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Threepenny Opera debunks traditional stereotypes


When most people think of the opera, words like jazz, Marxism, risqué or social themes dealing with corporate greed, poverty or the subjugation of women don’t come to mind. Another two words that don’t appear to be synonymous are opera and Mississippi.

However, upon seeing “The Threepenny Opera” at Meek Auditiorium, conventional ideas about opera should be reevaluated. 

To consider Julia Aubrey, the director of this year’s opera, as a busy person would be an understatement. Aubrey’s life is consumed by her passions — music and opera. Aubrey is the president of the National Opera Association, director of Opera Theatre at Ole Miss, associate professor of voice and assistant chair of the Department of Music. Aubrey also manages to find time during the summer to work on the Oxford Shakespeare Festival and a children’s workshop.

Aubrey said when she came to Ole Miss 17 years ago, things were much different.

“When I first got here and you said Mississippi and opera in the same sentence, they sort of giggled,” she said. “Well, they don’t do that anymore because they know that we are serious and that we produce really good students and operas.”

The work Aubrey has done with opera in the past took on the more traditional ideas of opera with “Carmen” and Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Gondoliers.” But after taking a sabbatical to work with the Second City in Los Angeles and at a workshop in Washington, D.C., as assistant director, Aubrey came back with fresh ideas for the program, some of which were to incorporate more dialogue in the production and to work with her students’ acting skills.

Aubrey has also enlisted the help of world-famous opera singer Kallen Esperian, who is choreographing the show.

This production is guaranteed to be different. With social issues at the forefront and a story with shady characters set in a seedy SoHo backdrop, Aubrey is approaching the opera a little differently this year.

“We are trying to create something that is unique for us with my ideas, and there are three main things that we are bringing, which are the social issues of the marginalization of the poor, the subjugation of women and corporate greed,” she said.

Aubrey is incorporating her own modern twist to the story, paralleling issues that faced 1930s Germany with issues that are hot topics in today’s political climate.

“There are going to be slides up there of Wall Street, the women’s suffrage movement, so we will go back and forth between what is the relationship from the ‘30s to what it is now — corporate greed, the subjugation of women, the marginalization of the poor, what society has done and not done,” she said.

“The Threepenny Opera” opened in August 1928 in Germany. It was written by Bertolt Brecht and composed by Kurt Weill. The production was based on an earlier English opera by John Gay called “The Beggar’s Opera.” Weill and Brecht were forced to leave Germany in the early 1930s due to the rise of Nazism.

For Lizzie Williamson, who plays the role of Jenny alongside grad student Katie Edenfield, this particular opera has played a significant role in her life.

“‘Threepenny’ is my passion; I have been taking German forever – four years in high school, took classes here, went to Germany for five weeks during the summer,” she said.

Unlike the other students involved in the production, Williamson, who is a master’s of music in musicology student, can speak German. She also wrote her thesis on “The Threepenny Opera,” which she discovered in one of her German literature classes. Williamson said that class was where she fell in love with the music of Kurt Weill.

“He was this very interesting, renegade, enfant-terrible kind of guy, so he wanted his entire career to mesh all of these genres together and level the playing fields, and you see that in ‘The Threepenny Opera’ and a lot of other works he did with Brecht,” Williamson said.

This production will be her last at Ole Miss, and she said she feels it only makes sense that her last performance would be the opera to which she has dedicated so much.

Williamson, who lived in Oxford before attending Ole Miss, got her start with vocal performance from an early age by attending an opera director’s summer workshop for kids.

“I’ve been working with Mrs. Aubrey since I was eight and taking lessons from her since I was 10 or 11,” she said. “I’ve been around. This is not my first shindig with her, but it will be my last. It’s something to think about; it’s the end of an era.”

While Williamson has spent several years working on the language, other students in the production had to learn to sing in German without knowing how to speak it. This is where a vocal coach comes in, and who better to coach than the person who wrote the book on it, quite literally.

Amanda Johnston, who hails from Toronto, Canada, is not only a collaborative pianist but a multilinguist who just recently authored the book titled “English and German Diction for Singers: Comparative Approach.”

Johnston said she decided to work with singers when she was a teenager by combining all of the languages she already knew.

“I grew up speaking French and English,” she said. “I lived in Germany, and that is where I started working. It sort of led to the career now as vocal coach. People misunderstand what it really is. I am responsible for teaching languages.”

While Johnston was in Germany, she picked up Italian, making her fluent in four languages. Johnston said languages have always been a passion and working with students who speak different languages or even the same language differently is exciting to her. 

“You always have to change it up,” she said. “It has interest to me, solving a puzzle; everybody’s voice is unique.”

Vocal performance senior Charles Moore, who plays the lead as Macheath, also got his start outside of the States, as a teenager in Jamaica.

“I originally came to Ole Miss to get a degree in English, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do, so I came back to Ole Miss to get a second degree in vocal performance,” he said. “I had a couple of friends that did the program, and they were music education majors, and they told me about the program and I decided to audition; I got a couple of scholarships, and I got a couple of transfers, so I said, ‘Why not?’”

The role as Macheath will be Moore’s first lead, but not his first opera. He said he has experience singing in different languages, like most opera students, but it is still a challenge for each production.

“Since I’ve been here, I’ve been singing in foreign languages, but learning a whole role is really hard because you have to say it the way the character would say it and have the inflections of the language right, and you have to understand what is happening,” Moore said. “Because I am not a German speaker, it has been intense, but it has been fun, though. I’ve been enjoying it.”

One aspect to acting and being involved in an opera that fascinated Moore is how involved he gets with each character he portrays.

“Most times when I perform on stage, I have done mainstream theater; it is never me on the stage,” Moore said. “‘Me’ is only there to make the decisions or mitigate anything (that) goes wrong.

“Even after the production there are parts of the character that stay behind, and you think, ‘That’s not me. That’s something some character would say.’”

Williamson also enjoys the character element to the show — especially the character Jenny, whom she fell in love with as she researched the opera. 

“As far as my interpretation of the show, Jenny is the only real character in the show, (in) that Jenny has genuine feelings, and (they) are evident and get hurt and change,” Williamson said.

With edgier characters like Macheath, a bad boy gangster type, the “Peachums,” who run a sort of capital enterprise as the leaders of the beggars, and characters like Jenny, a prostitute, and the social themes the production deal with, this show in particular is one that Aubrey wants students to see.

“They probably haven’t experienced something like this,” she said. “It has great music, jazzy music. There are things to think about. It’s not just fluff, where you go there and say, ‘Entertain me.’” 

There will be four performances of the show from Thursday, April 19 through Sunday, April 22 in Meek Auditorium.