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Feature: Last performed 80 years ago and long believed to be lost, Kurt Weill’s first stage work is making a return at Covent Garden

Published: 8 December, 2011
by SEBASTIAN TAYLOR

We all know Mack the Knife, the song sung by legions of singers from Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin onwards.

We all know, or should know, that the song was composed by Kurt Weill with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht for their late 1920s music drama The Threepenny Opera, the character MacHeath being an allegorical personification of the evils of capitalism.

Many will know, too, that Weill wrote for more than 30 stage productions, both in Germany before fleeing the Nazis in 1933 and then in the US.

Among them are Happy End, Mahagonny, Knickerbocker Holiday, One Touch of Venus and Street Scene, each having tremendous songs.

But I’ll bet next to no one knows much, if anything, about the work that started it all – Weill’s first stage work, Magical Night, written and performed while he was still a student.

That’s because the instrumental music for the piece was lost for more than 80 years, only to be discovered six years ago in a locked safe at Yale University.

The score was among papers given to Yale in the 1960s by the widow of the producer of the initial performances and, once locked away, nobody knew they were there.

Their discovery was regarded as “sensational” by Weill enthusiasts as Magical Night, completed in 1922,was last performed in New York in 1925.

Although a piano reduction has been available, the discovery of the instrumental music made it possible for Weill’s composition to be seen again in its complete form.

“Magical Night is a breakthrough piece,” says Kim Kowalke, president of the Kurt Weill Foundation in New York.

“It’s his first surviving work.

It quotes from a number of his earlier compositions and it also looks forward a few years to the stage works where popular dance idioms become a decisive stylistic component of his stage works.

“Already, one finds what Weill would call ‘the tempo of the stage’ – and, of course, his trademark, his transparent and characterful orchestration.”

A detailed conductor’s score of Magical Night was put together from the instrumental parts found in 2005. And now, for the first time since 1925, the piece is being performed again as the Royal Opera House’s festive offering at the Linbury Theatre, opening tomorrow (Friday).

Leading choreographer Aletta Collins – well known for her version of The Red Balloon – found Magical Night on a trawl through composers’ works, looking for a possible piece to do.

She took the idea of putting on the work to ROH2, the contemporary initiatives offshoot of the Opera House, and they got the Kurt Weill Foundation’s support for the show.

“It’s a dance drama, movement and dance with music, about toys coming to life when the children sleep,” said Aletta Collins during a break in rehearsals.

“Even when written, it wasn’t a new concept. Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker had explored the same idea and, of course, we’ve since had Toy Story.

But in Weill’s hands, it’s very simply told through music and action.

There are 11 toys, among them a robot, fairy, chimp, baby doll and medieval knight.

“The toys come to life only to end up in a dark place near the witch’s hideaway – you’ll have to come to the show to find out what happens then.  There’s only one short song and that’s sung by the toy fairy. Otherwise, the story is entirely told against the backdrop of Weill’s music.”

Conducting the ROH production is James Holmes, an old Weill hand with more than six of the composer’s works passing under his baton.

“Magical Night has an unusual combination of instruments – flute, bassoon, five strings, piano and percussion,” he said.

“The piece is more than just a student exercise. The music is very accessible and very charming. It’s the work of someone brimming with ideas – it’s got the feeling of someone spreading their wings.”

“It points the way to the future, to the way Weill was able to get a big effect through the use of limited instrumentation. It’s got Weill’s anarchic spirit, a kind of quirkiness that became his hallmark.”

Magical Night was to play a major influence in Weill’s future in other respects, too. Lotte Lenya entered his life during auditions for the 1922 production.

She didn’t see him as he was behind the piano. But he saw and heard her – and that’s how their famed relationship began.

• Magical Night is at Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, opening tomorrow (Friday) December 9. 020 7304 4000. There will be a further 18 performances, from £10.50 standing/ students £13.50

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