Read these indispensable notes prepared by Kim H. Kowalke in English or Deutsch.
Excerpt sung by Lotte Lenya and chorus, 1932
"Make Your Own Bed"
Audra McDonald as Jenny; LA Opera, 2007
Scene from original production, Leipzig, 1930
Lotte Lenya (center) sings "Alabama Song" with chorus, 1930
Final scene at the Leipzig premiere, 1930
Lenya (Jenny) and Harald Paulsen (Jimmy) in the Berlin premiere, 1931
Scene from the Berlin premiere, 1931
Trude Hesterberg (Begbick) and Lotte Lenya (Jenny), 1931
Teresa Stratas as Jenny in the 1979 Metropolitan Opera production of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny | Photo: Joseph Heffernan
Patti LuPone and Audra McDonald star in Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny; LA Opera, 2007 | Photo: Robert Millard
Measha Brueggergosman (center) as Jenny; Teatro Real and La Fura dels Baus, 2010
Scene from Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny at the Royal Opera House London, 2015 | Photo: Clive Barda
Scene from the production at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France in co-production with the Dutch National Opera, Metropolitan Opera, and Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, 2019 | Photo: Pascal Victor
Somewhere in America. Three criminals on the lam–Fatty, Trinity Moses, and the Widow Begbick–are stranded in the desert after their truck breaks down. Begbick decrees that they will found a city called Mahagonny, a utopia of pleasure and idleness, but really a snare and a money pit (). The city grows quickly, soon populated by prostitutes, led by Jenny (), and dissatisfied bourgeoisie (). Then a group of lumberjacks arrives from Alaska (), lured by the city’s reputation. Begbick welcomes them as they introduce themselves (): Jim (the leader), Bill, Jack, and Joe. She brings on the girls and the lumberjacks bargain for them (). Begbick and her partners lament their inadequate income and decide to pack up and leave (), but they change their minds when more suckers arrive. Jim and the lumberjacks are also dissatisfied because there is not enough action (). A pianist plays “The Maiden’s Prayer” in a hotel lobby, prompting Jim to continue his lament (). Then a hurricane approaches the city and everyone cowers in fear () except Jim, who takes advantage of the impending catastrophe to declare that henceforth nothing will be prohibited in Mahagonny ().
Mahagonny is inexplicably unharmed by the hurricane (), and the inhabitants resume their revels (). A series of tableaux follows: eating, sex, boxing, and drinking. Jack eats himself to death (), the men of Mahagonny line up for the prostitutes (), and Joe dies in a boxing match with Trinity Moses (). Jim invites everyone for a round of drinks (), but he tells Jenny that he is out of money when the bill comes. He proposes that they escape to Alaska together, and the crowd enacts a voyage inside the bar. Then Jim admits to Begbick that he cannot pay, and he is bound and thrown into prison. When Begbick asks Jenny if she will pay for Jim, she disavows all responsibility (). The chorus intones an ominous warning for Jim ().
Jim languishes in prison, awaiting his trial the next morning (). When court convenes (), a murderer is freed before Jim’s trial. Jim appeals to his last remaining friend, Bill, for money, but Bill refuses. Fatty, Moses, and Begbick convict Jim summarily on numerous charges, but he is condemned to death because he failed to pay his bar tab (). Jenny and others complain that they have nowhere else to go (). Jim is executed, and the remaining residents lapse further into discontent (). First Begbick, then all the others, display protest placards with contradictory slogans (), and it is clear that the city of Mahagonny will not survive.
"One of the masterpieces of the 20th-century lyric theater, with ironically sentimental music that with all its sweetness and bitterness will stay with you as long as you live . . . . The music is fantastic. Erotic, melodic, childlike and yet sinister, it has a musical innocence, and charms as potent and as poignant as poisoned chocolates . . . . It is beautiful, and lingers, lingers and lingers."
The New York Times, 1970
"A work which is as arresting dramatically as it is musically . . . . Like Weill's score, the text and lyrics of Bertolt Brecht are ageless and will remain so as long as there are societies where justice can be corrupted, where love can be bought, and where half the people feast while the other half starve . . . . Few works concerned with this theme of what man does to man have found so compelling and strident a voice as Mahagonny."
Dallas Morning News, 1979
"One of the most important stage works of this century, and one which grows more relevant every day."
Daily News, 1979
"Vivid, irresistible music . . . . It is, truly, a work like none other . . . the most slashing, gorgeously aimed satire that has ever been put on a stage."
Los Angeles Herald Examiner, 1989
"Music that in even a halfway-decent performance gets under one's skin, sets the scalp tingling and the blood coursing."
"Weill's score [is] filled with some of the most sublime melodies from the whole operatic repertoire."
Evening Standard, 1995
"Weill's music, written nearly 70 years ago, is still as thrilling and incisive as ever."
Morning Star, 1995
"[Mahagonny] shows us our own dog-eat-dog human disregard and communal greed. What could be more timely? . . . . [A] powerful and unforgettable score."
Boston Phoenix, 2007
"The work is strong social satire and even stronger social medicine . . . . Weill takes what he needs musically from wherever he feels appropriate; Bach and the cabaret are equally useful for conveying the depths of the human condition and those to which we can sink . . . . Brecht's text penetrates society's ills like a drill into hard soil."
Los Angeles Times, 2007
"The story of Mahagonny remains as tough and cynical as ever . . . . Weill's music, though mostly stern and rigorous, has stretches of plaintive lyricism and searching harmony. Weill softens the anticapitalist screed in Brecht's text and humanizes the characters."
New York Times, 2008
"The work's tunefully truculent critique of capitalist culture has lost none of its relevance--in fact . . . the opera's subject matter may be more timely than ever. . . . Weill's score is a remarkable balancing act that melds the ancient and modern, the classical and the popular, from Bach to cabaret, from Mahler to the foxtrot. The unity of its disunity is extraordinary."
Boston Globe, 2008
"Mahagonny has a particularly strong resonance in Europe at the moment. Money institutions tremble, and capitalist paradises look endangered. Brecht and Weill's subversive critique of a society where money, sex and alcohol are prime has rarely seemed more coruscating."
Opera News, 2011
"Few operas elicit anger like Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's still-ferocious 1930 satire Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. And few times like the present seem so appropriate for the work's coruscating attack on a culture of endless consumption, a world in which having no money is the most serious crime of all . . . . Its lessons are not just American ones: they bear repeating everywhere there is income inequality, austerity, deregulation or Black Friday sales. Highlighting its lessons makes the opera seem didactic, while Brecht and Weill's essential masterpiece is anything but. It is as funny and as sad as it is furious, and packs its punch in a rich score . . . that transitions with devilish ease from chorale to fox trot. It is, in sum, a grand entertainment as well as a sobering mirror."
New York Times, 2013
Mahagonny Songspiel 1927
Text by Bertolt Brecht and Elisabeth Hauptmann
(in German and English).