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Unprecedented collaboration between the Royal College of Art and Royal Opera House

The Royal Opera’s Associate Director John Fulljames invited students from the RCA’s MA programme in Critical Writing to explore his production of Weill and Brecht’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.

By Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager)

20 March 2015 at 10.49am | Comment on this article

Writers from the Royal College of Art have explored The Royal Opera’s new production of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny in an unprecedented collaboration between the Royal Opera House and the RCA. John Fulljames, Associate Director of Opera for The Royal Opera, invited students from the RCA’s MA programme in Critical Writing in Art and Design to investigate aspects of his new production of Weill and Brecht’s stinging satire on consumerism.

The RCA’s postgraduate course offers students opportunities to discover – and create – new ways of writing about contemporary art and design. The 15 writers explored aspects of the production with the creative team and John Snelson, Head of Publishing and Interpretation at the Royal Opera House, to produce a portfolio of essays of remarkable breadth and diversity – embracing such aspects as Brecht’s relationship with Charlie Chaplin, the everyday violence of boxing and the lure of Las Vegas (one real-world version of Mahagonny).

Student Rosanna Mclaughlin was interested in the opera’s popular ballad the ‘Alabama Song’, calling card of the prostitute Jenny. She spoke to singer Christine Rice about how the song’s smooth and easy melody sits at odds with the text.

Extract from ‘From the Whore’s Mouth’ by Rosanna Mclaughlin

‘The Alabama Song’ is first sung in Mahagonny by Jenny Hill. Jenny is a prostitute who, in the current production, has arrived in Mahagonny in the back of a lorry, one of many women trafficked to the city for sex work. As the women disembark from their carriage, dishevelled after a long journey, they perform the song as a way of attracting custom. Jenny is played by mezzo-soprano Christine Rice, whom I asked about her delivery of the famous song. It’s treated, Rice says, like ‘the sort of song you hum in shower. It has that casual relationship to the nature of singing – you’re not deeply invested in it, you’re just skimming the surface of a song that’s very familiar.’ In order to make her way from the bottom up in Mahagonny Jenny must be adaptable, and the knowing detachment of her delivery are the hallmarks of her chameleon character. ‘You never get to see the real Jenny at any point during the opera’, say Rice. ‘She reinvents herself and that’s how she survives. As a mezzo I get to play lots of prostitutes and sexually available women. We get boys, and we get old bags, but we tend not to be the consumptive, romantic heroine. In terms of playing women who exploit their sexuality in order to survive there is plenty of that in opera. But in terms of her shiftiness she’s quite unusual.’

When David Bowie sings the ‘Alabama Song’ – cigarette in hand and brow furrowed, a vision of brooding intensity – Jenny’s shiftiness is absent. The lyrics have changed, too. The opening line of the third verse, originally ‘Oh, show me the way to the next pretty boy’, has become ‘Oh show me the way to the next little girl’. Bowie borrows both lyrics and attitude from The Doors’ version, and Jenny’s wry call for the next ‘pretty’ john is updated to fit with rock-and-roll’s familiar triad of wayward morality: drugs, money, and – of course – young, female flesh. While Jenny remains detached from the role she knows she must perform, Bowie and Morrison inhabit the song as a type of self-portraiture. In doing so, they enact popular culture’s consummate feat: the ability to absorb criticism and assume it as an attractive feature.

Student Molly Richards was intrigued by the extensive use of projections in the production, and the place of this relatively new technology within opera’s history as a spectacular art form. She spoke to Finn Ross, video designer of the production, about the need to integrate projections within the other stage languages at play in opera.

Extract from ‘Opera of the Future’ by Molly Richards

Tradition is a paperweight that can hold opera down – yet the Royal Opera House embraces the latest technology with kite-like freedom. I spoke about this balance to Olivier award winning video director Finn Ross, whose latest project, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny uses digital projections throughout: ‘I think we can understand it a lot better than we could twenty years ago, the idea of an electronic image and the juxtaposition with live image on stage – I think through mass exposure to television, and certainly with our society becoming a society of spectacle and image rather than one of word and thought. We can really easily engage in that and understand the pluralism of those images when presented with them. It is partially that the technology was ready, people were ready, the technology growing made the people ready, the technology growing enabled us to do it.’

Wagner’s vision of artistic synthesis [in The Artwork of the Future] means responding to growing technological opportunities and accepting them into opera’s multiple characteristics. Wagner wrote about the imperative for opera to reveal a deep, integrated statement of sociological truths. In Mahagonny, where brands are the monarchy and currency is power, adverts package the city and civilians are commoditized, it doesn’t sound too dissimilar from the world outside the Royal Opera House. Ross mentions that from the first musical note the audience see projected images on top of the gauze, perhaps an echo of today’s screen obsessed culture. Acknowledging that the story is one of excess, does the extravagance of technology also become excessive? Ross spoke about the synthesis of multi-media with other elements.

‘I would like to think that it is not a foreground element unless it is specifically trying to be a foreground element. When there are singers on the stage you need to find a balance so you’re not creating something so spectacular that you actually forget that there are people within it. I would always seek to lead where I can and then form an intelligent part of the world around the singer that accessorizes, accentuates, develops, layers, subtextualizes whatever they are doing, rather than shouting in the background.’

Student Thea Smith was struck by the difficulty of creating the desolation and squalor of Mahagonny within the plush surroundings of the Royal Opera House. She spoke to Fulljames, who argued that this contradiction between the illusion on stage and the reality of the audience’s surroundings is all part of Brecht’s ideas of epic theatre.

Extract from ‘Mahagonny Begins with Nothing’ by Thea Smith

Mahagonny begins with nothing. But how much of a desert, how much of nothingness can you get onto the stage at the Royal Opera House? The auditorium is a plush four-tiered red velvet cake: an apotheosis of 19th-century romanticism. The stage itself is framed with an ornate gold design, quite the opposite of the ideal space for a production of Brecht and Weill – but this reimagining of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny plays it to its own advantage. Director John Fulljames spoke to me of the significance of harnessing this frame. ‘If you were to hang a painting in an art gallery you would choose an appropriate frame. We’re stuck with the same frame. The tension is always there, but particularly with this piece as it is only concerned with the future. So much of its attitude to the past is satirical and therefore it questions the validity of the frame, even the building we’re in: does it still need to be here?’

So how does the opera challenge the frame? There’s a sense that the frame is supposed to contain the production in some way. Spilling out through the proscenium is a postmodern cliché that Fulljames avoids, preferring to use the architecture radically: the frame tries to define a set of spatial rules but this production of Mahagonny doesn’t accept them. When the city is built [in Act II] there is a sense that the containers don’t fit on the stage – they’re multiplying out through the wings, there’s a sprawl of furtive backstreets and alleyways we’re not party to.

You can read Oscar Gaynor’s full article on whiskey and debt in Mahagonny here, and more from other students in the RCA programme in the digital programme for Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.

Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny runs until 4 April 2015. Tickets are sold out, but returns may become available and there are 67 day tickets available for each performance.
The production will be broadcast live to cinemas around the world on 1 April 2015. Find your nearest cinema.

Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is staged with generous philanthropic support from The Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, Inc., New York, NY, Stefan Sten Olsson, Richard and Ginny Salter, Hamish and Sophie Forsyth and The Royal Opera Circle.

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