Fritzi Massary.

Bette Midler wasn’t shocking when she sang at the Continental Baths either, but she learned a special way of flirting with the audience. When you get to a song like “Sexuelle Hörigkeit” from Dreigroschenoper what do you do with it today, sing it like a Kunstlied by Schubert?
That song is up-to-date. It’s about sex addiction. Mackie Messer is the biggest criminal in all of London, he is not afraid of anyone. But who has power over him? Women. The second verse is saying that it’s not just criminals, but respectable people from our community – pastors and professors – who are subservient to their prostitutes. Sexual addiction is a problem today, too. It used to be just the gays who would go to bath houses and parks to have sex in public places. Now, with all the dating apps, it’s the straight and gay students and adults, men and women, who are challenged by compulsive sexual behavior. These apps are a temptation for all people. I don’t think that we need to shock anyone with “Sexuelle Hörigkeit.” Instead, Constanze Becker as Mrs. Peachum is making our audience aware of this condition and not judging it.

Do you think Massary could have sung Kurt Weill and something like the “Ballad of Sexual Dependency” well?
It’s a shame she didn’t. Because I like Weill’s songs sung by unusual performers and Massary definitely has one. She sings one note and you know it’s her. She’s incomparable.

Do you work on Massary’s repertoire with your UdK students?
Yes. Devi-Ananda Dahm participated at the national singing competition “Bundeswettbewerb Gesang.” She’s a gifted musical theater and pop singer. She’s also a good actress and dancer. And she lives in Berlin and wanted to do something local. So I gave her the Massary song “O la la.” She sang this in the last round of the competition, and it was tremendously successful. She didn’t really know what to do with the number till the very end, when I brought her an old kimono: as the costume of a diva in her dressing room. She started improvising with this kimono, and it was fabulous, maybe even my favorite moment at the competition that year. It made me realize how inspiring Massary can still be.

Did it lead to Dahm winning?
It was definitely part of it, because it was such a surprise for the jury after she sang these big emotional songs from contemporary musicals to suddenly see that this woman is a comedian, at home in Berlin and the 1920s. That was refreshingly different.

Devi-Ananda Dahm performing the Massary classic "O-la-la" at the Bundeswettbewerb Gesang. (Photo: Private)

Devi-Ananda Dahm performing the Massary classic “O-la-la” at the Bundeswettbewerb Gesang. (Photo: Private)

Massary has been a sort of guardian angel for you, too, right?
I became a conductor at age 48. Before that, I had been musical director from the piano only. So it was a quite a challenge for me to get up in front of the orchestra of Komische Oper, full of people rightfully expecting a professionally trained conductor. I had immense stage fright when I got into the pit. As the lights were about to go out, I thought I would faint. In that moment I looked up into the chandelier hanging over the audience, which is the same chandelier Fritzi Massary saw from the stage in 1932 when she did Eine Frau, die weiß, was sie will! and all the other productions. And I said in my mind: “Fritzi, help me.” I prayed to her, and I really had the feeling that she was blessing me! I see similarities in our lives: She wasn’t trained at a conservatory in what she did. She had talent and the strong need to say something, to entertain, to touch, to share her observations about society. She loved her craft, learned it on stage and from wonderful colleagues.

When Massary did the revues at Metropoltheater in the early 20th century she had to perform next to superstars like Josef Josephi and Guido Thielscher. She learned from them what works and what doesn’t. I think a lot of people today, when they approach Massary roles, don’t come from a competitive position anymore. They just sing, like Annette Dasch in Madame Pompadour at Volksoper Wien, they don’t fight for the spotlight like a Broadway performer. Not to mention Bette Middler who had to stop her audience from wondering off into the steam room.
I also did so much in my life; I’ve been through a lot. I used to play in a brothel; I played for lots of transvestites in Berlin, countless cabaret evenings with actors. And then at Theater des Westens or  Renaissance Theater… At age 48 I was finally performing Massary’s genre at her former theater. It gave me the feeling that my whole life had been pushing me to do this.

Also with Dreigroschenoper: When I was a student at Columbia University in the 1980s, a friend gave me a cassette (!) of Threepenny Opera, with Lotte Lenya, and I instantly fell in love with it. It made me want to move to Berlin. And now I am finally doing Threepenny Opera in Berlin. Which feels like everything until now has been preparing me for this. Maybe that’s something I have in common with Massary, this fighting and going through a long process of getting to the point where you can be totally light, because you finally feel secure.

The book Die Dreigroschenoper – Making Of with photos by Jörg Brüggemann will be available at Spector Books. For more information on the Dreigroschenoper production at Berliner Ensemble, click here.