German composer Kurt Weill is ranked high among the best of the 20th century and his music remains popular outside the classical world, from the enduring jazz standard Mack the Knife in his Threepenny Opera, to the Alabama Song covered by the Doors and David Bowie. But not all of Weill’s melodies survived the Nazi clampdown on Jewish culture.
Now, thanks to the work of an academic at University College London, a suppressed Weill stage hit that posed a puzzle for modern musicians is to be revived and performed in a fresh translation. The research of Michael Berkowitz, professor of Jewish history at UCL, in collaboration with the show’s new translator and director, Leo Doulton, has unlocked the mystery of The Tsar Wants His Photograph Taken and made it clear why this satirical work of 1927 was once so heavily suppressed. A performance on 4 May, the first with a full professional cast and orchestra for almost 40 years, will at last set the opera in its proper context, after 80 years of being largely ignored both in Germany and elsewhere.
It tells the story of a woman photographer working in Paris in 1914 who is asked to take a portrait of the tsar as part of an assassination plot. The Nazis stopped it being performed not just because of what then would have been its obvious Jewishness, but because it was not a black-and-white story.
The Bloomsbury Theatre production of The Tsar Wants His Photograph Taken has been commissioned by UCL Culture as part of Performance Lab, a season of symposiums and live performances.