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Arts: Rise to the occasion with this anti-Nazi opera

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Magic: Lynne Parker.

Magic: Lynne Parker.

Declan O'Rourke

Declan O'Rourke

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Magic: Lynne Parker.

The Rise and Fall at the City of Mahagonny might not be an opera you think you are familiar with, but you might find yourself unexpectedly singing along when it opens at the Olympia this Friday. Audience participation is not encouraged but it might be hard to avoid when they launch in to the Alabama Song.

Originally written as a poem by Bertolt Brecht and then set to music by Kurt Weill in 1927, this song in its quirky English reached wider audiences when it was released by The Doors in 1966. David Bowie, a Brecht fan, released his version of it in 1980.

This bawdy song about the search for the next whiskey bar features in a very daring political satire that is getting a very belated grand-scale Dublin production thanks to Rough Magic Theatre Company, Opera Theatre Company and Sky Arts (roughmagic.ie).

"The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny was actually one of the first things I saw when I was a student in Trinity in 1979," says Rough Magic theatre company's artistic director Lynne Parker.

"It was a college production, but it instantly showed me that this is a piece of epic theatre as well as being an opera. But to do it as a professional production, you have to have a full-scale orchestra and trained singers, so it wouldn't have been possible for Rough Magic to do it in the normal way of things. So when the Sky Arts Ignition award came up, we thought it might be the perfect project for it and they went for it."

But operas are expensive. The award from Sky of €230,000 is a generous grant indeed, but surely it is only the tip of the financial iceberg when it comes to staging such a costly beast?

"Yes, absolutely. Rough Magic and Opera Theatre Company came in with the rest of the funding, but we will be looking to box office to make up the shortfall, so it is a risk. This is a tricky time for large-scale productions, in this climate we would not be able to do this without Sky Arts."

This production marks the 30th anniversary for Rough Magic, which was founded in 1984 with Lynne at the helm. They were the first Irish theatre company, and still one of the very few, dedicated to cultivating the next generation of theatre makers.

What makes them particularly special is that they are not just focussed on nurturing new writers – a very strong part of their work has been enabling new producers and directors and designers.

Mahagonny is on for just six performances, which may seem a short run given the amount of investment in it. But the key difference to this and previous Rough Magic shows in theatres such as the Project Arts Centre is capacity. The Olympia seats over 1,200, the Project's main stage has seating for 220. One full house in the Olympia is almost a week in the Project. "If we sell the seats," adds Lynne. "That's what everything hinges on, people realising this is a very special opportunity and going for it."

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It is set in this fictitious city of debauchery founded by three criminals devoted to pleasure: the Weimar Republic meets Prohibition meets Dublin five years ago. "It's an invented place, the modern equivalent would probably be Dubai. It's a city that shoots up out of a desire for luxury and wanting to avoid having to look at the ugly truths of the real world by creating a false hedonistic paradise."

Mahagonny was very controversial on its debut. It was created by German composer Kurt Weill and dramatist Bertolt Brecht two years after their huge triumph with The Threepenny Opera. This had its premiere in Leipzig, Germany, in March 1930 and played in Berlin in December of the following year. But the Nazi movement turned against both it and the creative pair, and it was banned in Germany in 1933.

"They weren't particularly happy with Brecht but they were very unhappy with Weill because they saw him as using, in their terms, 'unGermanic music', in that he was using jazz and cabaret music which they of course despised. Brecht was looking at a society that was really ignoring what was going on. That's really the target of the play, the soporific nature of consumerism and the cafe drinking culture in the Weimar Republic that is benignly unaware of what is really going on."

It did not have any significant production until the 1960s and is even now an opera almost never performed in Ireland. Apart from that student Trinity production Lynne attended, the only big professional production has been in the Wexford Opera Festival in 1985.

Lynne describes directing opera as a much less organic process than theatre as you have to meticulously schedule everything out so far in advance, but says "all that the singing and musicianship brings is phenomenal. David Brophy is the maestro. It is my job to bring the production together".

Architects Sheila O'Donnell and John Tuomey have been brought in to reimagine the Olympia theatre space. "They have helped us to essentially turn the Olympia on its axis. We are mixing visual styles in terms of costumes and the Olympia is a Victorian music hall essentially, it already has elements of bordello about it. We don't want this to feel like a period piece – Mahagonny has plenty to say to us now."

Sophie's choice

1 It has somehow been 10 years since Declan O'Rourke released his brilliant debut album Since Kyabram and emerged in the public's eye as a fully formed songwriter with songs such as 'Gallileo', 'Sarah' and 'We Didn't Mean to go to the Sea'. Declan will be playing tracks old and new at the Birr Theatre (birrtheatre.com) in Offaly tonight.

2 What do you get if you mix food, farming and music? You get Experience Fest (corksummer show.com), an intriguing new showcase of the best of Irish agriculture, dining and rock 'n' roll. Taking place in Cork's Curraheen Park from June 13-15, the eclectic line-up includes Ham Sandwich, Jack L, Paddy Casey, Mary Coughlan, The 4 of Us and The Fureys.

3 Those with the wanderlust who aren't able to wander off the island next weekend should head to Immrama (lismore immrama.com), the wonderful annual travel writing festival in Lismore, Co Waterford. Running from June 12-June 15, highlights include award-winning author Tim Butcher and recent adventurer journalist Charlie Bird.


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