New opera brings pop hit back to its opera roots

Production takes pop hit back to its opera roots and focuses on social commentary and acting

Mack The Knife, a Billboard No. 1 song in 1959, returns to its opera roots in a new Singapore production, A Knife In The Dark.

The Mack of the title is a burglar in A Knife In The Dark, New Opera Singapore's show featuring songs by German composer Kurt Weill.

Mack's appearance disrupts the lives of prostitutes in a Berlin bordello who yearn to escape from their seedy jobs, as well as the lives of their wealthy lovers.

A Knife In The Dark's writer Goh Ming Siu, 35, says: "When I saw the lyrics to Mack The Knife, I thought, this guy is perfect for the story's antagonist."

He then built on the traits of Mack depicted in the song - such as the jack knife he has and keeps "out of sight" and the fancy gloves he wears to erase any trace of his victims' blood - to craft the opera's dark villain.

The ballad Mack The Knife was among Weill's songs featured in German playwright Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera. It was first performed in Berlin in 1928 and satirises traditional opera.

"Although Kurt Weill may not be as well known as Mozart, for example, many of his songs, including Mack The Knife, have found their way into popular music. This is in line with our aim to make opera more accessible, yet still introduce audiences to other songs in Weill's repertoire," said Korean soprano Jeong Ae Ree, 46, who is artistic director of New Opera Singapore and music director of A Knife In The Dark, which will be held at The Arts House on Friday.

Indeed, Mack The Knife is best known to non-opera fans as American pop singer Bobby Darin's 1959 hit.

Weill, known for composing music in Germany's 1920s avant-garde art scene and more popular songs for Broadway later in his career, can be seen as an unconventional choice for an opera, says Jeong.

"His music doesn't immediately strike us as operatic in the way that Verdi's or Puccini's does because it draws so much inspiration from popular music," she says. "However, if we consider how a heightened state of emotion defines opera music too, then Weill's music is most certainly operatic."

She adds that there seems to be something "quite disconcerting" about his music as well, which keeps performers and audiences on edge and surprises them just when they think they have figured it out.

However, his music is also real and current and expresses the emotions which people feel daily.

Her sentiments are shared by Goh, who says: "After listening to some of his music in preparation to write the script, I felt that it's very human. It weaves in lots of social commentary and also subjects such as crushed hopes, lust and crime."

The observation got him thinking about film noir - a style of film marked by menace, fatality and pessimism - which became the direction for the opera.

Other Weill songs featured in A Knife In The Dark include September Song and Where Is The One Who Will Mourn Me When I'm Gone, extracted from the composer's opera Down In The Valley.

This is also the first darker project which Robert Jenkin, the production's stage director, is handling for New Opera Singapore. The last four productions he directed for the company were comedies.

Jenkin, 31, says of the rehearsals, which began three weeks ago: "I focus on helping the performers find the truth of their characters and scenes, which is vital as they are first and foremost singers, with less experience in acting. Also, our set design is kept minimal and we are working without a set designer."

Tenor Jonathan Charles Tay, 30, who plays Henry, the father of a handyman working at the bordello, agrees that the challenge for him is finding and expressing emotions in a theatrical way.

He says: "Henry gets to an emotionally heightened state later on in the show and at very short notice. It's fun and exciting, but the lack of a dramatic build-up demands more of my imagination in acting."

He adds, however, that he feels the show-tune style and jazzy qualities of Weill's music make the songs fun to sing.

Jeong believes that the audience will relate to the characters despite the production being a dark comedy.

She says: "Everyone thinks that opera is high art accessible only to a select few, but the characters in it are just like you and me - they live, fall in love, scheme and suffer at times too.

"The music is not inaccessible as well and it's relatable as a whole."

sarahgyx@sph.com.sg