November 29, 2017

Eisler’s “Chilling and Lyrical” Songs Are In Karyn Levitt’s Cabaret Program

COME TO THE CABARET: Soprano Karyn Levitt brings the music of 20th century Austrian composer Hanns Eisler to the forefront in “Will There Still Be Singing? A Hanns Eisler Cabaret,” at Princeton University this Friday.

By Anne Levin

It was her fondness for the music of Kurt Weill that introduced soprano and actress Karyn Levitt to the works of another composer of Weill’s era, Hanns Eisler. It wasn’t love at first hearing. But Levitt, who will perform a program of Eisler’s works at Princeton University on Friday, December 1, soon began to fall under the spell of his 12 tone, modernist style.

“In the summer of 2011, I wrote a letter to Eric Bentley [critic, playwright, singer, and translator], the world authority on Bertolt Brecht, because he was his original translator,” Levitt said during a telephone conversation. “I had been wanting to do a show on Weill songs for a while. He wrote back — he was 94 at the time — and said that in his opinion, singers are too focused on Weill and suggested I focus on other composers who worked with Brecht. Among them was Eisler, whom he emphasized. It was that suggestion that set me on a path of working with (Bentley) directly on this repertoire and falling in love with it.”

Brecht is best known as the author (with Elisabeth Hauptmann) of The Threepenny Opera (1928), for which Weill composed the score. While less internationally known, the Austrian-born Eisler, who lived from 1898 to 1962, wrote the music for several of Brecht’s plays as well as films. “He was Brecht’s favorite collaborator,” said Levitt. “People think that was Weill, but it was Eisler.”

“Will There Still Be Singing? A Hanns Eisler Cabaret” is the title of the show Levitt will perform Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Taplin Auditorium in Fine Hall. The evening is presented by the Program in European Cultural Studies. Co-sponsors are the University’s Department of Music; Department of German; the Program in Contemporary European Politics and Society; the Program on Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies; and the Lewis Center for the Arts. Pianist Eric Ostling, guitarist Ira Siegel, and accordionist Benjamin Ickies will accompany Levitt.

Levitt found Eisler’s music difficult at first. “It was hard to take. He is a modernist composer,” she said. “He was [Arnold] Schoenberg’s best student and the first to compose in the 12-tone method. He was also a communist, and some of his songs are very political. Then there is Brecht’s poetry and ideology itself, which I found very dark. “

Weill’s work is dark, but also “seductive,” Levitt said. “His music is, ultimately, romantic music. It is in the realm of the romantic, in my opinion. Eisler, on the other hand, is modern and completely unsentimental.”

The very qualities that initially put her off Eisler “made me fall madly in love,” Levitt continued. “He is chilling and lyrical, a model of concision. There is simply no indulgence. The music so transparently reflects the message of Brecht’s words and is such a comment on the dark times that I think it is a remarkable repertoire.”

A classically trained soprano, Levitt was born in El Paso, Texas and is a graduate of Oberlin College. She has appeared at New York’s Town Hall, Cafe Sabarsky at the Neue Galerie, and Carnegie Hall. Under Bentley’s guidance, she curated an evening of Eisler’s songs that won her favorable reviews around the U.S. and abroad. She released a CD, Eric Bentley’s Brecht-Eisler Song Book, last March. Levitt also has her own production company.

This Friday’s program was first performed at Cafe Sabarsky last year. The show had its European premiere in Berlin in March at Brecht-Haus, the home of Brecht. “This is the first university-sponsored performance of the cabaret show,” Levitt said. “The fact that there are so many different sponsors really speaks to the interdisciplinary nature of what we’re presenting.”

The show is notable because it will encompass all three categories of Eisler’s repertoire: his art songs, his ideological songs, and the theater songs he wrote for Brecht’s plays. “There are different camps of singers who do the different repertoire, but I really can’t think of anybody [else] who is artistically comfortable singing a theater song, an atonal art song, and a communist marching song,” Levitt said.

Last year, Levitt produced a program at New York’s Town Hall in honor of Bentley’s 100th birthday. Among the participants were actor Austin Pendleton, playwright Tony Kushner, and several others. “It was a wonderful tribute to him and it included the world premiere of songs by Darius Milhaud to the words of Brecht,” she said.

Levitt said that Friday’s program is relevant because it can be related to the current global situation. “These songs are coming from a destroyed world going down in flames,” she said. “You would think that would be ancient history and that the human race has evolved and moved on, but these things come around again. It strikes notes that are happening right now.”