Der Silbersee: A meeting of revolutionary musical minds

James Conway, the English Touring Opera’s artistic director, discusses The Silver Lake, an opera that was banned by the Nazis in 1933

The German composer Kurt Weill is best known for his edgy collaborations with Bertolt Brecht, but his work with the playwright Georg Kaiser, with whom he shared deep social convictions, also inspired serious compositions. Their last collaboration was Der Silbersee (The Silver Lake), which was written as a ‘singspiel’ (light opera with dialogue). It had three simultaneous German premieres on 18 February 1933 before the Nazis banned it after just 16 performances. Its creators fled Germany – Kaiser went to Switzerland, Weill to Paris, and later America.

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Der Silbersee is a tale of sudden reversals of fortune and of those left behind in the fight for social position: the poor man driven to steal a pineapple, the policeman with principles, and the starving people. The piece has rarely been revived because of its length (over three hours), although the actor Lotte Lenya narrated a notable 1971 production scaled down to 90 minutes. Now the English Touring Opera is also staging a 90-minute production that illuminates the piece’s political undercurrents, as prescient today as in the 1930s.

After the play was banned did both Weill and Kaiser, who was not Jewish, risk persecution?
“Yes. Although Kaiser wasn’t Jewish his first play was The Jewish Wife. He was very aware of the rising antisemitism and loathed it.”

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Did they work well together?
“It seems to have been a collaboration of equals. Two voices become one in a more powerful way than either one of them working alone.”

We expect irony from Weill, but this sounds more mystical.
“Our production is staged in a more ironic way than previous productions. It opens with a sublimely ironic scene, a gravedigger trying to bury ‘Hunger’. It ends with a walk across a frozen lake to a community of folk who do not fit into what society has become, who are committed to making something new. One scene has two girl shop-workers complaining they have to throw food away at end of the day to keep prices up. It even presages food banks.”

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The songs are in German, so do you think Silbersee will connect with your audiences?
“Everyone speaks in English and there are English subtitles. In each city we add to our own touring chorus a different local group. In Hackney, Durham and Buxton, we’re collaborating with Streetwise Opera, featuring choruses of people who are experiencing homelessness. A number of our cast are also Streetwise workshop leaders. It’s absolutely the spirit of this piece. I love our diverse audiences, their willingness to be moved by an experience, to see that this is not like any other opera.”

By Judi Herman

Photos by Richard Hubert Smith

The Silver Lake (Der Silbersee) runs Saturday 5 & Monday 7 October. 7.30pm. £10-£37. Hackney Empire, E8 1EJ.

The opera then tours to Derbyshire (12 Oct), County Durham (19 Oct), Somerset (22 Oct), Suffolk (26 Oct) and Devon (14-15 Nov).

This interview also appears in the Jul 2019 issue of JR.