Friday, August 28, 2009

Dirt Cheap Opera

Laurie and I were lucky to see a performance (actually two!) of Bread & Puppet's Dirt Cheap Opera this year in Vermont. This show originated in 1998 and a portion of that performance is preserved via Dee Dee Halleck's video "When" (2001).  From those brief excerpts the staging looks cluttered with many cast members, the pacing seems slow and the music not fully realized.  The show was revived in 2002 with the original cardboard puppets and paper cantastoria with a lean 4-person cast comprised of Clare Dolan, Maria Schumann, Jason Norris and Jig Gresser (review 1 (plus some small photos); review 2). Here's the 2002 poster:
We saw the 2009 revival with a 7-performer cast (Rose Friedman, Justin Lander, Lindsay McCaw, Sam Wilson, Maura Gahan, Jason Hicks, and Greg Corbino), still with the original cardboard puppets and ragged newsprint cantastoria. The show pushes Brecht's alienation effects to the wall, as not only is Polly Peachum played by (a) different players, but also (b) different gendered players, and (c) she's a puppet held in front of those actors, except (d) when the actor leans out from behind the puppet to sing or speak, and (e) lest the puppet ever become too real a character, Polly's cardboard arm falls off and (f) this puppet dismemberment is joked about in the show. Seemingly a mishap, we saw two performances and the arm fell off in each, revealing it as a deliberate choice. See also the 1-armed Polly in this photo from the 2009 Baltimore performance.

Evidently there were some rights issues during the January tour with this show, which seems extra ridiculous considering the fact that Brecht was a socialist!

I shot video. Interested collectors feel free to drop me email.  I'm happy to trade footage.

See Flickr photos by pavelkaphoto (Scranton, 41 pics), Comandante_Jose (Baltimore, 11 pics) and dietrich (NYC, 3 pics). 2009 poster:


  • 1998 cast info
  • more photos
  • more reviews
  • video (any year, any performance)


  1. Why should it be surprising that there are intellectual property rights associated with Bertold Brecht's works? The rights to his works would have been shared with his collaborators, in this case, Kurt Weill. He owned the rights when he was alive (and even when he resided in East Germany he received royalties from publication and production of his writings) indeed, this is how he would have made his living. The point is that between collaborators, translators, and heirs, there are quite a few people who have financial stakes in any production of Three Penny Opera (1928)-- and as wonderfully original a staging as Dirt Cheap Opera might be (I saw a production back in 2003 with a different cast, but this 2007 cast has capable performers) it is not sufficiently different from the Brecht/Weill collaboration to qualify as an independent work as Brecht/Weill are from John Gay's 1728 Beggar's Opera or Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's 2009 League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century: 1910 is from Three-Penny Opera, from which it drew considerable inspiration.

    These are basic rights that exist to protect creative workers from being exploited by anyone with a printing press or the deed to an auditorium.

    Schumann and Bread and Puppet are not above using cease and desist orders to protect their intellectual property either.

  2. Apologies for referring to a "2007 cast"; I meant the 2009 cast.

  3. Sam Wilson. (Unless you're with the FBI, which case Sam's last name is certainly not Wilson.)

  4. Ian, thanks for the pointer to LXG: Century 1910; I'll definitely look into that.

    As for Threepenny Opera and rights, the work was created 4 generations ago, and both Brecht and Weill have been dead and buried for over half a century. In my view, even the most generous argument for copyright should not extend beyond the deceased authors' offspring reaching the age of majority when they can work and support themselves. Threepenny in particular was shielded by copyright before Peter Schumann was born, and will likely still be shielded after he dies -- in my view that's plainly too long a span.

    Back to Dirt Cheap Opera, though -- do you have any surviving memories of the 2003 production? Are there any details from that performance which stand out for you?

    Morgão, thanks for identifying Sam! I've updated the blog entry with her surname.

  5. Die Dreigroschenoper premiered in 1928. That's 81 years ago, so it's not quite "four generations."

    Different countries have different rules for the length of time a copyright is enforceable, whether we like these rules or not, in the United States, rights to works published prior to 1978 are protected for 95 years. This means that the heirs to Brecht and Weill can collect royalties on any American production until 2023, where upon it becomes public domain. Now, this only covers Brecht's and Weill's authorship-- after 2023, one can do anything with the text or music in America so long as you do it in German! A translator's work is also copyrighted, so if I like Frank McGuinness' 1992 English translation, I have to pay royalties to him (or his heirs) up until 2087. To get around that, one needs to do ones own translation.

    It may be excessive, and it was mostly to allow large corporations to hold on to their most iconic intellectual property (Disney's ownership of Mickey Mouse, for instance,) the law also allowed for creators and their heirs to recover rights to creations that were unfairly acquired by these large corporations.

    But excessively long or not, that's an entirely different argument than citing Brecht's socialism. Socialists have always elected to choose with whom they share freely and from whom they demand payment.

    I probably wrote an account of seeing Dirt Cheap Opera (looking back on my records, I appear to be mistaken, it was in 2002, and the same performance reviewed by Will Stackman) but I probably lost it when my harddrive crashed in 2004. I certainly noted the same alienation effect caused by the characters not being consistently played by the same puppeteers that you did.