Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

News Release

Contact: David Booth/ Allison Franz, School of Theatre and Dance
(815) 753-1337

March 16, 2006

NIU presents satirical opera and Greek tragedy

DeKalb, IL – Some theatrical productions are simply not for the faint of heart, for either those on stage or their audiences. Two such productions are Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s operatic allegory of corruption and greed, Mahagonny Songspiel, and Steven Berkoff’s loose adaptation of Aeschylus’s tragedy, Agamemnon.

Embracing the kind of challenge each show represents, Northern Illinois University School of Theatre and Dance will magnify it by running these two productions on the same night on the same stage, and utilize mostly the same set of actors for both. Opening March 30 and ending April 9, the two shows run in tandem in the Stevens Building Players Theatre as the sixth presentation of their 2006 season production schedule.

Co-founder and resident director of the European Repertory Company in Chicago, Dale Goulding, guest directs both productions, one an intentionally self-indulgent and satiric anti-opera and the other a highly poetic display of war, lust, betrayal, and revenge; in short, a classic Greek tragedy, but with a modern twist.

Mahagonny Songspiel is a mini-opera, complete with a ten-piece live orchestra and musically directed by Harold Kafer, dean of NIU’s College of Visual and Performing Arts.

Its plot is simple. Mahagonny Songspiel, or “City of Nets Songplay” is a musical description of four drunken criminals, a prostitute, and her madame who journey from a mythical Alabama to the city of Mahagonny to find redemption. They find instead a paradise of sin, where every pleasure is on sale and the only crime is having no money. Yet, when God comes to visit this place of individual Utopia and orders everyone to hell, the inhabitants protest with the realization that their paradise has already become a collective hell. 

Mahagonny Songspiel’s "opera against opera" impression comes from the deliberate use of out-of-tune operatic voices. According to Kafer, the side-by-side tonal and non-tonal elements can make finding a vocal comfort level very difficult on the singers. “The Songspiel and the singer often finds his or her pitch not only unsupported but deliberately subjugated.”

However, the musical score includes what some critics have called the best song Weill ever wrote (O Moon of Alabama). 

Following Mahagonny Songspiel after a brief intermission, Agamemnon makes a distinctive political statement about the nature of violence, through Steven Berkoff’s emotionally hard-hitting and viciously direct text. Adapting Aeschylus’ first play in the “Oresteia” trilogy, Berkoff wrote his version of Agamemnon in 1972 during the height of Vietnam anti-war sentiment and consequently emphasized the immorality of war.

However, as in the original trilogy, his play is dominated by murder and revenge. Agamemnon, king of Argos, has gone off to the Trojan War to rescue Helen from Paris and brutally massacres the citizens of Troy. Zeus demands a sacrifice to atone for his actions. To satisfy the Gods, Agamemnon kills his daughter Iphegenia. The news of this sacrifice has driven Agamemnon's wife Clytemnestra into a vengeful rage, and with her lover Aegisthus, she plans to avenge her daughter's death when Agamemnon returns to Argos.

Mahagonny Songspiel and Agamemnon run March 30-31 and April 1-2, 5-9 at Northern Illinois University’s Stevens Building in the Players Theatre. The Stevens Building and its three theatres are located directly behind the McDonald’s and Pizza Hut restaurants on west Lincoln Highway. Weeknights and Saturday performances begin at 7:30 p.m. with Sunday performances starting at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $14.00 for adults, $8.00 for seniors and $7.00 for students. For tickets and additional information, call the Stevens Building Box Office at (815) 753-1600 or go online at