THREE PENNY OPERA

by Erin Thursby
Produced by First Coast Opera and with a name like Three Penny Opera, you’d expect the production to be an opera. But that isn’t the case. It is, instead, a precursor to a musical.
“When it was written there was no such thing as a Broadway musical. At the time the idea of a musical didn’t exist. That’s why it’s called an opera,” Adam Mayo, Vice President of FCO’s Board of Directors, helpfully explains. “They were really trying to move away from the themes of traditional opera into something more modern.”
While FCO is certainly dedicated to staging true operas, they’ve always done things other than straight opera. When they do go outside their milieu, they choose carefully and turn out quality productions. Case in point, last year’s fabulous production of Master Class, a play about opera star Maria Callas with bits and pieces of opera in it.
Three Penny Opera, by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, follows criminals, thieves and beggars in Victorian London as they vie for money and step over each other to get it. Central to the plot is Macheath, who marries the daughter of a local crime boss–without his blessing.
Jazz was the voice of the edgy avante-guarde when Three Penny was penned in the late 1920s, and it’s jazz that forms the backbone of the music. You’re likely to know at least one song from it: ‘Mack the Knife,’ which became a jazz standard for greats such as Louie and Ella.
What you might not know is that the song was originally sung in German. We tend to think of jazz as an inherently American genre–and it was born here, but jazz touched Europe, perhaps even more than it did America at first. Maybe that’s because jazz was (and still is) a part of us, but in Europe it was even more a signifier of rebellion and change because it came from an exotic source. Three Penny, according to its Wiki entry, has been translated into 18 different languages and has been performed over 10,000 times.
First Coast Opera is pulling from quite a pool of talent, from a variety of places in Jacksonville and beyond. The Limelight, Player’s by the Sea, Ponte Vedra, Orange Park and Theatre Jacksonville are just some of the places you might recognize the players from. There’s even a newcomer from Canada.
Even though the musical is over 80 years old, (and was adapted from an even older work called The Beggar’s Opera) it has remained relevant. Questions that the musical poses, such as “Who is the greater criminal: he who robs a bank or he who founds one?” seem even more pertinent today than they did when it was first staged in 1928. Bertolt Brecht’s political leanings are well known, and these leanings are the reason why he seeks to ask such questions through his work. Nevertheless, they are still interesting questions and they still merit consideration.
There are multiple adaptations and versions of the play. In the end, First Coast decided to go with the 1950s Broadway version, because it’s less bawdy than earlier versions and will be acceptable to a wide audience.
First Coast Opera will present The Three Penny Opera on January 22, 23, 29 and 30, 2010 at 7:30 pm and on January 31 at 2:30 pm at the Ponte Vedra High School Auditorium (460 Davis Park Road, Ponte Vedra). Tickets are $25 at the door, $22 in advance and $20 a person for groups of 10 or more. Call 417-5555 to order advance tickets or get more info, or visit www.firstcoastopera.com.

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