Ivo van Hove
Ivo van Hove | Photo: Florian Braakman

‘The present day is reflected in this opera’

7 March 2023

Director Ivo van Hove on Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny

Text: Laura Roling

Ivo van Hove is an internationally acclaimed director of theatre and opera. In 2001, he became the director of Internationaal Theater Amsterdam (ITA), which he has elevated to great heights internationally. In November 2023, he will take up the position of intendant of the prestigious Ruhrtriennale. He previously directed Janácek’s The Makropoulos Affair, Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, Schreker’s Der Schatzgräber and Strauss’s Salome for Dutch National Opera.

Mahagonny was created by Brecht and Weill in 1930. What does this work have to say to us today, some ninety years later?
“The themes tackled by the opera are just as relevant today as they were then. Today, we would call the characters economic refugees. They are outcasts roaming the US, until one of them – Leokadja Begbick – takes control and decides to realise their dream and build a city that should make everyone happy. But things soon go wrong because they confuse prosperity with well-being – a fatal error.”

“While I don’t explicitly reference present-day topics in my staging, audiences have clearly made that link for themselves in recent performances. That’s what makes this work so powerful: our modern times are reflected in this opera.”

Mahagonny is a dystopian work that shows how a city destroys itself. Does that make it a pessimistic opera?
“I don’t think so. It is an opera full of violence and pleasures that go beyond the pale, but it also contains glimmers of hope. There is the tender budding love affair between Jim and Jenny, for example. Their relationship never gets a chance to develop, but it returns nevertheless several times in the opera with music that is incredibly human and moving. Those are moments that I feel suggest alternative outcomes to the scenario that ultimately plays out in Mahagonny. They are minor bright spots, but they are there.”


‘Brecht and Weill show us that civilization is a very thin veneer’

What dark sides to ourselves do we see in Mahagonny?
“In the third act of Mahagonny, the group starts to turn against Jim, who until recently had been held in high regard as their ringleader. What we see is herd behaviour. Bestial, violent instincts take hold, followed – too late – by a momentary bewilderment at what the group has done. I feel that is an important awareness that Brecht and Weill give us, that as humans we can rapidly degenerate into brutish, malicious behaviour. That civilization is a very thin veneer.”

What demands do Brecht and Weill make on a stage director? Does Mahagonny require a different approach to other operas?
“Brecht and Weill were always very clear that Mahagonny is a proper opera and the roles should be performed by real opera singers. They deliberately wanted to drop their ‘bomb’ in opera houses too. That’s why I’ve consistently treated the work as an opera, in which text and music are inextricably linked.”

You direct both plays and operas. Do these two disciplines influence one another?
“They feed off one another. When directing opera, I bring a certain attention for the characters and the nuances with me from my theatrical work. Similarly, my experience with opera affects my work in theatre, where music has increasingly played a meaningful and crucial role over the years.”