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Peter Coleman-Wright on channeling the Weimar Republic

Features - Classical Music | Musical Theatre & Cabaret

Peter Coleman-Wright on channeling the Weimar Republic

by Clive Paget on May 18, 2017 (May 18, 2017) filed under Classical Music | Musical Theatre & Cabaret | Comment Now
One of Australia’s great singing actors on turning the music of the era into a cabaret show and a new CD

You’ve just recorded a disc of Weimar-era music with the Nexas Quartet, and it’s set to become a cabaret show as well. How did all that come about?

Toby Chadd at ABC Classics and I met up to talk about some possibilities, and then I came up with the Weimar idea – something I thought was a bit different. With the number of composers and the amount of music from that period that is still neglected – and which is fabulous stuff, by the way – I thought it could actually be commercially viable if it’s marketed properly. It’s the sort of music that can go down as easy listening, but it can also be filed under classical because we’ve chosen some of that stuff as well. The cabaret idea followed on. Once I started looking at the whole period, I thought I’d write a little 70-minute show for myself and the saxophone quartet where each of us is a composer. One is Eisler, one is Kurt Weill, one is Bert Brecht, etc. and we talk about what was going on at the time and play music that ties in with all of that. 

Peter Coleman-WrightPeter Coleman-Wright

Germany in the 20s and 30s was a real melting pot where the divide between classical and popular music – particularly jazz – became fascinatingly blurred. As a young singer, were you drawn to this music? 

I grew up doing the amateur musicals thing, so I was aware of all the Kurt Weill stuff. And as a young singer, Cheryl [Barker] had done something in The Threepenny Opera, so I sort of knew that too. I always thought it was fun and cool, but I was off doing loads of Mozart or whatever, so coming back to it now has been fantastic fun. 

Who for you are the most interesting composers from that era?

People like Schreker, Korngold and Zemlinsky were major composers – I’m singing Zemlinsky’s Song of the Cotton Packer – and early Schoenberg, too, before he bacame a serialist. I’m singing his Dank, which was his Opus 1, Number 1, with four saxophones, but we’ve added a piano to it. I’m also doing Weill and Stolz, but the biggest eye opener for me was Eisler.
I really didn’t know the Eisler songs. They’re very political. They’re quite “I’m the little person, and who gives a shit about us?” – that sort of stuff. Like: “no-one cares about me – I hope I have enough money to buy a coffin.” But they’re real. They’ve got this sort of bite to them. They are grungy and tough, but they’re also really funky. I’m singing the Stempelleid – basically a song about the Benefit Stamp – and Gruß an die Mark Brandenburg, which is a glorious song. Later, Eisler went to Hollywood where he wrote 40 film scores, but they threw him out in the end and he wound up back in East Germany.

Who do you think have been the most hard done by of all these classical musicians? 

You know, the more I read about Schreker, he was the one who was treated the worst. Everybody at that time thought he was going to be the greatest of all of them. The Nazis just hated him. He was Jewish, and he became the head of the Vienna Hochschule, but they got rid of him and then he just disappeared. We all know the opera Der Ferne Klang, but he wrote something like 300 songs. For the album I sing Die Rosen und der Flieder (The Rose and the Lilac). It’s what I’d call a slightly relaxed version of Mendelssohn, but it’s a very pretty song. I suppose people like Schreker and Eisler fell into the cracks at a time when nobody cared.

What Weill do you sing? And what do you think people like he and Eisler were hoping to achieve by writing this kind of music?

I’m doing some songs like the Ballad of the Pleasant Life and Mack the Knife from The Threepenny Opera, but also some comic stuff, like Tchaikovsky, which is a tongue-twister from his musicals period. Both Brecht and Weill wanted to put their fingers up to the bourgeois. They wanted to be the voice of the little people. They said that they wanted to turn the current political situation around and completely defuse it, but in actual fact all they did was ignite things even more.

Bertolt BrechtBertolt Brecht

Brecht and Weill had parallel careers, but somehow they never properly coincided again after Germany. Why was that?

They fell out, really. Weill went to America with his wife, and Brecht became much more of a political figure. He wanted to actually bang that drum, whereas I think Weill thought there was nothing more he could do. Weill became quite afraid. He left Germany thinking it was time to go and do something else, whereas Brecht decided he was going to carry on with his philosophy. That was the core of him and that was who he was. In America, I think, Weill found an ease of expression that he didn’t have or that he couldn’t use in Germany, and his wife was of course a really fantastic performer. Actually, he became a very big player in getting the Americans involved in the war, and he did a lot of writing of music and shows around that. He was obviously very influenced by the musical theatre around at that time. He wrote loads of them, most of which have disappeared off the face of the earth.

Korngold was another one who had an enormous capacity to traverse genres. What are you doing by him?

I’m doing Glückwunsch from the Fünf Lieder. That means “I wish you happiness”, basically, and it’s just the most gorgeous tune, easily accessible. It’s heaven, even though I’m doing it with four saxophones [laughs]. I’ve tried to be very interesting in my choices, so you’ve got these political songs, but then you’ve got something purely melodious, like Weill’s September Song.

I see you are singing three songs by Robert Stolz. He’s an interesting figure. He stayed active in Germany, and for a long time he was smuggling Jews across the border in the boot of his car...

Apparenly, after Richard Strauss, he’s the only other person that’s got a statue in the park in Vienna. When I first moved to London, I did several Purcell Room recitals, and I did a group of Stolz songs because Cheryl is the patron of the Stolz society. There’s one called Ich hab’ mich tausendmal verliebt, immer in eine, which means, “I’ve loved a thousand times, but only in you.“ I’m sure people will know
the tune – it’s a really great melody.

So when does the cabaret begin, and where will you be doing it?

Before we go to Adelaide, we’re doing it at the Independent Theatre in Sydney at the end of May. I want to have a sort of screen at the back, and I’m getting all these fantastic images. There will be some of the Nazi stuff, but there’ll also be pictures of the composers, so whilst we’re doing it, you’ll get a real taste of Berlin in the 30s. You should see what was going on and
feel who the people were. There is a fantastic poster of a black man playing the saxophone, which was shocking at the time – definitely alles verboten, as they say. We all wear clothes from the time – great big wide pants and thin ties and caps – and I’ve got a couple of the musicians to dress as workers so that they represent the guy on the street. Oh, and I’m playing Kurt Weill – but I’m not shaving my head [laughs].

Composers in Exile is at Sydney’s Independent Theatre on May 28 and at Adelaide Cabaret Festival June 15 – 16. The CD is out on ABC Classics May 19.

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