Hoopla

'Mack the Knife' brings pop culture edge to 'Threepenny Opera'

Jessica Pray Patel (center) shows a hat she selected for one of her outfits to costume designer Janie Westendorf (left) and director Ron Clark during a costume fitting for Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre’s production of “The Threepenny Opera” at Sinclair Auditorium at Coe College in northeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018. The production will be performed at CSPS Hall on January 10-13. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Jessica Pray Patel (center) shows a hat she selected for one of her outfits to costume designer Janie Westendorf (left) and director Ron Clark during a costume fitting for Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre’s production of “The Threepenny Opera” at Sinclair Auditorium at Coe College in northeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018. The production will be performed at CSPS Hall on January 10-13. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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Murder, mayhem and merriment. Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre is launching its third decade in a most unconventional manner, which will carry through the new season titled “Of Rebels and Romance.”

“The Threepenny Opera” — being staged Jan. 10 to 13 at CSPS Hall in Cedar Rapids — is opera pretty much in name only.

“It probably shares a lot more with musical comedy or operetta than true opera,” said Daniel Kleinknecht of Coralville, who founded the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre in 1998.

When he saw the show years ago in a bar/restaurant/theater in Seattle that used the bare brick walls for the setting, he knew he wanted to stage it in a similar location in Cedar Rapids. He found that spot in the CSPS Hall’s 200-seat auditorium, where the Opera Theatre presented its early shows.

“It’s such a warm, rich hall in which to sing,” Kleinknecht said of the NewBo arts venue.

And even though the show is set in London on the cusp of Queen Victoria’s 1838 coronation, it has one foot firmly planted in pop culture, with the opening song, “Mack the Knife.”

Bobby Darrin’s version topped the charts in 1959, but it’s also been recorded across genres, from swing and rock to jazz and Latin grooves, by Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Brian Setzer, Michael Bublé, Sonny Rollins, Tito Puente, Bill Haley & His Comets and Ella Fitzgerald, who won a Grammy for her 1960 live recording.

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The seminal song reportedly was written the night before the show’s 1929 debut in Berlin, when the lead actor demanded that composer Kurt Weill and lyricist Bertolt Brecht write something more grandiose to introduce his character Macheath, known as Mack the Knife for his murderous ways.

“Now that’s operatic for you — an operatic singer saying, ‘Please write something for me so that I get a great song,’” Kleinknecht said with a laugh.

But it isn’t Macheath who croons the tune. A street performer sings it as the prologue, and the theme shows up a couple more times throughout the production. The upbeat piece differs stylistically from the rest of the musical score, Kleinknecht said.

“Kurt Weill must have been able to write what he wanted at will, because even though he didn’t intend for that to be part of the show, it is the most memorable and it is the most tuneful,” he said. The rest of the music leans toward darker, more wordy songs that further the action, along with spoken dialogue, as tensions build between Macheath’s thieves and Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum’s beggars.

The music is one of reasons “The Threepenny Opera” has been on artistic director Ron Clark’s bucket list.

“The Kurt Weill score is incredible. It’s so gutsy and just filled with passion and joy and rage,” said Clark of Iowa City, one of the founders of Riverside Theatre, “so the music attracts me.

“And the characters attract me a lot because there is maybe one pure person in this whole play, and that’s Polly Peachum. Everybody else has a network of agendas going on. It’s extraordinary, between the Peachums and their company of beggars, and Macheath and his band of thugs fleecing wealthy Londoners.”

Their lives intersect when Polly Peachum marries the womanizing Macheath, setting off fits of jealousy, bribery and corruption, with Polly’s father determined to see Macheath hang.

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“It shows what lengths people will go to survive,” Clark said, “and that’s an idea that I’ve always been fascinated with. I’ve been poor. I lived on very little money when I was a young actor living in Seattle. I work very hard at being empathetic to people no matter what their situation life.

“This play gives us an opportunity to see people that we don’t usually see on stage. If you look at early 19th century illustrations, you never see poor people. Dickens wrote about them, but he wrote about the deserving poor. He didn’t write about the shameless poor who will do anything to survive, and they deserve stage time, too. As Bertolt Brecht said, ‘Why do we always assume that art is for people who wear beautiful clothes, and not those who make them.’”

Soprano Jessica Pray Patel of Iowa City is relishing her role as Polly Peachum.

“I’m kind of the virginal character in love, unfortunately, with the bad guy,” she said. “There’s actually a funny scene where she defends how good of a criminal he is, to her parents.”

Operating under the delusion that after a couple more jobs they’ll retire to a little house in the country, she said it’s not until the end that she finds out just what a cad he is, and that everyone — even her mother — was right about him.

Patel, 26, a Johnston native who earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Iowa and her master’s degree at the Yale School of Music, likens Polly to her turn as Zerlina, another young woman in love with a notorious womanizer, in the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre’s 2015 production of “Don Giovanni.”

Even though both characters are naive, Patel is determined to find their strength and intelligence, “to not fall prey to that damsel” mode, she said. And right after “The Threepenny Opera” closes, she will be flying off to Florida to perform in “Don Giovanni” with the Jacksonville Symphony.

Baritone Matt Chastain, 25, a New Jersey native working on his master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is making a big switch from the romantic lead of Tommy Albright in the Opera Theatre’s recent production of “Brigadoon” to this rakish romantic lead.

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“Mack the Knife is a very interesting character. If you look at him objectively, he is a villain. He does terrible things — he rips people off, he robs people, he carries this knife and that’s why he’s known as Mack the Knife,” Chastain said. “He’s viewed as a dangerous man, but in his own mind he’s not a villain, he’s really more of a hero. He believes that he’s just done everything he needs to do to get ahead and to have a good life.

“He recognized from a young age that the only way to have a decent life is to have some money in your pocket, and this is his way of doing that for himself.”

Chastain wrestles with how to feel about him, and realizes audiences might, as well. “You want to like him, but at the same time he does all these terrible things, so you’re hesitant to support him in these endeavors.”

Both actors, however, are excited about the “steampunk” look of the costumes. Patel said the design reflects the characters’ “gritty life,” with “uncomfortably” mismatched patterns. “It will be a cool depiction,” Chastain said, adding that he “immediately lit up” when talking to Clark about the idea.

“Steampunk gives us a connection across the centuries,” Clark said, crediting the design idea to Bill Theisen, director of opera at the University of Iowa, who recommended Clark for the show’s directing job.

“It’s based on an idea of what the 19th century Londoners would have projected themselves into the future with,” Clark said. “There was an interest in futurism at that time, but we’ve really developed this look. It’s how we adorn ourselves in our contemporary culture, with designer eyeglasses, with designer clothing — all of that stuff that I have no personal experience with. I’m a simple sort of fella myself, but we live in an age of adornment as well. And so I thought, ‘Boom. That translates.’ That goes right from here to 2018, 2019, beautifully.”

Viewers are in for an event “that is going to be fast, and funny and provocative — very provocative,” he said.

Patel echoed that. “I think the audience will walk away with a lot of interesting ideas about the ending and feel a lot of that connection to the themes,” she said.

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l Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

GET OUT!

WHAT: Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre presents: “The Threepenny Opera”

WHERE: CSPS Hall, 1103 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 10, 11, 12; 2 p.m. Jan. 13

TICKETS: $35, CSPS Box Office, (319) 364-1580 or Legionarts.org/events/upcoming/threepenny-opera/

PRESHOW: Free talk by Robert Lindsey-Nassif one hour before curtain in CSPS Black Box Theater

ONLINE: Iowa Public Radio: “Live from Studio One,” noon Tuesday (1/8), live broadcast featuring opera cast with radio host Jacqueline Halbloom, on Iowapublicradio.org

PREVIEW CONCERT: 7 p.m. Saturday (1/5), Temple Judah, 32221 Lindsay Lane SE, Cedar Rapids; hear the cast perform pieces from “The Threepenny Opera” and other popular operatic works; free, no reservations required

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