A visit to the Southbank Centre the other week has compelled me to think a few little thoughts about ‘feminist classical music’. Here is the second, in praise of Kurt Weill’s/Bertolt Brecht’s The Seven Deadly Sins, a rare example (I will argue) of an explicitly feminist classical piece:::
The BBC Concert Orchestra’s performance of The Seven Deadly Sins was part of the Rest is Noise festival’s ‘Berlin in the 20s/30s Weekend’, programmed alongside Hindemith’s Symphony Mathis der Maler and Schoenberg’s Accompaniment to a Film-Scene. The ensemble was conducted by André de Ridder, with Shara Worden (aka My Brightest Diamond) singing the role of Anna, and members of Synergy Vocals singing the ‘Family’ quartet.
It is a piece that I feel quite strongly about, that I’ve directed in a ‘staged’ production, and that I consider an exemplary model for ‘politically-engaged’ operatic/classical music. As much as I like Shara Worden, it has to be said that the performance itself in no way justified this opinion. I might have tried harder to enjoy it, had I not been sat in front of a man who was clearly indignant throughout the performance, and booed loudly afterwards. Booing in concerts and operas is a fascinating phenomenon that I want to discuss in another post; on this occasion I managed to talk to the man briefly after the concert and find out a little about what had offended him so deeply about the performance (he was far more positive towards the Schoenberg and Hindemith). A lot of what he said I disagreed with entirely (as discussed below), but some of his complaints sort of made me think about why it hadn’t really worked for me either. I’ve kept my negative reflections on the performance for the next post – entitled On Semi-Stagings – because I want to talk more about positive things, about why I love the piece so much and why I think it’s important – what I consider to be the work’s potential, as someone who’s directed it before and would love to direct it again.
‘The Seven Deadly Sins of the Petty Bourgeoisie’
This is the full title of Brecht’s libretto, which was his last text written for Weill (in 1933), and in some ways the simplest. Their larger dramatic works, The Threepenny Opera and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (from which the Mahagonny Songspiel is also taken), are rich, multi-registered examples of epic theatre, which lend themselves to all sorts of contemporary readings and ingenuitive re-stagings, through the comparative looseness of their overall allegorical structure as well as the vividness of certain details (especially the song lyrics themselves, which often retain their political power when detached from the drama). Smaller-scale works like Lindbergh’s Flight and He Said Yes are more concentrated but arguably more obscure allegories. All of these examples, like so much of Brecht, beg to be quite consciously ‘re-activated’ within a contemporary political narrative, through staging decisions or performance context. They make nuanced socio-political points with reference to distanced parables, which is what still makes them so useful and relevant. But, paradoxically, this ‘universalising’ distance also risks their de-politicisation if performed ‘straight’ (i.e. detached from Brecht’s own theory and stagecraft, or at least the intentions behind it). This tendency is made all the more risky with the addition of the mystifying veil of (historical) music – what Brecht called its ‘narcotic effect’ – which seems to ‘make sense’ even while it flows ‘apolitically’ and ‘autonomously’ through its self-contained patterns and structures of convention, frustration and desire.
The Seven Deadly Sins is different, I believe. It’s more resistant to this process of de-radicalisation which is so vital in a work’s canonisation. It’s a formalist satire in seven movements with prologue and epilogue, each movement totally committed to a beautifully unified détournement of bourgeois morality. As a whole, it retains the brilliant rhetorical clarity and sting of his poems over the eclecticism of his librettos. It is not classified as an opera, but as a ‘sung ballet’, with the protagonist – Anna – split into two ‘persons’: a singer and a silent dancer. The basic synopsis is that Anna (a young woman from Louisiana) is sent out to seek her fortune, in order to send money home to her family so that they can build a new house. America, as in Mahagonny, is used as a quasi-fantastical setting for its embodiment of bourgeois ideology at its most Utopian (individualism, opportunity, the American dream, etc.).
This synopsis is fitted into an ‘epic’ framework in which each of the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ are addressed in turn, as Anna navigates each new city, finds work, success and money. It is the dancer, ‘Anna 2’, who is the ‘real’ Anna-as-agent/subject/individual. Her experiences, reactions and decisions are narrated, commented on and judged by the singer – ‘Anna 1’ – and her Family, sung by a male quartet. In each new city, Anna 2 – as she tries to find work and make money – is met with an ethical dilemma. In each case, she pursues what she believes to be the ‘right’ course of action – which we might recognise in terms of justice and fairness – even though in each case it involves her going against the established system, and thereby not profiting financially. In each case, her solution is then roundly condemned by Anna 1 and the family as ‘wrong’ using the ‘moral’ terms of the Seven Deadly Sins, and her actions are ‘corrected’ by Anna 1, who acts as a sort of conscience. Of course, we as an audience recognise in each case the basic irony that, in each case, Anna’s ‘sin’ is clearly the ‘right’ course of action, and the ‘moral’ terminology used by her family and her alter-ego is deployed exploitatively.
In this way, the piece simply and effectively suggests how bourgeois morality can co-opt elements of a pre-capitalist ideology (the ‘capital vices’ codified by Pope Gregory I and then Dante Alighieri) in order to give it the appearance of historic validity. It also makes a point about the nature of all ideology; the signifiers (‘Lust’, ‘Envy’) are very familiar, we can easily list them, but the practical meaning of these under new material conditions are shown to be highly unstable, and their ‘definitions’ can be set by whichever group has the greatest mastery over ‘official’ language and its allocation of meaning (what Pierre Bourdieu might call ‘linguistic capital’). The basic elements of satire are in play, the ironic disjuncture between the commentary and our understanding of the real nature of the events and experiences, along with humorous/grotesque exaggerations. In this case, the disjuncture between the ‘authoritative’ narrative voice, with its casual deployment of clichés and moralistic jargon, and the unspoken suffering embodied by the dancer through movement, uses the two disciplines (text-with-music vs. physical gesture) as symbolic stand-ins for two mutually-dissonant ‘levels’ of consciousness: official-ideological and affective-biopolitical. This is the sort of approach that multi-disciplinary art is made for.
The music takes a vital role as well, of course. It functions on a number of levels:::
- The music, associated as it is with Anna 1’s and the family’s voices, is used to express the dominating power of the singers’ ‘moralist’ framing. As a ‘material’ which permeates the whole of the work, and structures its interpretation, it is the perfect analogue for a (Lukácsian) Marxist conception of ideology, yet its transparency – the fact that you can sense ‘through’ it – makes it a particularly effective tool to express a critique of this ideology, or even to construct a multi-sensory ‘dialectic’.
- Rather than expressing Anna 2’s suffering, frustration or anger in the standard empathetic/cathartic way, the music undermines it with levity (marches, waltzes, foxtrots), allowing us to perceive Anna’s situation without enjoying it on a sensual level (classic Verfremdungseffekt).
- As a through-composed, stylistically-cogent score, with recurring motifs and a ‘framing’ prologue/epilogue theme, the music helps structure this unashamedly formalist work, taking its episodic nature from the imposition of the seven distinct vices, whose numerological weight remains a key part of their enduring power in our cultural imagination.
- In its smoothness, its popular genre references and melodicism, it suggests the perceived ‘totality’ of an ideological perspective, as theorised by Marxist thinkers at the time. This is tempered by Weill idiosyncratic ‘wrong-note’ harmonies and subversion of genre clichés which, while avoiding the all-out disruptiveness of expressionism, suggests that the ideological ‘narrativisation’ to which the singing characters subscribe isn’t completely stable, that it contains contradictions, irrationalities and potential loose threads from which it might be unravelled.
- As with all Weill’s musical treatments of Brecht texts, it can’t be completely reduced to the ‘set-a-really-dark-text-to-a-really-banal-populist-melody-for-satire’s-sake’ school of political music. There are dark and dramatic moments in the score, for sure, but these correspond to Anna 1’s narrative framing, which is far from utterly insensitive to her sister’s suffering. Much of the effect of the piece comes from the fact that there is empathy expressed, there is the pretence of understanding behind the cynical pragmatism of Anna 1’s advice. For all the work’s bald formalism, this is no shallow caricature of capitalist ‘realism’ – which would certainly miss its target – but a far more sensitive investigation of the power relations at work in love and kinship as well as in hate and coercion. In this way, we are offered – through the music – the possibility for real empathy with Anna 2, through brief identification with her struggles. But while Anna 1’s moralistic advice, and the accompanying music, progresses and resolves itself into brighter conclusions, Anna 2 remains marooned in her hopeless situation. I find this kind of musical feint an important reminder of the deceptive potential of music in precluding our clear judgement (again, what Brecht calls its ‘narcotic effects’).
Beyond all of these considerations, there is also the more well-known aspect of the ‘mass appeal’ of Weill’s music, which borrows from jazz, cabaret and popular dance idioms. This is one instance in which I’m happy to use the word ‘accessibility’, because I believe it is clear that there is something which needs to be ‘accessed’ in this piece. This aspect was brought home to me at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, after I talked to the booing man, who was no fan of the vocalist Shara Worden. He expressed annoyance that she’d been invited back onstage to play one of her own songs, or – as he put it – ‘try to sell her record’. Now, I think Shara is a very interesting vocalist, and has becoming a singular presence in the intersection between pop-inspired classical and classical-inspired pop worlds. I like her voice, although her mic was turned down way too low, and I think she was an excellent choice to sing Anna 1, following in the clear tradition of various jazz and cabaret singers and Marianne Faithful before her.
But on reflection, I was mainly pleased with the choice of Shara as Anna because, for once, it showed that the programmers were genuinely identifying with the intention behind Weill’s music – its use of popular tropes – and the ‘accessibility’ principle behind it, geared towards delivering the piece’s political message. The massive danger with such a piece, especially as framed by the ‘Berlin in the ’30s’ weekend, is to present it as a piece of period-exotica. Thirties jazz and dance musics are certainly no longer ‘popular’ musics, as they were back then; they are funny old styles which have become infused with very specific connotations of time and place. The period-specificity of pop music, which evolves so quickly with the accelerating pace of commercial production, certainly runs the risk of fixing a work in a particular ‘zeitgeist’ and suggesting that it is relevant only in relation to that zeitgeist – a little bit of socialist chic.
However in this case, I don’t believe that Weill’s populist aesthetics have lost all of their power. They’re still ‘accessible’ styles, pop music doesn’t change that fast or that profoundly, and it does keep coming back in cycles. By asking Shara Worden to sing the role, rather than a jazz singer (let alone a trad jazz singer), the programmers were taking far more seriously the contemporary value of Weill’s popularism – not to express some particular sort of ’30s-specific message, but to open the work up to people at the time. And I know for sure that a certain proportion of the audience at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, maybe not a huge proportion but certainly not insignificant, came because Shara Worden was singing. This is taking Weill’s intentions (and the music itself) seriously, not going all out to find a perfect Lotte Lenya sound-alike.
Intersectionality in Anna’s Exploitation
I began by calling this a feminist work, and I want to briefly demonstrate how explicitly it combines a critique of capitalism with a critique of patriarchy.* It is not just a case of patriarchy ‘representing’ capitalism allegorically. The two are combined quite complicatedly – maybe not quite enough to satisfy post-structuralist, anti-Marxist feminists, but still, far from simplistically. To argue this, I’ll break down the work into its constituent movements:
- Sloth: Anna is berated by her family for being lazy, sending her out to labour in order to send her earnings home, so they can build and expand their house.
- Pride: Anna starts to work as a cabaret dancer. She wants to be considered an artist, but is mocked by the men at the venue who only want to see her body. She is charged with pride for having too much self-belief in her work, and too high an opinion of her ‘craft’.
- Wrath: Anna gets angry at an act of injustice (not specified: it is normally taken to be the ill-treatment of an extra on a filmset on which she’s acting, but in our staging it was an incident of sexual harassment). She is charged with wrath for taking offence, and told that she has to ‘turn the other cheek’, especially when there’s money to be made.
- Gluttony: Anna is pressured into losing weight for her job, charged with gluttony for her enjoyment of food.
- Lust: Anna is expected to marry for money, and is charged with lust when she has an affair with a man she’s in love with.
- Greed: In sharp contrast to the previous movement, the family now charge Anna for greed, for taking too much from the men who support her, for making them unhappy, and for living too decadent a lifestyle.
- Envy: Anna is miserable, and expresses desire for a better life, which is chastised as envy.
Almost all of these scenarios could be used to address very contemporary feminist concerns. While some of the ‘bad morals’ invoked are expressive of the ‘protestant ethic’ ideology which underpinned early capitalism, particularly redolent of the so-called ‘American dream’ and still very present in the UK ruling class ideology of today (something-for-something culture, strivers/shirkers, aspiration/incentive, entrepreneurship, etc.), most of them can also be used to invoke some of the more obvious ‘demands’ made of women under patriarchy: to look pretty, to get thin, to be sexually available, to not complain or take offence, to accept economic subservience and dependence, to not have too much self-worth or self-belief, to not try and change their position. When we staged it, we focused on its relevance to women in the media, particularly to female-celebrities-as-women, and the furious double-standards with which we demand them to play an impossibly idealised role, in their lifestyles, attitudes, bodies and sexualities.
It is here that the ‘split personality’ of the Anna character becomes most interesting. The fact that Anna 1, who’s voicing all this chauvinistic ideology, is a woman herself might seem problematic. It’s hardly ‘sisterly’ in any sense of the word. But she represents the ‘ideal’ attitude of the woman as constructed by patriarchy, the ‘conscience’ that women are taught to have about how they deport themselves, how they relate to others and how they live their lives, and the fact that all this might be ‘internalised’ and ‘naturalised’ by women themselves. Anna 2 is the real ‘human’ Anna – the dancing, material body. Anna 1 is just the internalised, idealised, ideological conscience of the character. This point is made even clearer by Weill’s decision to cast the role of the ‘Mother’ as the bass singer, within the Family’s ‘barbershop quartet’ – a quintessentially male ensemble type. The Family do not represent ‘real’ people but the ideological apparatus of the bourgeois family. Yet, in a nudge towards a feminist reading, this is explicitly rendered a male ideology, and moreover it is shown as a private, patriarchic domain which nevertheless articulates her decisions and actions in public, in the workplace.
For Anna 2 – worker and woman – we can perceive a relationship between her oppression by patriarchy and her oppression by capitalism, which plays well towards ‘intersectionality theory’: a very popular concept at the moment, which expresses the idea that individual systems of oppression (racism, ablism, sexism, etc.) do not act independently but interrelate. Brecht regularly uses sex workers as stock figures in his plays, as exemplars of individual entrepreneurship and giving an explicitness to the biopolitical aspects of Marx’s designation of the proletariat as those who can only sell their bodies (labour) as commodities. In this figure of the “whore”, there is a very complicated combination of class and gender exploitation, as well as (for many) the suggestions of new, gendered forms of power and resistance. Brecht’s sex worker characters are rarely as complicated or nuanced as they could be, considering this, and are often instrumentalised for their symbolic potential, but I do think that – in the figure of Anna – there is a striking, malleable and incredibly useful exploration of the intersectionality of gender and class oppression which is certainly as relevant as it ever was. While the relationship between Marxist and Feminist theory has been somewhat fraught over the last few decades, it seems that serious, inventive and committed new stagings of works like this, which thematise aspects of intersectionality theory while leaving many aspects open for interpretation, might provide a valuable site for discussion and exploration.
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* And I appreciate that it might seem perverse that, after complaining in my last post about the lack of female composers on the WOW festival programme, I’m now celebrating a ‘feminist’ work written by two men, but I like to think I take feminism seriously enough as cultural praxis to feel comfortable in my own judgement about what does or doesn’t seem relevant, interesting or problematic.