A Different Opera

It may not have emotionally sweeping music or interesting character development, but 'The Yes Sayer' - a Brecht-Weill work being performed by Tel Aviv University music students - is thought-provoking

Noam Ben Zeev
Noam Ben-Zeev
Noam Ben Zeev
Noam Ben-Zeev

"What we must learn above all is consent.

A rehearsal of 'The Yes Sayer' Credit: Tali Shani

Many say yes, and yet there is no consent.

Many are not asked, and many

Consent to the wrong things. Therefore:

What we must learn above all is consent"

- Bertold Brecht

This vague declaration opens the short opera written in 1930 by a pair who reached the pinnacle of the European musical world that year, a short while before they would flee the sinking ship of Europe: dramatist Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill. They named it "Der Jasager" ("The Yes Sayer" ) and its motto - that everyone must learn how to agree - is repeated throughout.

The differences between real, authentic agreement and merely uttering a forced "yes," and between agreeing to the right things and not the wrong ones, as the opera declares - this is not clear. This subject occupied students at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music at Tel Aviv University for an entire academic year, which has climaxed in the production of "The Yes Sayer." Performances will take place tonight and tomorrow (at both 5 P.M. and 8.30 P.M. ), at the academy's Claremont Hall.

While no different in general from year-end performances at other music schools, this production is the culmination of months of exhausting interdisciplinary work and study.

"The opera is half an hour long, but we devoted an entire year to it," says Michal Grover-Friedlander, head of the school's musicology program and producer of the opera.

"The work was studied from all angles - musical, historical, sociological, theoretical and cultural, and visiting lecturers came to explain them. The implementation, the conclusion, is in the hands of the students, who play the music and sing, and wrote program notes. They did the make-up and helped in the production; the department of film and television documented hundreds of hours of work, and all for very little academic credit."

"The Yes Sayer" is a "school opera" - i.e., a didactic work with a message that is meant to be produced and discussed at schools. Weill and Brecht based the work on an ancient Japanese Noh drama called "Taniku" ("Being Thrown Into the Valley" ), about a priest who takes a journey with his followers to find the cure for an illness that has infected his community. A boy wants to join him, to help save his mother's life after she falls ill. The priest agrees although the trip is not suitable for a child, and his fears are realized when the youngster becomes sick. According to the precept embodied in this fable, one must not fail in obtaining an important goal because of an individual's illness, so the boy's fellow travelers throw him into an abyss and kill him.

The original story contains various religious and mystical elements, and a prayer to the gods to bring the boy back to life (which they do ). But Brecht changed the plot: The priest becomes a teacher, the believers are students, and the story becomes rational and not religious. Above all, he added the fact that the boy himselfhas to give his consent to being thrown into the abyss.

As one music school student, Inbal Shilor, writes in an impressive article in the program, the cruel act in the original Noh drama is actually rational because it is required by custom and faith; a holy precept must be obeyed. But in the adaptation by Weill and Brecht, the story is vague. It is not clear what is the basis for the demand of the boy's agreement. Furthermore, he cannot be resurrected and therefore the opera becomes allegorical, focusing on social norms and the clash between society and the individual.

Weill's weakness

Weill, who together with Brecht and for the entire decade between the two world wars wrote musically historical masterpieces, including "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany" and "The Three-Penny Opera," as well as "The Seven Deadly Sins," shared not only political but also aesthetic views with the dramatist. The music he composed for the opera is simple without rhythmic complications; it has a restricted range and no sweeping melodic expressions of feeling. Brecht's theme of alienation, the lack of individual, psychological traits distinguishing the protagonists (they do not even have names ), and the undefined time and place in which events occur - this is all expressed also in a lack of musical characterization of the characters.

"The musical characterization is of scenes and not of characters, and the rhythm builds the entire work," Grover-Friedlander explains. "Accordingly, the singers had to be instructed to sing without vibrato, without expressing feeling, which seems completely contrary to all the ideals of a classical opera singer. This work is unlike anything that Weill composed before."

Grover-Friedlander has a doctorate in musicology, has lectured on opera at universities like Princeton in the United States, has written books and articles on the subject and edited a musicological journal. For several years, she has been producing operas herself, especially at summer festivals in Europe. Joining her in this work, and in this production as well, is her life partner, philosophy professor Eli Friedlander, who is the set designer .

"We received grants for the production from the Yad Hanadiv Foundation, for which 'The Yes Sayer' is the first step in a project called 'Great Works in World Music,' which will focus on interdisciplinary angles of masterpieces in the same way as this one, at the academy, i.e. the Buchman-Mehta," she says. The project also received a grant from the International Kurt Weill Foundation, which supports productions of the composer's work in opera houses and educational institutions, and support from the Israeli Council for Higher Education's humanities fund.

Grover-Friedlander: "'The Yes Sayer' is not anti-opera, otherwise I would not have been able to produce it. It is a work with a great deal of operatic sensitivity; it springs from the operatic genre and is testimony to a very profound understanding of it."

The music, as in other Brecht works for theater, does not necessarily complement the other components: Just as there is tension here between the lyrics and the acting, and between the plot and the set - so, too, the music has an autonomous role and prevents the audience from being dragged into theatrical illusion.

"In particular in the role of the teacher, it is possible to find a certain depth of character," Grover-Friedlander says. "Weill nevertheless expressed his own weakness and hesitancy in the music, as well as the lack of authority in his personality, and in the role created here, it is possible to discern the character saying 'no' as well. It may be correct to assume that for this reason, Weill did not want to compose music for the companion piece [called 'The No Sayer'], which Brecht wrote later."

The cruelty at the end of "The Yes Sayer," and the boy's acquiescene to being thrown into the abyss, aroused ire and opposition on the part of students and teachers over the years, who studied or saw the work performed in their schools. True, this was the aim of works of this genre, which did not provide ready answers but instead were aimed at sharpening and deepening the learning process by being mysterious and raising questions that arouse argument and discussion. "The No Sayer" is identical to the earlier work, albeit without music, but in terms of the plot, after the boy is asked to agree to his terrible fate, he says no, and the story changes.

The two works - the Tel Aviv University production and the later play, being produced by the Culural Laboratory Theater in Dimona - are being presented together, today and tomorrow, as well as on Thursday in the Dimona theater, as part of the Israel Festival.



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