INTERVIEW: Peter Tregear (Barry Humphries Weimar Cabaret – Barbican,11-29 July)

Barry Humphries and Meow Meow in
Weimar Cabaret in Edinburgh in 2016
Photo supplied by EMG Media

“Barry Humphries’ Weimar Cabaret” will be at the Barbican from 11 to 29 July. Melbourne-based musicologist Peter Tregear was in the small team who put the original show together in collaboration with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. He tells the story of how the show came into being here, and – hopefully without spoilers – gives a guide to what Barbican audiences can expect. Interview by Sebastian:

LondonJazz News: If I understand right this idea got going because Barry Humphries had done some other projects with the ACO and those had worked well?

Peter Tregear: Yes, that’s right. Barry had toured with the ACO a few years earlier (performing, among other works, Walton’s Facade) and it had been a great commercial and critical success, and I understand both parties were keen to explore further collaborations.

LJN: And how did the original idea of a Weimar cabaret show start?

PT: Barry has had a near life-long fascination for the musical culture of Weimar Germany, and has also been a strong advocate for many of its most significant composers. This interest arose because he had encountered traces of Weimar culture that had travelled to the Melbourne of his childhood in the luggage of Jewish immigrants escaping Nazi persecution and had fallen in madly love with it. I suspect he was also quick to recognize that here was a cultural world that could help provide inspiration for the directions his own creative work was soon to take, not least in seeking to shock a complacent Australia out of its post-War contented slumber. Barry was a precociously frustrated artist and intellectual, and Weimar Germany provided a soundtrack for an altogether fresh attitude to life that he now yearned for.

More simply, I think he just fell for the music. It was an obvious place for the ACO and Barry to look to create a new show together.

Peter Tregear
Photo Credit: Peter Hislop
LJN: You were brought in to help? How did that work?

PT: I was brought in to provide research assistance and programming advice. One of the challenges we faced was sourcing much of the music. Another, of course, was working out how to make the kinds of repertoire choices that could result in a coherent, compelling, concert experience.

LJN: Were your enthusiasms similar to Barry Humphries’ or did you complement each other?

PT: I had worked with both Barry and the ACO separately in the past, and also had a close interest in Weimar musical culture myself as a researcher and performer.

LJN: What were the first song choices?

PT: Knowing that we wished to create a fully narrated concert, and not just a concert with occasional narration, we began by exploring works that exemplified four themes common to much Weimar art: Money, Love, Sex, and Death. We were also interested, of course, to involve works that had particular resonance for Barry himself. That was easy because he as an encyclopaedic knowledge of the repertoire. That led us to composers such as Ernst Schulhoff, Friedrich Hollaender, and Mischa Spoliansky.

LJN: Are Threepenny Opera and Mahagonny somewhere in the mix?

PT: We were also keen to draw the audience in by working from the familiar to the more unfamiliar, so of course we wanted to include works by Weill and Brecht that are well known today. This had the added bonus of playing to a particular strength of Barry’s co-performer in this show, Melissa Madden Gray – best known by her stage name ‘Meow Meow‘. Also hailing from Melbourne, Gray has a global reputation as a cabaret artist and is certainly one of the finest living exponents of Weill’s music.

LJN: I was interested to see the name of Ernst Krenek. What’s the story there?

PT: The music of Austrian-born composer Ernst Krenek (1900–1991), and specifically a 78 recording of excerpts from his so-called ‘Jazz Opera’, Jonny spielt auf (1926) holds particular significance for Barry because it was some of the first Weimar music he had heard as a child and which had got him ‘hooked’.

LJN: Was a lot of arrangement required to adapt the repertoire for chamber orchestra?

PT: Much of the music being performed was already conceived with chamber forces in mind – reflecting its origins in the cabaret halls, theatres, and radio studios of the day. Many of the songs, however, survived only as piano scores rather than as orchestrations, making arrangement a practical necessity.

LJN: Is it a concert, a revue? 

PT: It is hard to know how best to categorize the event; sure there is a script and there is even some set and costumes, but the music still holds centre-stage (and most of the stage time). A guided concert, perhaps? Whatever the case, one of the particular strengths of the format that has emerged is is that it feeds the mind as well as the ear, while always being entertaining to-boot.

LJN: What historic period is the music drawn from (earliest and latest compositions)?

PT: The music is drawn, as one might expect, almost entirely from the period of the Weimar Republic itself (1919–1933). We close the concert, however, with a work from 1948, Friedrich Hollaender’s song for Marlene Dietrich from Billy Wilder’s film A Foreign Affair, The Ruins of Berlin. We thought it was a good way both to directly acknowledge the catastrophe that followed the fall of the Republic but also express a message of hope too: ‘A brand new spring is to begin / Out of the ruins of Berlin!’.

LJN: What are your memories of the premiere (where?)

PT: I remember being quite moved when the first performance happened in Australia because much of the music was being performed and heard in Australia for the first time. I felt performers and audience alike were partaking in an act of restorative justice for those composers whose lives foreshortened by the rise of Nazism. We were also being reminded that we too had been impoverished by that calamity by having been denied an opportunity for so long to get to know this music better.

LJN: Presumably Barry Humphries ad libs and creases the audience up with laughter?

PT: Oh yes, Barry is nothing if not a creature of the stage! There are certainly many funny moments, and a good many of them are not scripted…

LJN: Critics… Did the Pfennig drop with any critics either at the Australian performances or at Cadogan Hall or in Edinburgh – i.e. is there a quote from a review that really “gets it” and what the show is about?

PT: Yes, I think Tim Ashley does. Putting it simply, “It’s a mesmerising, touching, deeply humane evening.” (FULL REVIEW HERE)

With thanks to John Harte and Yung-Yee Chen of Aurora Orchestra for their help in setting up this feature. Aurora Orchestra will be performing the Barbican shows, led by Satu Vänskä.

Video trailer for Barbican shows
Peter Tregear

Categories: Features/Interviews

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