3Penny Opera

In 1976, the year I started studying at the Aaron Davis Center for the Performing Arts, Joe Papp of the N.Y. Shakespeare Festival staged a revival of “Three Penny Opera” at the Beaumont. It featured Raul Julia as the murdering, whoring, Macheath, prince of thieves in stinking, corrupt London. I loved the play and had even chosen the “Ballad of Immoral Earnings” scene to present in class with my acting partner. I was therefore delirious with anticipation until the performance date and enthralled throughout. I fell in love with Raul Julia that night. I know, I know. It is rather embarrassing how susceptible to love I am. It is both a curse and a blessing if you ask me, but I would have had to be cast in stronger metal to resist Julia’s dark eyes, his deep voice and his charisma as Mack the Knife. It’s a dangerous thing when an actor can play a criminal in a manner so powerfully seductive that one is irredeemably attracted. He had, I remember, a certain roguish gesture with his white scarf – flinging it in an effortless elegance I tried to replicate after the play, succeeding only in temporarily blinding the actor friend who had accompanied me to Lincoln Center. As it took a very long time for me to stop re-enacting Julia’s move, my classmates, keenly interested in keeping their eyes intact, became skilled in recognizing the least indication of the scarf’s sudden shrug and giving me a wide berth. I also sang that tango ballad, off-key and without respite, until everyone in the theater program was thoroughly sickened of it and me, and an intervention was staged. It was unsuccessful. The ballad remains to this day, one of my favorites.

Three Penny Opera’ (partly borrowed from John Gay’s 18th century “Beggars Opera”) , was first performed in Berlin in 1928. Brecht created a world without honor, where relationships were changeable, and betrayals were common among characters who Raul would sell out each other if an advantage was to be gained. It remains the most famous and popular example of what Brecht called “epic theater.” Although it translated the tale of the villainous but irresistible Macheath into the age of Queen Victoria, the show’s real satiric target was Germany’s impoverished middle class in the 1920’s. Using deliberately artificial techniques — painted signs, scene-setting titles, spoken asides and musical-hall songs that often had little to do with the immediate plot — the play was designed to sustain an intellectual distance and allow audiences to see their own reflections in vicious thugs, whores, beggars and policemen motivated by the same primal needs and instincts as themselves. The music, Brecht wrote, was meant to become “an active collaborator in the stripping bare of the middle-class corpus of ideas.”


The recording of Papp’s wonderful version – Weill’s score is jazzy, syncopated, dissonant and full of inventive melody- was on an LP I bought the same year and still listen to, as it has never been released on CD. I have learned to restrain myself since and hardly sing the ballad in public, but if at times you notice a certain glimmer in my eyes while I am wearing a scarf, I’d be wary if I were you…
To sample this wonderfully dark play, click here on the Threepenny Opera website. The opening tango is the melody to which the nostalgic and completely politically incorrect lyrics of the “Ballad of Immoral Earnings” are set to music.

Raul Julia and Ellen Greene

There was a time, now very far away
When we set up together, I and she
I had the brains, and she supplied the breast
I saw her right, and she supported me –
A way of life then, if not quite the best.
And when a client came I’d climb out of our bed
And treat him nice, and go and have a drink instead.
When he paid up I would address him: Sir
Come any time you feel you fancy her.
That time’s gone past, but what would I not give
To see that whorehouse where we used to live?
That was the time, now very far away
He was so sweet he bashed me where it hurt.
And when the cash ran out the feathers really flew
He’d up and say: I’m going to pawn your skirt.
A skirt is nice, but no skirt is OK too.
He had his cheek, he kept me locked away all day
But came the night he brought acquaintances to play.
If I’d object he’d knock me headlong down the stairs
I had the bruises off and on for years.
That time’s gone past, but what would I not give
To see that whorehouse where we used to live?

That was a time now very far away
Not that our state seems much improved today
When afternoons were all I had for you
I told you she was generally booked up
(The night’s more normal, but daytime will do)
Once I was pregnant, so the doctor said
So we reversed positions on the bed
You thought your weight would make it premature
But in the end we flushed it down the sewer
That could not last, but what would I not give
To see that whorehouse where we used to live?


Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill

“In these dark times, will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing. About these dark times.”

Truly, I live in dark times!
If someone is laughing
It only means, that he hasn’t yet
Heard the dreadful news.

What sort of times are these, when
To talk about trees is almost a crime,
Because it is simultaneously silence about so many atrocities!






michèle voltaire marcelin

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