What might be a suitable 21st-century response to socialists Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s last collaboration The Seven Deadly Sins, first performed in 1933 in the shadow of Nazism?
Outdated? A period piece? Well, no, we might in fact embrace it because the circumstances today are surprisingly comparable.
Audiences then had endured their own global financial crisis, the Great Depression, right-wing extremists were on the rise, then known as Nazis now the United Patriots Front, Ukip, Golden Dawn and others; and women were, as now, troubled, commodified, and burdened.
Styled as a satirical ballet for two female parts and a chorus, The Seven Deadly Sins features 10 songs in seven short sections built around the deadly sin cities of the capitalist universe – Sloth, Pride, Wrath, Gluttony, Lust, Avarice, Envy. Wrath is Los Angeles and Envy is San Francisco, for example. In the forthcoming Victorian Opera version that opens tomorrow, Melbourne is Greed and Sydney is Lust.
Broken down into its more sinful parts, Weill/ Brecht’s capitalism is a demonic construct, relevant to the 1930s but not to be dismissed as a retro viewpoint today.
The piece represents the journey of two sisters from Louisiana, “down by the Mississippi”, who are sent by their family – “mum and dad and both our brothers” – on a seven-city, seven-year journey to make enough money to build a small house.
The sisters are imagined as “a double figure under a single shawl or cloak”. Both are called Anna. Anna 1, whose “head is on straight” is the entrepreneur type, and Anna 11, “the one with the looks”, is the artist, or as Brecht states, “the article sold”. The Family is a chorus intoning a running commentary on human assets, commodity price, risk avoidance strategies and likely dividends. They invert the biblical imperative to avoid sin and be good with the capitalist imperative to exploit sin and make money.
The dutiful daughters return with the money, exhausted but proud, their future, by implication, up to them. “Right, Anna”, “Right Anna”, they conclude in the Epilogue (1979, 83).
Unlike their more famous large-scale operatic compositions including The Threepenny Opera (1928), Happy End (1929) and The Rise and Fall of the City Mahagonny (1930), The Seven Deadly Sins is a pared-down version of the Weimar musicals.
The themes of capitalism, exploitation, commodification and ruin, inflected with gender and presented through ironic song, dance and music are glimpses of a greater whole. Although nominally set in 1920s America, the time and place is better understood as a Brechtian “America” – an estranged low-life version of Berlin, where sucker-values and dog-eat-dog deals are only mildly tempered by religion, and where the innocent are corrupted and women are sexualised and exploitable.
This artful dose of left-wing sexual politics is neatly set out in a scene in which Anna is weighed every day in case she gains “half an ounce”. If she does she loses her commodity value.
Gender is important here because the female character represents a double alienation, once as a worker and again as female under patriarchy. She is not on stage to be identified with but seen as a representation by a performer, who distances herself from the character.
Musicologist and Kurt Weill expert Kim Kowalke is one of the few scholars who has written on the The Seven Deadly Sins (2005). His account of the genesis of the piece is a fascinating account of the unique collaboration among German and Russian exiles from Hitler and Stalin, who gathered briefly in Paris in 1933.
Figures such as the choreographers George Balanchine and Boris Kochno, late of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, were joined by Kurt Weill, singer Lotte Lenya, theatre designer Caspar Neher and a wealthy Englishman, 25-year-old Edward James, whose estranged wife was the Viennese dancer, Tilly Losch.
Lenya and Losch played the sisters draped by the single cloak. Weill was commissioned to write the music and had to settle for Brecht as the librettist after his first preference, Jean Cocteau, declined.
This was to be the final collaboration between two of the most revolutionary artists of Weimar Germany, who had had a vicious falling out in Berlin. As Kowalke explains, the young English impressario, Edward James, funded the performances at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris and the Savoy Theatre in London in a version that was revived in New York in 1958. Since then, the role of Anna has attracted Marianne Faithful, Cleo Laine, Ute Lemper, and now the Australian performance artist Meow Meow.
If the socialist politics are considered and staged as “retro”, then this unique collaborative work, composed and performed as Europe went to war against fascism, remains a Weill/Brecht masterpiece and an enduring challenge for artists.
Victorian Opera’s production of Seven Deadly Sins is at Hamer Hall, Melbourne, on November 6. Details here.