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The Weill Project blog: Lotte Lenya and the road to Threepenny Opera

(Blog post by Juliana Brandon)

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#kurtweill #lottelenya #léolania #bertoltbrecht #julianabrandon #weillproject #hyperinflation #threepennyopera #lenyabio

[Ed. note: Blog-time continues to stand still in Germany's and Berlin's Golden Twenties. In this post, Juliana picks up from her prior post on Lotte Lenya with Lenya's 1921 arrival in Berlin. When we left off in 1921, Lenya and her friend Grete Edelmann had worked up a dance routine that was, in Lenya's later words, "a corny mishmash of classic ballet, Dalcroze, Isadora Duncan…" and various other elements. Richard Révy's wife made them costumes, Lenya sold the jewels her Czech lover had given her to buy train tickets, and she and Grete set off from Zurich to seek their fortunes in Berlin. - JM]

Drawing of Lotte Lenya from 1931 by Emil Stumpp

Drawing of Lotte Lenya from 1931 by Emil Stumpp 🔗, 1931. (Public domain)

Drawing of Kurt Weill, undated, before 1933, by Max Dungert.  (Public domain.)

Drawing of Kurt Weill, undated, before 1933, by Max Dungert (Here's Dungert's German-language Wikipedia article 🔗).

Lenya's teacher, Richard Révy, was living in Berlin, so he helped her find a place to live once she and Grete arrived. This place was a room in a boarding house with one light bulb, weird tasting meatballs, and rent recalculated daily in order to keep up with the crazy hyperinflation 🔗 Germany was experiencing at the time.

Nothing happened with the dance routine Grete and Lotte had put together. They were constantly searching for agents to represent them, with no success. Meanwhile, Lenya got to know Berlin's varied and exciting theatrical and artistic life, often entreating Grete to come with her, but Grete had a one-track focus on dance. A few months after they moved to Berlin, Grete took a job as a choreographer in another town and the two friends parted ways. Lenya didn't seem too upset by this as it gave her more freedom to pursue her own interests without having to constantly search for an agent to represent the dance act she had with Grete.

Révy helped in other ways as well. During this time Lenya hadn't been working in the theater much at all, but he helped her get a role as Maria in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night directed by Otto Kirchner ([Ed. note: not a lot to be found on Kirchner in English but here's a German-language Wikipedia article 🔗 for those who read German. - JM]). This appears to have been the largest role Lenya had had at this point in her career. Though still a supporting character, she had plenty of lines that made great use of her innate sense of comedy. Also notable that she was paid 3 million marks just after opening night, and because of the aforementioned hyperinflation she was paid billions of marks just three weeks later in the run. Everyone was in a hurry to spend money as quickly as possible because of this inflation, a situation that seemed to fuel Berlin's desperate party atmosphere. Révy also contacted his friend, Georg Kaiser, the great playwright we have learned something about in earlier posts, and introduced him to Lenya.

Kaiser became a huge part of Lenya's life at this point. He invited her to vacation with him and his family at his lakeside home, and this invitation became extended to a weekly thing. Lenya got along great with Kaiser's kids, and was quickly hired as an au pair for them, practically her only source of income since the money from her Czech lover's jewels had run out. In the summer of 1924 Kaiser asked Lenya to meet a young composer he was working with at the train station and to row him across the lake to stay with them. This composer was Kurt Weill.

Kaiser told her how to recognize Weill by saying basically that he dressed like a composer: dark suit, broad brimmed hat, bow tie, and this is how Lenya found him. [Ed. note: Years later in an interview in the U.S. she quoted Kaiser as saying "They all look alike," and added that things were greatly simplified when only one person got off the train. - JM] The boat trip has apparently been a matter of considerable speculation. In some stories Weill proposed in the boat, but clearly that didn't happen. There's also the tale that somehow his glasses fell in the lake and Lenya dove in after them, which is also unlikely. It does sound though like there were some amorous physical activities aside from simple conversation on the commute, which honestly sounds rather challenging. [Ed. note: In any case, all accounts agree that Lenya, not Weill, rowed. - JM]

On that boat ride it became apparent that Lenya had met Weill before, but had never had the chance to actually see him. She had auditioned as a dancer for a production of his musical pantomime Zaubernacht where he sat in the pit playing piano. He asked in a soft shy voice what she wanted him to play, a crazy indication that by the time he was 22 he could play just about anything from memory, and she said, "Can you play Blue Danube?" Weill said "I think so?" and accompanied her in one of her old favorite dance routines. Lenya was cast in the play. Révy had applied to be the director, but he was not chosen, so in solidarity Lenya refused the role.

Weill and Lenya appeared to be perfect complements for one another. He was serious, intellectual, introverted, and thoughtful. She was spontaneous, intelligent without formal training, extroverted, playful, and sensuous. Lenya brought him out of his shell and out onto the town much more than he would do on his own. In the beginning Weill pursued her passionately with intensely poetic and dramatic love letters signed with a different name every time (including Dany, Sam, Frog, Jesus, Weilili). Weill's expressions of love are truly swoon worthy, "…one lifetime is not enough for two human beings to explore the cosmos that lies between them." Lenya kept all of his letters, none from her to him survived until 1932.

It wasn't long until Lenya was practically living with Weill at his Berlin apartment, heading over several times a week to go to the theater together and spend the night. This whole "living in sin" thing was a bit much for Weill's parents, but he defended the situation to them saying he needed the support as he felt he was in the midst of a creative breakthrough. [Ed. note: as discussed in a blog post from about four months ago, Weill's father was a politically progressive Orthodox Jewish cantor, his mother was an intellectual, and the family proudly traced its ancestry in Germany back to 1360. And they presumably had no idea that when their son Kurt arrived at Kaiser's lakeside home, he had quite likely just had a dalliance with his (married) cousin Nelly Frank. - JM]

Weill and Lenya did decide to marry anyway. Lenya said later that it was mostly because of pressure from the neighbors. The big event happened on January 28, 1926 in a civil ceremony at the City Hall of Charlottenburg in Berlin. The witnesses were just a couple dancers Lenya had met while out on the town.

Weill and Lenya moved into Kaiser's Berlin apartment on the Luisenplatz since Kaiser much preferred to stay on the lake. It was a rather somberly decorated place full of bulky black furniture that they both nicknamed "Grieneisen" after a local funeral parlor. Lenya had had no acting jobs since she met Weill, but at the end of 1926 she took on an understudy role for the lead in Romeo and Juliet. Weill would drop her off, leave a bottle of wine for her to share with the cast, and then pick her up. Though there were many evenings when she didn't want him to do so.

Léo Lania, ink drawing by Joe Mabel. (All rights reserved.) Joe remarks, "Does that look a bit like Weill? Why, yes, Lania did look a bit like Weill, but definitely the more handsome of the two."

After marriage Weill became more detached, always lost in his work, and with his blessing Lenya sought out sexual relationships elsewhere. In other words they had an open marriage. Weill too had his love affairs, though they tended to be fewer and further between than Lenya's, but he was also more emotionally invested in them than she. The open marriage solution seemed to hinge on the fact that Weill wanted more time to work than Lenya liked, but she also certainly understood. She was also ferociously independent and wanted to maintain her freedom to travel and work as she pleased. Lenya and Weill decided early on that they weren't going to have children, and as a result of the two abortions Lenya had in Zurich she couldn't have children anyway. Weill's niece Hanne Weill Holesovsky said about Lenya, "She wasn't the motherly type. If they'd had a child it would have been a disaster for the poor kid."

Lenya had several steady ongoing affairs. One was with Léo Lania 🔗, a writer who contributed to the screenplay of the 1931 movie of Threepenny Opera and wrote the play Konjunktur which featured the song "Die Muschel von Margate" written by Kurt Weill and Felix Gasbarra [Ed. note: a weirdly expressionist Euro-rumba, which we will be performing - JM]; and one was Rudolf Leonhard 🔗, a founder of a proletarian theater 🔗who also happened to be Lenya and Weill's neighbor. But she never wrote down any memoirs about these affairs, all we know is what she had passed on to her friends later, which is not much. However, this does seem to provide some evidence that Lenya would use her lovers to help her husband's career when possible.

Early in 1927 Weill met Bertolt Brecht and they began their long collaboration with Mahagonny Songspiel. This piece would later be fleshed out into a full opera, but at the time it was a series of songs with spoken text in between. This is what "Alabama Song" was written for [Ed. note: another song we'll be performing; some of you may know it from The Doors' or David Bowie's cover versions - JM], and when one of the formally trained opera singers dropped out of the production Weill felt that Lenya would be the perfect choice to sing this in the role of Jessie. You can listen to a recording of Lenya singing it as something of a duet with chorus in 1930 here. 🔗 Weill loved the untrained aspect of Lenya's musicianship. When she told him she was considering learning how to read music Weill said, "God forbid, no! I'm so happy to have married a girl who can't!" In fact, in a letter to his brother a few years earlier Weill was specific in what he wanted in a wife, and one of those traits was that she should not be a musician!

Lenya still needed to audition for Brecht to nail down the part in Mahagonny. Lenya's description of Brecht and of his collaboration with her husband is worth noting: "Brecht looked very thin, like a herring with very sensitive hands. He was already in his uniform, with that cap and that Russian blouse and leather jacket. It was a real collaboration. They were very good together, always changing things for one another. Brecht was not jealous, either—he was much too conceited for that." This narcissism of Brecht's would make it difficult for Lenya to make money off of the royalties from Weill's work after his death, for Brecht insisted that he get 62.2% of the royalties from Threepenny while Weill got 25%. [Ed. note: Communists make scary businessmen. - JM] But Brecht helped Lenya's acting style to change and evolve once he cast her in Mahagonny as Jessie. She had to forget all the hard training she had done in formal acting techniques and simply be herself on stage.

Luckily she had the kind of natural charisma that made her extremely compelling on stage. She received rave reviews for her performance as Jessie, and made herself extremely memorable in the part partially because she was the only untrained singer in the production, and because of the placard she was holding at the end. Everyone in the cast had a political slogan written on theirs, but Lenya's simply said, "For Weill."

Lenya as Jenny in the 1931 film of "Threepenny Opera"

Lotte Lenya as Jenny in G.W. Pabst's 🔗 1931 film of Threepenny Opera. (U.S. copyright status unclear until 2026, used on a fair use basis.)

Her next role would be even more memorable, that of Jenny in Threepenny Opera. Joe has written the story of how that came to the stage here. Originally Lenya was supposed to have two musical numbers, but one was cut ("Solomon Song", which you can hear Lenya sing here 🔗) so that during the first run she sang only "The Tango Ballad" [Ed. note: a.k.a. "The Pimp's Ballad, one of the songs whose lyrics were lifted from K.L. Ammer's German translation of 15th-century French poet François Villon - JM]. In the midst of the many disasters during rehearsal, Lenya's name was accidentally left off the program, causing Weill to scream backstage and fly into a rage in what was apparently a most uncharacteristic manner. The omission was corrected for the second performance and onward, but many reviewers who were there opening night were left wondering what the name was of the incredibly compelling woman who played the part of Jenny. Lenya's performance was part of what made Threepenny the success that it was. Over the years she would take on the role of Lucy as well when returning to the cast between other acting jobs. Selections of Threepenny were recorded and released throughout Germany, catapulting Lenya to fame. When Threepenny was turned into a movie in 1931 Lenya played the role of Jenny, but also sang the song "Pirate Jenny" which had originally been written for the role of Polly to sing. You can see this clip on YouTube. 🔗 The detachment of her delivery and her very limited movement make the song particularly arresting. Here Lenya is still a soprano, and she seems almost innocent singing this piece, creating a wonderful contradiction. The way she sings "Alle" (German for "everyone") after the line "who should we kill?" is practically chipper, which only enhances the darkness of the song. Here's a compilation of Lotte Lenya singing four selections from Threepenny in 1930 🔗 [Ed. note: and a much older Lenya revisiting the song in 1966, singing Marc Blitzstein's English-language translation - JM].

The success of Threepenny Opera meant that Lenya was in demand on every stage in Berlin while Weill became a renowned composer throughout Europe. [Ed. note: In the year after Threepenny Opera, Lenya appeared on stage in major roles such as Ismene in Sophocles' Oedipus and Ilse in Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening, as well as Alma in Brecht's production of Marieluise Fleißer's 🔗 Pioniere in Ingolstadt. - JM] This combined success meant that Weill and Lenya could finally move into an apartment of their very own, on the Bayernallee in Berlin's Charlottenburg district, and most likely decorated in a less severe style than Kaiser's "Funeral Parlor." Right when Lenya and Weill's careers were really starting to take off, the Golden Twenties were about to give way to the Great Depression and the Nazi rise to power. Clearly there's more drama ahead, stay tuned for the next installment… [Ed. note: I promise you just a bit more Golden Twenties before darkness begins to fall. - JM]

[This blog post borrows from the books Lenya: A Life by Donald Spoto and Speak Low: the letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, edited by Lys Symonette and Kim H. Kowalke.]

Next blog post: Not exactly a manifesto

Next Lenya biography blog post: Lotte Lenya from Threepenny Opera to America

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Original date: 16 August 2021
Last modified: 16 August 2021

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