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The Three Penny Opera: A Relish Tray, More Savory Than Sweet

Brecht and Weill concoct a theatre piece that mixes moments of alienation with attraction.

two characters from the play

Photo: Denis Ryan Kelly, Jr.

Caitlin Mathes as the smoldering Jenny Diver, the dapper Macheath, Corey McKern's, 'Thursday girl.'

Event Information

The Three Penny Opera

music by Kurt Weill, Libretto by Bertolt Brecht


Frank & Katrina Basile Opera Center

Oct 11-20, 2013: Fri, Sat @ 8 pm; Sun 2 pm

It’s rare to go to a musical where the first song has recordings from everyone from Lotte Lenya to Louis Armstrong, but that’s just what The Three Penny Opera at the Indianapolis Opera offers right after the overture  when the whole cast sings the “Ballad of Mack the Knife.”

The Three Penny Opera is a fascinating mix of scenes and songs. As IU’s Monica Herzig explained in a preshow talk, the although the amount of dialogue and some of the vocal styles keep it from being an opera, the show’s vocal demands and styles also separate it from most musicals.

The setting is London in 1837 just before the coronation of Queen Victoria. The City is divided into three factions. There’s Mack the Knife, the captain of crime. Mack’s old army buddy Tiger Brown, the Chief of Police. And there’s Mr. and Mrs. Peachum who run all the beggars of the city.

Corey McKern made a dapper Mack the Knife. Howard Baetzhold and Andrew Morales were especially effective as his somewhat incompetent gang.  Although he wasn’t as strong vocally, Duane McDevitt nicely partnered Mack as Tiger Brown, the chief of police. Much of the social criticism of The Three Penny Opera comes from Mr. Peachum; played by Robert Kerr, Peachum was an effectively cynical preacher about the extent and limits of charity.

Mack is very much a lady’s man. Caitlin Mathes was a standout as Mack’s Thursday girlfriend, especially in “Pirate Jenny,” her bitter song of imagined revenge.  Rachel Sparrow was dewily sweet as the girl that Mack has swept off her feet and actually married. IU grad Jacqueline Bracheen, as Lucy…another of Mack’s many women, nicely dueled with Polly in their “Jealousy Duet.”

Composer Kurt Weill and librettist Bertolt Brecht had serious thoughts on their minds as they worked on The Three Penny Opera. Brecht in particular was concerned that there be a balance between instruction and amusement.  On purpose he puts a lush ballad next to a cynical scene of just how to make a beggar look the most pathetic. Although there are more than a few laughs in a well-organized show that’s not short on entertainment, it’s a bittersweet play. The twenties in Weimar Germany were a tumultuous time in society and the arts. The Three Penny Opera is very much about both.

The flexible open set is by Gordon Strain. Effective lighting is by Betsy Cooprider-Bernstein. Bill Fabris neatly directed and choreographed the large cast.  Even though he was leading the production with its small stage band from the side, conductor James always had things nicely in hand.

The Indianapolis Opera’s production of Weill and Brecht’s The Three Penny Opera has final performances Friday and Saturday at eight and Sunday at 2.

George Walker

After completing an M.A.T. degree in English at Indiana University, George Walker began announcing for WFIU in 1967. Along with regularly hosting classical music shows, he interviews artists and reviews plays and operas.

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