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More relevant than ever before: Bertolt Brecht’s opera » Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny« ridicules capitalism.

»Show me the way to the next whisky bar!« This is probably the best-known line from the opera »Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny«, which can be heard in May as part of the Hamburg International Music Festival. The opera with music by Kurt Weill and a libretto by Bertolt Brecht was first performed in Leipzig in 1930, and set off one of the biggest theatre scandals in history. Many years later, the so-called »Alabama Song« wrote pop music history in turn.


Mahagonny is a fictitious, pseudo-Wild West town in the American desert, a town whose raison d’être is the pursuit of pleasure. Anyone who doesn’t have the money to stuff his face, for the next whisky or for sex, is lost. The population is made up of hedonists who end up destroying themselves – as Brecht himself once said, this is a present-day Sodom and Gomorrha.

Erstens, vergeßt nicht, kommt das Fressen / Zweitens kommt der Liebesakt / Drittens das Boxen nicht vergessen / Viertens Saufen, laut Kontrakt.

From Brecht’s »Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny«


Brecht’s »Mahagonny« not only points an unequivocal critical finger at capitalism, it also wrote theatre history. While the golden era of the musical was dawning on New York’s Broadway in the early 20th century, with »Mahagonny« and other works Brecht laid the foundation stone in Berlin for so-called epic theatre, a completely new genre that broke away from classic drama.

Brechtian theatre doesn’t try to elicit feelings, to give the audience something to identify with or to afford pleasure: Brecht's aim was to wake people up. He didn’t want theatregoers to feel too comfortable, so there were banners and posters on stage, choruses and projections – and music from the pen of Kurt Weill.


Not only the form of the play but the musical score, too, was intended to be critical. On no account was Brecht trying to please: »no culinary opera« was the motto. And for this, he had found the perfect partner in Kurt Weill.

To this day, Weill’s name is chiefly heard together with Brecht’s. After Weill fled to the USA in the 1930s, he composed musicals in the main, but the »Threepenny Opera« and »Mahagonny« remain his best-known compositions.

In the score to »Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny«, Weill cheerfully delves into the treasure trove of music history: elements of jazz, blues and foxtrot mingle here with classical forms and classic hits like Tekla Bądarzewskas »A Maiden’s Prayer«, with extracts from Weber’s opera »Der Freischütz«, Bach fugues and Wagner’s famous Tristan chord.


To this day, Brecht’s »Mahagonny« has maintained a place on Germany’s theatre programmes – the subject matter is more relevant than ever. Incidentally, the work’s venomous satire on hedonism appealed a generation later to pop stars like The Doors and David Bowie, who recorded their own versions of the famous »Alabama Song« in 1966 and 1978 respectively.

Well, show me the way
To the next whisky bar
Oh, don't ask why
Oh, don't ask why

Show me the way
To the next whisky bar
Oh, don't ask why
Oh, don't ask why

For if we don't find
The next whisky bar
I tell you we must die
I tell you we must die
I tell you, I tell you
I tell you we must die

The Alabama Song

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