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The idea for the Dreigroschenoper [“Threepenny Opera”] came from Elisabeth Hauptmann, Bertolt Brecht’s widely-read employee, who had heard of the enormous success of the 1920 revival of John Gay’s old English Beggar’s Opera (music by John Christopher Pepusch) at London’s Lyric Theatre. She made a rough translation of Gay’s text for Brecht, and it became one of his many current projects.
Brecht was intrigued by the story, set in a milieu of beggars, whores and thieves; it seemed the perfect form in which to cast his criticism of the bourgeoisie. In adapting it, he transferred the action to the Victorian era of the 19th century and turned Gay’s “disguised critique of public disgrace” into a “public critique of disguised disgraces,” in Werner Hecht’s phrase. “It no longer aims at the cream of society; it strikes out at ‘normal bourgeois existence,’ as it were.”
Not a note had been written yet when Brecht was introduced to the idea; he made it a condition of accepting the commission from Josef Aufricht that Kurt Weill should compose the music. Time was scarce, so Brecht and Weill travelled with their wives in May 1928 to southern France, where they could work undisturbed.
The opera was finished in late July and rehearsals began early the next month for the premiere performance on 31 August at Berlin’s Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, where it was a colossal success. By contrast, the first American performance, on Broadway in 1933, was an outright failure, due to a poor translation and inadequate staging; it closed after 12 performances.
Lotte Lenya played Jenny in the 1956 revival, an adapted version by Marc Blitzstein at a Greenwich Village theatre, where it played for over 2000 performances. Today, the Dreigroschenoper is one of the most frequently produced musical dramas of the 20th century.
(Partially taken from Jürgen Schebera, Kurt Weill, Deutsche Verlag für Musik, Leipzig 1990, pp. 90 et seq.)