The Komische Oper Berlin has launched a new family musical, powered by Kurt Weill’s music in guises old and new. Enthusiastic audiences and critics alike acclaim the result.
Just before Weill died, he drafted five songs for a prospective musical based on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with book and lyrics by Maxwell Anderson. The show was never finished, and the songs survived only as sheet music. In 2014, John von Düffel wrote a stage version with music—primarily intended for theater ensembles—that incorporated Weill’s five completed songs as well as other songs with new and free lyrics from Kurt Weill’s American career. This work is titled Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
The work premiered on 18 February by Komische Oper is a new version fully fitted for opera houses, conceived for family audiences. With the title Tom Sawyer, this version is set for forty-three (alternatively nineteen) musicians, children’s choir and twelve (alternatively seven) soloists. Kai Tietje’s orchestra arrangements are based on Weill’s sound palette from the 1940s.
Here’s a sampling of plaudits from the press:
Kai Tietje has arranged Kurt Weill’s music for large orchestra—and fabulously so: in a luxurious, supple Broadway style, entertaining in the shifting instrumental colors (a banjo and an out-of-tune piano both make appearances, rousing in the sonic flow of string cantilenas). As the conductor of the performance, Tietje himself takes care of the realization of his arrangement. The question of how much Kurt Weill is actually present pales in view of the successful result. … In the broad stream of the work’s music there is nothing that Kurt Weill would have opposed.
Von Düffel’s libretto is strong overall: funny without being pandering, fast-paced without haste or rush, constructed in such a way that both young and old get their money’s worth. There is no reason to limit the new work by calling it a “children’s musical.” Judging by the jubilation present at the Komische Oper, it appeals to all age groups—in the best tradition of Mark Twain.
Tom Sawyer at Komische Oper distinguishes itself from other new works for children. … Attending a live theater performance perhaps for the first time, kids want to experience a gripping story with plausible, flesh-and-blood characters, especially from a time that does not exactly match their own daily lives. Teenagers used to music suggestions from internet algorithms are suddenly exposed to powerful live sounds emanating from an orchestra pit, all novel and catching. The music is by Kurt Weill—and possibly that is the very reason why this afternoon turns out to be so different from all the other new fare for kids.
Without a doubt, John von Düffel is one of the most talented librettists in the German theater. He proves it once again with the premiere of Tom Sawyer at Komische Oper: intelligible lyrics, semantically and stylistically charming word acrobatics and puns, all on point right up through the crisp finale that caps the two hours. Of course, the catchy quality of Weill’s songs, which serve as the basis for this children’s opera, also guarantees audience success. And we have Komische Oper’s enormous, action-loving children’s chorus, a top-notch cast, and obviously the literary model of an adventure novel that kids can only love: independence, friendship, and on top of that even a murder. … For an audience of all age groups, whose applause and cheering seemed unstoppable on opening night.