Arts: Oakland Opera Opens ‘Peace Through Song’ By KEN BULLOCK Special to the Planet

Tuesday November 29, 2005

Oakland Opera Theatre will present “Peace Through Song” this weekend. 

The performance features two satirical anti-World War I operas, a staging of Kurt Weill and Paul Green’s Johnny Johnson (1936), excerpts from Robert Kurka and Lewis Allen’s Good Soldier Schweik (1958), and an “antiwar cabaret” of songs by local jazz pianist and composer Mary Watkins. The show is Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 1:30 p.m. at Oakland Metro, 201 Broadway. 

“Peace Through Song” will be conducted by Oakland Opera Theatre Musical Director Deirdre McClure, who has worked with the company since 2001. 

The cast for the opera and cabaret singers include Will Meyer (tenor in the lead role of Johnny Johnson), Lara Bruckman, Martin Bell, Eliza O’Malley, Axel Van Chee, Jennifer Lien, Ayelet Cohen, Matt Lecar, Raeeka Shebai-Yaghmai and Vincent Fogle. The musicians are Shane Carrasco (cello, banjo and guitar), Chris Grady (trumpet), Skye Atman (keyboards and accordion) and John Hanes (percussion). 

Johnny Johnson (the title character has the most common name among WW I American combatants) was premiered in New York by the Group Theater in 1936, and played in Boston and Los Angeles the following year in a Federal Workshop production. 

Telling the story of a pacifist who nonetheless joins up for “the war to end all wars,” turns to antiwar activity after witnessing trench warfare, and is then confined to an insane asylum, Johnny Johnson is “a series of 15 scenes which vary in style and character from Gilbert and Sullivan to vaudeville, slapstick to rural sketch, abstract stylization to straight realism.” 

Composer Kurt Weill is best known for his collaborations with Bertolt Brecht, such as in Threepenny Opera, Mahagonny and Happy End. Librettist Paul Green, 1927 Pulitzer Prizewinner for drama, is credited with developing the form of “Symphonic Drama,” a new kind of history play, usually site-specific, combining music, dance, pantomime and poetic dialogue, and, in the case of Green’s own pieces, socially committed theme and content. 

“Johnny Johnson is popular music, full of popular images, by a classically trained composer who was a popular songwriter,” said McClure. “It’s rarely done; very tight, musically, and all over the map dramatically. After the songs of the Antiwar Cabaret, which are thematically more antiwar than peace, Johnny Johnson might seem to be a real departure in tone. It has the arc of a story, but doesn’t seem to have a compass in another sense, but maybe it reflects a time without a compass. Johnny’s girlfriend tells him she’ll leave him if he doesn’t go. There’s a soliloquy to the Statue of Liberty as he ships out and the statue’s song of regret at becoming a symbol of war. And what struck me while I was working with the score was how quickly Kurt Weill assimilated the English language. He had to flee Germany quickly, and with much regret.” 

The Good Soldier Schweik, taken from a Czech novel about the wily, uncooperative title soldier, was a story also well known to Brecht and Weill. Lewis Allen, the librettist, wrote the lyrics to the music of Billie Holiday’s signature song, “Strange Fruit,” about a racial lynching.  

Mary Watkins, whose number “Andersonville” in the Antiwar Cabaret is from her opera Queen Clara, about the Civil War as seen through the eyes of the pioneering nurse, Clara Barton, performs around the Bay Area as a jazz pianist. 

Oakland Opera Theatre, which began producing one production every two years as Underworld Opera Company, now produces three shows a year, including such pieces as Philip Glass’ Akhaten and Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts. 

For more information on “Peace Through Song,” see www.oaklandopera.org or call (415) 465-8480.