Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

Gisela May is Alive and Well and Singing in Berlin
AUFBAU 64:20 September 25, 1998 p. 13
[orig. title:] Gisela May is Alive and Well
Singing Everything From Eisler to Brel
1329 words
Copyright by Leonard Lehrman & AUFBAU

Onstage professionally since 1942, in 1962 Gisela May became the first Madame Cabet in the Berliner Ensemble's production of Days of the Commune and Frau Kopecka in Schweyk in the Second World War, both with texts by Bertolt Brecht and music by Hanns Eisler. The latter coached her in the last year of his life, thus providing a living musical link from the past to the present.

One year later (1963), she appeared at the BE as Madam Cornamontis in a scene from the 1934 Brecht-Eisler The Roundheads and the Pointedheads, the only scene from the play ever staged by the Ensemble--until this week. (A new, full production opens there September 19.) She studied and later recorded several of the work's 14 songs, but had never heard the entire score. (Ten of them were reprinted by Deutscher Verlag last year in Leipzig, with an afterword by Juergen Schebera who called the piece "Brecht's most underrated work to this day" with a score "waiting to be rediscovered.") At Berlin's excellent Israeli restaurant, Oren, August 11, she had some interesting observations to share on those she knew:

The "Song of a Girl of Pleasure," the text of which was also set by Kurt Weill under the title "Nannas Lied," contains a passage in Eisler's setting which is melodically and harmonically nearly identical to a passage in the earlier Eisler song, "Der Graben" (on a text by Kurt Tucholsky), which she also studied with the composer and later recorded. Pointing out this similarity to Eisler himself, she had been astonished at the composer's reaction: he seemed never to have noticed it before! Even more astonished was her reaction to our pointing out that the same phrase, when changed to triple time, is incredibly close to the second half of Lehar's Merry Widow Waltz!

Roundheads [and Pointedheads]: [Opera or] Operetta?

Perhaps this should not be that astonishing, for Brecht viewed the Roundheads score as close to "comic opera or satirical operetta," as he indicated in one of several film treatment proposals, written in exile in the 1930s. He also suggested the play for an American production, possibly with an all-black cast--the play is about racial differences being less important than class differences--to John Houseman, who went on to produce (and revive) a work inspired by and dedicated to Brecht: Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock, whose character of the Moll is very close to Nanna in Roundheads.

Aside from a student presentation of an early version of the work in Neukoelln in 1933, the only production ever to come to fruition in Brecht's lifetime was an amateur one in 1936 in Copenhagen, where the score was reduced to two pianos and (one of the actors told me in 1979) many of the numbers were cut. Margarete Steffin, one of Brecht's most important collaborators on this play (and several others), managed to get the work published in 1937 by International Liberature in Moscow--in English! The credited translator, N. Goold-Verschoyle, was (Brecht told Eric Bentley) an Englishman living in Moscow who has since disappeared. Based on an early draft of the piece, his version unfortunately does not include many of the Eisler songs. Even more unfortunately, it is the only version of the play currently in print in English. Full professional productions in German occurred in Halle in 1962, Hannover in 1963, East Berlin in 1983, and West Berlin in 1984. In all cases, parts of the score proved too difficult for the actors (most of whom were not professional singers).

In 1972, Ralph Manheim, Gisela May, and I worked on new English translations of a number of Brecht songs, including these, a number of which she then sang on her tour of the United States and Australia. I had learned of the play at the Second International Brecht Congress at Rutgers University in 1971: its first U.S. production had taken place (unauthorized) in California that year, in the N. Goold-Verschoyle version, with music by Lucy Coolidge, except for two Eisler songs included by Eric Bentley in his Brecht-Eisler Songbook. The new translation was premiered at Cornell University--with a cast of 21 and an orchestra of 15--in 1973. It will be heard in New York City for the first time, in concert, with chorus and six professional soloists --the number stipulated by Brecht in his film/operetta proposal--at West Park Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, Saturday evening, September 26.

This will also be the first time all of Eisler's songs for the show will be heard here: two other N.Y. showcased productions in recent years, using yet a third translation (by Michael Feingold), have employed only "bits" of the Eisler score (there is also an unpublished British translation by Ethel Talbot Scheffauer); while the most recent production--at the New York International Fringe Festival--used the N. Goold-Verschoyle, and no Eisler at all.

"Deconstructing" Brecht

Director Leland Patton consciously "deconstructed" the play, reinstating much (perhaps too much) of the work from which it was originally adapted--Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. A debate inserted into the dialogue between Carl Weber and Tony Kushner over the way John Fuegi deconstructed the playwright in his Brecht & Co. (much the way the Starr report deconstructs Clinton) enlivened the proceedings, as sex (both homo and hetero) became a more or less explicit subtext of scene after scene. Madam Cornamontis appeared topfree and various forms of buggery were mimed in silhouette.

The Brecht play itself stems from many interesting sources: tenant farmer Callas, who insists on his right to two horses, is modeled on Heinrich von Kleist's Michael Kolhaas, who was also the antecedent for Coalhouse Walker in E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime. The dictator Angelo Iberin's coming to power was conceived as a Mussolini or Franco figure, until life seemed to imitate (and then dwarf) art in the person of Adolf Hitler, whose determination and eventual power to commit genocide was (to say the least) badly underestimated by nearly everyone at the time. The setting--Bohemia; then Lima, Peru, then Luma, Yahoo--shows the influence of Gulliver's Travels. Parts of Goethe's Faust and Shakespeare's Henry VI Part I are also sprinkled throughout. Eisler quoted the love potion theme from Tristan und Isolde in his "Lied der Kupplerin," translated by Bentley as "There's Nothing Quite Like Money."

Eisler at Brecht Forum

This song was particularly tastelessly performed at Brecht Forum's Hanns Eisler Centenary Festival September 12 by Matt Jones, with an "additional verse": "There's nothing quite like power --as an aphrodisiac," as applied to President Clinton. Since the song was stripped of most of its accompaniment--as were all the other Eisler songs on this mostly non-Eisler program--the whole point of the musical reference was lost. So was the stirring asymmetrical phrase structure of the "Solidarity Song," mis-sung by an uncredited soprano. Only David Rovics shone in songs of his own, Woody Guthrie, and the Brecht-Eisler "Song of the United Front."

The last two Eisler songs mentioned, specialties of tenor Ernst Busch, will be sung by tenor Ronald Edwards and Rainbow Voices September 26. The West-Park program will also include three Eisler sonatas, settings of Brecht and Peter Maiwald, songs by Weill, Blitzstein, and Elie Siegmeister (who translated Eisler's lectures at the New School), and reminiscences by Mordecai Bauman and Eric Bentley.

It will not include Jacques Brel, whose work bears an affinity to Brecht, as illuminated by Gisela May's latest Buschfunk CD: "Lieder von Jacques Brel: l'art de passage." This is not a remake of her 1979 Amiga LP "Chansons bleiben Chansons," which also featured 14 Brel songs in German translations. Only 3 numbers are repeats. Unfortunately 4 of the newly-translated songs feature the actor Matthias Freihof, who is not at her level. But the disc is worth hearing for her energetic interpretations alone, and some day perhaps she'll record "Carousel" herself--along with more Eisler!

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