Almost 50 years after his death, the work of Bertolt Brecht is still celebrated by actors, musicians and politicos around the globe. Atlanta's Goethe Institut, nestled in Colony Square's corporate digs, may seem like an antiseptic locale for this week's production of Berlin's best-known cabaret songs. But, in fact, it's the perfect place to experience Brecht. After all, the Institut's mantra is to "act on behalf of the Federal Republic of Germany ... for the teaching of German language and culture worldwide." So where better to celebrate the work of Germany's most famous 20th-century scribe?
Brecht was not only a playwright and director, but also a self-proclaimed Marxist, a German exile, a published drama theorist and -- by some accounts -- a playboy and hardcore cynic. With his Threepenny Opera, a 1928 collaboration with composer Kurt Weill, Brecht found mainstream success in Europe. The musical play, however, was not translated into English until 1964 -- almost a decade after Brecht died -- and his time spent in exile in the U.S., while pursuing Broadway and Hollywood projects, was his least successful.
Brecht's Marxist views aren't universal, yet his works have amassed quite a following recently. The International Brecht Society's yearly symposiums draw top scholars from around the globe. In 1998, to mark the anniversary of what would've been Brecht's 100th birthday, the IBS and other organizations held special events and performances of his work. This year, there already are several international Brecht events on the books -- including a month-long Brechtfest in Manitoba, Canada.
Mezzo-soprano Kit Prothero -- who will perform "Kleines Lied (Little Song)" and "Mackie Messer (Mack the Knife)," among other Brecht collaborations and German cabaret songs, at the Goethe Institut -- speculates that Brecht's relevance goes far beyond politics.
"Although his style of theater was to embrace 'unimpassioned performance,' his audiences couldn't help but identify with the emotions of his characters," says Prothero, a faculty member of the School of Music at Emory. "So, too, for us today. As a singer, I am always attracted to poets who express deep emotions, and music that brings out the lyrics in a poignant way. And the collaboration of lyricist Brecht and composer Kurt Weill does this very well. The humor is key for me, because I love to make audiences laugh or cry -- or both."
Prothero, who will be accompanied by pianist Sandra Lutters, is one of many in a long line of musicians to find poignancy in "Alabama Song" and "Nana's Lied." Interpretations of Brecht/Weill compositions by everyone from the Psychedelic Furs and Aaron Neville to Lou Reed, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave and Marianne Faithful have appeared in compilation bins at CD stores over the past two decades, perhaps in response to both the reunification of Berlin in 1989 and the success of filmmaker Wim Wenders, whose films take place in that most famous of cabaret towns.
Yet in a post-9-11 world, do the trials and tribulations of characters whose lives -- as Brecht wrote them -- remain forever wedged in time between WWI and WWII, really matter? Prothero believes Brecht's wordsmithing transcends its place in history.
"The world has changed so much since his writing -- the fall of communism, the women's movement," the singer says. "For me, it's the intelligence and humor that make his work endure."
Kit Prothero and Sandra Lutters perform the works of Bertolt Brecht and others Thurs., March 21, as part of "Brecht's Berlin" at the Goethe Institut, Colony Square, Plaza Level, 1197 Peachtree St. 8 p.m. Free. 404-892-2388. www.goethe.de/uk/atl/.
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