This co-production between English National Opera and the Gate Theatre, presented in the latter’s Notting Hill home, focuses on songs that were banned by the Nazis for supposedly being ‘degenerate’. All of those featured were composed between 1920 and 1939 and, with many being written specifically for the cabaret scene, represent the voice of the counter-culture of the time. However, the huge number of minority groups covered by them, and the sheer extent to which they reveal the horrors that were going on all around, remind us of just how widespread and shocking Nazi persecution really was.
In 1938 the Nazis held an exhibition in Düsseldorf displaying, through listening booths, examples of ‘Entartete Musik’. On seeing the thickness of the accompanying catalogue that derided each ‘exhibit’, and on hearing how in the 1930s Jews and then Blacks were forbidden from performing, and how jazz and then atonal music were banned, it becomes hard to comprehend the scale of the cultural, let alone human, oppression.
The songs are presented in a ninety-minute cabaret, directed by Ellen McDougall, by four performers whose backgrounds cover a variety of genres. Katie Bray is a mezzo-soprano who has performed for ENO, while Lucy McCormick is a regular creator and performer of innovative theatre. Both Le Gateau Chocolat (George Ikediashi) and Peter Brathwaite are trained opera singers, with the former having had several solo cabaret shows, and the latter having conceived Effigies of Wickedness! after taking an interest in songs that were banned by the Nazis. In the compact Gate Theatre, they interact with the audience, who are seated just inches from the stage, to generate a highly intimate atmosphere. The sense of immediacy is also aided by performing all but one of the songs in English, with the majority of lyrics being created by Seiriol Davies from literal translations by David Tushingham.
Sometimes the satire seems similar in style to that which we might find in songs today. For example, Misha Spoliansky’s ‘Life’s a Swindle’ (1931) sees rather well-to-do characters complain about how hard their lives are, and how corrupt the world is, when they are clearly the biggest liars and cheats around. It is a song that perhaps invites the audience to laugh at itself, and it even emphasises its even-handedness by saying it is equally against the left, middle and right. Similarly, when we watch Siegwart Ehrlich’s ‘Marie from the Haller Revue’ (1928), which turns the stereotypical Nazi image of a ‘good girl’ on its head as two of the four singers perform in drag, we could picture a song on a not dissimilar subject being written today with the sole aim of annoying Jacob Rees-Mogg.
That, however, is as tame as the show ever gets, because when the persecution was so widespread and sinister, it meant that acts of defiance usually had to constitute more than ‘jolly’ satire. For example, in Hanns Eisler and Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Paragraph 218 (Abortion is Illegal)’ of 1929 the manner in which the doctor treats the pregnant woman is shocking as a saccharine assertion that she will be a ‘lovely little mother’ gives way to an admission that the child will make great ‘cannon fodder’. In other words, the State does not care for its children’s lives but simply intends to increase its population to be ready for war.
Many of the songs are deeply layered, as in Friedrich Holländer’s ‘Münchhausen’ (1931) the soloist is labelled a liar for having the ‘temerity’ to picture how things could be. The surprise, indeed horror, comes from realising that these allegedly unachievable dreams are hardly ambitious at all. For example, one is to see an audience entertained in the cinema by something other than guns and war, which in itself says something about Germany’s wider culture of militarism that long preceded the Nazis. Another is not that a poor woman should be given riches beyond compare, but that she might be able to exercise a choice that would stop her from dying.
The songs featured are described on the Gate Theatre website as ‘all but lost since’, but numbers can be largely forgotten and yet still leave their residue. One can feel traces of Weill’s ‘Petroleum Song (Mussels in Margate)’ of 1928 in ‘Feed the Birds’ from Mary Poppins as both are about sellers. However, the latter feels comparatively anaemic, possessing none of the sinister undertones of the former, while the fact that Margate features in a German song reminds us of just how well known the resort was at the time.
It is also impossible not to think of ‘Two Ladies’ from Cabaret when listening to Spoliansky’s ‘Best Girlfriends’ (1928) in which Bray and McCormick’s insistence that they are merely the best of friends rather implies otherwise. Things become even more complicated when it transpires that a man (musical director Phil Cornwell, one of the evening’s four instrumental performers) is also involved, thus creating a love triangle and host of jealousies.
Bray and McCormick work well together, with their contrasting styles also coming to the fore across the evening as a whole. Bray’s operatic mezzo-soprano has the richness of sound to bring gravitas, and sometimes a sense of menace and severity, to her solos. McCormick has the interactive and improvisational skills to help make the evening come alive, and carries off Holländer’s hilarious, if not entirely happy, ‘Sex Appeal’ (1930) with aplomb. Meanwhile, Le Gateau Chocolat, with his powerful baritone and infinite presence, fills the room with joy and sadness in turn, while Peter Brathwaite brings heart, soul and sensitivity to his numbers as his sincerity and understanding are tangible.
The audience is guided through the evening by a series of introductions describing the songs. These are essential in order to hook us into the context within which they were written, but sometimes the gaps between numbers feel excessive. Too often the jokes and banter bring us back to 2018 and, important though it is to provide links with the present day, act as a brake on our ability to immerse ourselves in the scene. This said, the problem does not persist throughout the evening, and it is amazing how quickly each number sucks us in so that we can be laughing heartily at one before being stunned into silence by the horror of the next. Several receive no applause at all because, based on what has just been heard, it feels impossible to carry out any action that might even be construed as signifying joy. In at least one case it may also be because it is not easy to detect exactly when the song finishes, but this is precisely because it seems to evaporate into sorrowful silence.
This does not mean that there is no fun to be had, and the show’s strength lies in its variety as it even delivers a false ending to rival Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor. It is also interesting to listen to Schönberg’s ‘Dead’ (1933), and we have to laugh when we hear how the 1938 ‘Entartete Musik’ catalogue stated that after emigrating five years earlier the composer was soon forgotten. If it feels permissible to do so because the survival and influence of his work is a positive thing, one can only feel guilty about the fact that Eisler and Brecht’s ‘The Ballad of Marie Sanders’ (1939) presents such a beautiful piece of music. This is because it is awful to think that any pleasure at all is being derived from a song that owes its very existence to the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 that forbade sexual relations between Jews and ‘Aryans’, even if it is condemning rather than condoning them.
A show, however, that sees its audience ride the emotional colour wheel to such a large extent is one to be recommended, and it is all capped by Spoliansky’s ‘Lavender Song’ (1920), which both opens and closes the evening. At the start there is a degree of celebration in the defiant assertion ‘We are the bugs that grow a little different’, but by the end those exact same words feel rather more desperate as the music has received an alternative arrangement from Corin Buckeridge.