Kurt Weill and Bertholt Brecht's Berlin


Our project began in Fall 2016 when Oberlin announced its experimental StudiOC initiative. The idea was to offer three linked, concurrent courses that would allow students to approach the same topic from many different points of view. We saw this as an opportunity to bring together the strengths of Oberlin’s elite liberal arts college and world-renowned conservatory, blending liberal-arts academics with pre-professional performance in way that had never been done before, asking college students to reassess their academic, theoretical work in light of practice, and asking conservatory students to challenge their accustomed performance routine with writing that would unsettle their long held habits.

By the spring we had settled on the general subject of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, and by Fall 2017, we had settled on Seven Deadly Sins as our central case study. This unusual “sung ballet” (ballet chanté) premiered in Paris in 1933 shortly after Weill and Brecht went into exile, and offered us the opportunity to explore several themes in Weimar performance, history and music on a scale that we could tackle in one semester. One problem, however, remained. Since StudiOC was a new initiative, and since this depth of collaboration between College and Conservatory was also new, we worried whether we could find a group of students who were game for this sort of experiment.

We did—or rather, they found us. Eighteen extraordinarily creative and talented students drawn equally from the College and Conservatory came forward, auditioned, interviewed, and ultimately agreed to embark upon this adventure with us. The students in the cluster [link to the section with their bios] took three courses: a course in performance with Prof. Field (OPTH 308: Avant-Garde Performance Practice), a course in music history with Prof. O’Leary (MHST 238: Musical Theater and Opera) and a course in history with Prof. Sammartino (HIST 288: Weimar Berlin). We also enriched our offerings with outside experts. We visited the Allen Art Museum with Dr. Andrea Gyorody to see art from the period including drawings from Otto Dix, photographs from Albert Renger-Patzsch and collages from Kurt Schwitters. And we met with jazz professor Jay Ashby to peek under the hood about the arranging process, analyzing a half dozen different versions of the Weill song “Speak Low.”

In class, students discussed cabaret culture and Brechtian theater. They learned about Gebrauchsmusik, street battles between Communists and Nazis and the artistic philosophy behind radical photomontage. They read Weimar-era “chick lit” and Adorno. In other words, students spent a semester immersing themselves in the cultural, political, and musical world of Brecht and Weill. Meanwhile, we all pushed ourselves out of comfort zones. College students, who had never stepped on stage or sung in public, tried out singing choral numbers and performing with appropriate Brechtian gestus. Conservatory students, whose focus had already been on performance, spent days in the library looking for old works of art or reading the philosophy of Martin Heidegger.

Finally, we also spent the semester putting this learning to work by creating a performance of Seven Deadly Sins, a Weill-themed cabaret, and research projects which focused on interpreting each of the Seven Deadly Sins (Greed, Gluttony, Envy, Pride, Wrath, Lust, and Sloth) in the context of Weimar Germany.

This website is a document of our communal efforts. We hope you enjoy.

--Jonathon Field, James O’Leary and Annemarie Sammartino


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