Performers as Producers | by J. Stacher

Let’s finish our time travel where we once started (Back to the Golden Twenties):

In the interview with Lotte Lenya, the philosopher T. W. Adorno points out a central moment that was characteristic of the Golden Age in 1920s Berlin:

You said, Lenya, […] what role you played as an actress in the production of these works [Threepenny Opera and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny]. Well, the fact that you were able to do this as an actress has to do with the fact that at that time, at least in the Berlin climate we’re talking about here, the theatrical work was actually not so much regarded as a text but as a performance. You did not work on a piece […] but on a performance, and the piece was subordinate to the performance […] and as an actress, you became a producer yourself at the same time.

Frisé, Adolf [Moderator]: Adorno/Lenya: Die Zwanziger Jahre. Legende und Ärgernis, Hessischer Rundfunk, 1960; orig. German, translation by myself. Find the whole interview on: UbuWeb Sound – Theodor Adorno.

Based on Adorno’s thesis of the subordination of the musical work to the performance, I argue that the importance of performers themselves for a particular performance or role changed, but also their impact on entire works. As we already know, Lenya was generally considered to be a role model for Weill’s music. As the composer himself once claimed, she was like a muse for his compositions, insofar as he heard her voice in every melody he wrote and used it as an inspiration for his songs [HENNENBERG/KNOPF:2006, 351]. Especially with regard to one of his most famous works, she influenced not only its creation but also its international success. So, let’s take a look at The Three Penny Opera.

On August 31, 1928, at the premiere of The Threepenny Opera at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, Lenya embodied another Brechtian character: As Jenny, she sang the so-called “Zuhälterballade,” a tango-style duet that tells of the shabbiness of her former life. Three years later, Georg Wilhelm Pabst adapted the opera as a film in which she once again slipped into the role of the prostitute Jenny. In contrast to the previous performance on stage, the song of “Seeräuber-Jenny”, which was originally sung by the character Polly at her wedding feast, was assigned to Lenya’s character in the film version. In the actual plot, this “Pirate- Jenny” does not exist, but the song tells the story of a poor girl who works in a shabby hotel in London and dreams of taking revenge on those who have exploited her. The decision to let Lenya interpret this song proved to be groundbreaking for her further career. The performance brought her international recognition, and the song itself became her “signature tune.”

In Berlin, a veritable “Threepenny Opera hype” arose after its premiere in 1928, but especially after the release of the film. Many of the melodies were whistled in the streets, and instrumental arrangements of the songs were played in bars and even theater critics praised the work. This demonstrated the rapidly growing popularity of Weill’s music. However, it was Lenya’s performances that made this trend spread so quickly throughout the country, as Donald Spoto states in his Lenya biography:

The fact that Germany was gripped by ‘Threepenny Fever’ within such a short time was due in no small part to the fact that Lenya had taken part in the first performance, that she frequently inserted performances with the Threepenny ensemble between other stage engagements (sometimes as Jenny, sometimes as Lucy) and that she took part in an enormously popular vinyl recording of selected songs in 1930. This classic recording is still available today. It explains the fame that Lenya enjoyed in the years of the Weimar Republic, which began even before the film was released, and why the general public always associated Lenya with this work.

SPOTO: 1990, 111; orig. German, translation by myself.

After the extremely successful premiere of The Threepenny Opera, through which Lenya became famous overnight, the record industry built on this existing hype. Between 1928 and 1931, eleven different labels released music from The Threepenny Opera. But the label Ultraphon seized the opportunity to work with Lenya and achieve particularly high profits with her as the figurehead of this record. Together with four other colleagues, Erika Helmke as Polly and Mrs. Peachum, Kurt Gerron as Tiger-Brown, Erich Ponto as Mister Peachum and Willy Trenk-Trebitsch as Macheath, Lenya sung three different roles for the following recording:

Die Dreigroschenoper, 1930

The record industry began to market her as the star of songs from operas by Brecht and Weill. Moreover, the recordings were then played on the radio as “Schallplattenkonzerte” [record concerts], making the music accessible to an even wider audience. Lenya undoubtedly made a significant contribution to the enduring success of the works of Brecht and Weill, not only through her performances on stage but even more through her interpretations of numerous recorded songs.

Therefore, the significance of artists changed to the extent that performers were no longer just rigid reproducers of a work but rather influential producers. With her natural, unconventional way of using her voice, Lenya evidently struck a new note in the vocalization and musical-aesthetic realization of certain works, creating an extremely positive resonance. She heralded a new direction in singing by orienting herself toward contemporary developments in speech singing but establishing her own character, which ultimately made her interpretations so authentic and unique. In this respect, she symbolizes this turbulent era, as she broke away from conventional singing norms and used her voice to set things in motion. This is another reason why she is still an icon of the Golden Twenties and the performer of the songs of Brecht and Weill.

  • Spoto, Donald: Die Seeräuber-Jenny. Das bewegte Leben der Lotte Lenya, München: Droemer Knaur 1990.
  • Hennenberg, Fritz und Knopf, Jan: Bertolt Brecht, and Kurt Weill. Brecht/Weill “Mahagonny“, Frankfurt / Main: Suhrkamp 2006.

Cite this blog post
Johanna Stacher (2024, January 25). Performers as Producers | by J. Stacher. Performers as Patrons of New Music. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from

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