Vocal social protest

The satiric opera ‘Mahagonny’ speaks volumes today as it did in 1929 when the legendary Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht wrote it.

Mahogany tenties ladies opera theater 311 (photo credit: Yossi Zwecker)
Mahogany tenties ladies opera theater 311
(photo credit: Yossi Zwecker)
‘The timing for performing Weill/Brecht’s satire Mahagonny in Israel could not be better: It ends with a protest about the high cost of the living,” says young Israeli pianist/conductor Eitan Schmeisser, who alternates leading the operatic musical forces with Israeli Opera artistic director David Stern. “Taking into account that such huge productions as Mahagonny are scheduled three or even four years in advance, the person who made this decision in our Opera House was a real prophet!” he adds with a laugh.
Back to seriousness, he admits it was only this summer that he fully realized what the piece was about. “On one of those nights of mass demonstrations, I went out into the street. It was so crowded that it was impossible to move, so after spending half an hour with my friends, I returned to the Opera House, which is a few minutes’ walk from where the rally was, and immersed myself in the text and score of Mahagonny. I realized that in more ways than one, the piece is relevant to our times, including a lot of satire about the ’swinish capitalist’ approach to the vale of a human being, which is measured only by economic criteria but also some criticism towards the socialist approach.”
At age 34, Schmeisser already has a successful career as a musician, holding an important position as musical director at the Opera House. He participates in many productions in different positions, including Community Opera projects, which bring opera to remote parts of Israel and to audiences that would otherwise have no chance to be exposed to the genre.
Starting out as a pianist, he soon realized that accompanying singers was what he liked most. “At the Thelma Yelin Arts School I studied together with [the now renowned] soprano Chen Reiss, and there were others. Later I participated in Joann Dornemann’s Summer Vocal Workshop. I feel very comfortable in this field, where everything comes together,.” he says.
He adds that his is the usual pianist’s way to enter into the world of opera.
“People start as opera co-conductors and are sometimes given a chance to conduct a production. Then, if they have a knack for it, they continue in this field. This is how our conductors Asher Fisch and Dani Etinger started their careers,” he explains In 2003 the love of opera brought Schmeisser to Holland, where he participated in a month-long Baroque opera workshop – and that was where he got the harpsichord bug. On his return, Schmeisser continued his harpsichord studies with Zvi Meniker, as well as opragan with Alexander Gorin – all this, while studying conducting with Mendi Rodan at the Tel Aviv Music Academy. And while there is not much room for organ concerts in Israel, Schmeisser performs as a harpsichord player with local orchestras, as well as in opera productions, playing with elegance and precise style. Yet despite his many achievements, he is as taciturn and modest as a beginner piano student who is allowed to turn pages at a great maestro’s piano recital.
“Originally, Weill and Brecht created Mahagonny in 1925 as a half-hour cabaret-style program and were later offered the opportunity to develop it into an opera, which they completed in 1929,” says Schmeisser. “It ran with huge success – and no lesser scandals – till 1931, when Brecht and Weill were forced to flee the country. You have to understand what it meant in Germany of that time to deliver such lines as “God, you cannot punish us because this place is already hell” or “You cannot help people who are already dead.”
During those two years, the authors changed the piece many times, never creating anything like the final version, “so we’re working on it as if it was a new piece, polishing the seams all the time, and this is most challenging,” Schmeisser confides.
“Weill’s music is very special. It ranges from audacious modernism to provocations, and in some moments of true genius. It is both a parody and a real thing at the same time!” One of the Community Opera projects has borne fruit in an unexpected way. “The score of Mahagonny features several unusual instruments, and one of the arias is accompanied by the bandoneon and the zither. Believe me, I did not leave a single stone unturned, but I couldn’t find a good-quality zither or a good zither player in this county until conductor/mandolin player Shmulik Elbaz suggested that in Netivot, where we produced the community version of La Cenerentola, there was an extremely gifted young girl – and we were happy to invite her. She now participates in Mahagonny, performing her mandolin part on stage.”
Mahagonny will be performed 12 times at the Israeli Opera, 19 Shderot Shaul Hamelech, Tel Aviv, January 12 - 29. In German with English and Hebrew subtitles.
(03) 692777 www.israel-opera.co.il