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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Robert Wilson's Brechtian Legacy

Threepenny Opera. Photo: Lesley Leslie-Spinks.

Tonight BAM presents the U.S. premiere of Robert Wilson’s critically acclaimed version of Bertolt Brecht’s and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, which will be performed by the Berliner Ensemble—the company Brecht himself cofounded with his wife, Helene Weigel, in East Berlin in 1949. This marks the debut of the renowned Berliner Ensemble at BAM, which will feature Stefan Kurt as Mack the Knife. It is also the 21st production of Robert Wilson’s to be presented by BAM (and it just so happens to fall on Wilson’s 70th birthday). While some may think Brecht’s politically charged theater incongruent with Wilson’s aesthetic, Wilson’s Threepenny has in fact been a long time coming.

In the late 1960s BAM president Harvey Lichtenstein got wind of Robert Wilson, who at the time was living in Soho and developing a sort of commune/theater ensemble called the Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds (which was named after Byrd Hoffman, the Waco schoolteacher who had helped Wilson overcome his early speech impediments). Lichtenstein recalled thinking, after seeing Wilson’s The King of Spain at Anderson Theater on the Lower East Side, “I don’t know what the hell this thing is, but it’s really astonishing.” Lichtenstein gave the opera house to Wilson, and in the week before Christmas in 1969 BAM presented The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud, a three-hour “silent opera,” and the first of Wilson’s works to appear at BAM.   

Poet and theater critic Stefan Brecht (Bertolt’s son) also happened to see The King of Spain in the late 60s. Stefan quickly became a great supporter of Wilson’s: after becoming a member of the Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds, he published the first book-length study of Wilson’s stage work, The Theater of Visions.
  Stefan Brecht in Wilson's loft circa 1970, NYC.

It was Stefan Brecht who first tried to convince a reticent Wilson to take on the task of directing his father’s masterpiece after seeing The King of Spain. Wilson told him he didn’t think he was qualified. Four decades hence, most will agree that Wilson has proven his qualifications. After the Berlin premiere of Wilson’s Threepenny in 2007, Barbara Brecht (Bertolt’s daughter) sent Wilson a letter in which she wrote that she “found a new way of looking at the work, and Papa would approve.” 

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