Robert Ursan could’ve spent his summer relaxing at a cabin or chilling by a pool but instead chose a rather unique task — he translated The Threepenny Opera from the original German.
There was a method to Ursan’s madness as his work resulted in the script and music for 3Penny Opera, the latest production for the Do It With Class Young People’s Theatre. When the group decided to add the musical to its lineup for the 2015-16 season, Ursan wanted to give it an original feel and that’s why he went back to the original script.
Ursan, the artistic director of DIWC, said the translation wasn’t as difficult as some people might think.
“My German was good enough to understand about half of the original script and then I used a translation service so I could get a literal translation of each sentence which I then put into colloquial sentences,” said Ursan, who is also directing the production. “The lyrics were actually easier to understand than the dialogue in the script but having written a few musicals, it came in very handy — I knew if I had eight notes to fill and it had to rhyme on the fourth and eighth note, and that’s what the German text did, you just follow the patterns until it makes sense.”
It sounds like Ursan applied a mathematical formula when writing the lyrics.
“In a way it is. You end up having to follow an awful lot of rules to make it work properly,” said Ursan.
Originally adapted from The Beggar’s Opera, written by John Gay in 1728, The Threepenny Opera was written by Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht in 1928. Since its debut at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in Berlin, the production has been translated into 18 languages and performed more than 10,000 times worldwide.
Staying true to the original production was Ursan’s main motivation for translating the script and lyrics.
“Threepenny Opera is considered one of the greatest works of theatrical art from the 20th century. It’s been translated many times before but as I was going through the material, I found that there were a number of translations that were dedicated to making sure that it was an absolute translation of what had been said. But sometimes that really doesn’t play in 2015. So after reading five or six translations, I started to do fixes here and there and the fixes turned into sitting down and doing the whole thing.”
So, was all the work worth it?
“Very much so, very much so,” said Ursan. “The kids are having a great time. I lived in Scotland for a couple of years and I’ve always been a big fan of British television so because the thing takes place in London, I’ve been trying to use as many modern colloquial British phrases and sayings in the translation. It’s been fun to do.”
The production focuses on Macheath, a criminal in Victorian London. It follows him into the corrupt society and opens a debate to whether or not a person needs to be a criminal to survive.
Performed by DIWC’s senior students, the musical delivers a mature story.
“I don’t think anyone under the age of 14 would get too much out of the political satire or social commentary but also the original story was written in the 1700s and is the exact same story that was translated into German by Brecht and it’s the same one we’re using now — it’s all about survival and how the lower classes do whatever they must to survive,” explained Ursan. “The idea of social justice is almost completely fictitious, according to this story you have to learn how to play the system in order to survive.”
Macheath is introduced in the opening number of Mack The Knife, and yes, it’s the same song that Bobby Darin turned into a pop hit in 1959. While Darin’s version is rather lighthearted, Ursan pointed out that the song is really an indepth look at Macheath.
“Everybody knows the song Mack The Knife, Bobby Darin’s jazzy little ditty, yet nobody knows what he’s talking about. He’s talking about somebody who is a murderer and a thief and a pimp,” said Ursan. “The very last verse of the Bobby Darin version, he recites all the names of all of the women in the show but what he’s really doing is reciting a list of all the women Macheath is sleeping with, two of whom he’s married to, and those that have been his prostitutes. It’s not exactly a seemly group of human beings.”
The production opens with two shows on Nov. 19 followed by single shows on Nov. 20 and 21.
Tickets for the show are $20 for adults, $15 for youths (two to 18) and $15 for seniors (65 and older). Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 306-530-9862.
• 12:30 p.m. & 7:30 p.m., Nov. 19
• 7:30 p.m., Nov. 20 & 21
• Darke Hall