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Karyn Levitt is the the champion of a neglected but extraordinary German repertoire: the songs of Brecht and Eisler in English translation by legendary drama critic, playwright, cabaret singer, and world authority on Bertolt Brecht, Eric Bentley. She is writing a book, which is part memoire part handbook, posing a central question: how to get the message of a song across? The answer has to do with everything Levitt has learned from studying at the feet of the master and from her experience and explorations over the last eight years. Singers interested in successfully putting across songs in translation will benefit from her experience, training, scholarly approach, and insights.
As theatre legend Eric Bentley entered his 100th year in September 2015, Royal Road Productions produced a centennial tribute in his honor, which we also filmed and will soon release. Michael Riedel emceed the historic evening, which featured the participation of Tony Kushner, Austin Pendleton, Louise Kerz Hirschfeld, theatre historian and president of The Al Hirschfeld Foundation; Roger Copeland; Michael Paller; as well as James Shapiro, Edward Mendelson, and Phillip Lopate of Columbia University.
The participants offered readings from Eric Bentley's classic works and shared their thoughts about Bentley’s influence on them personally and on American theater, music, and culture. Eisler-Brecht songs were performed along the way in English versions by Eric Bentley by Karyn Levitt with pianist Eric Ostling and The Hanns Eisler Trio. Songs for Mother Courage with music by Darius Milhaud in its original, unpublished orchestration for 14 chamber instruments and words by Bertolt Brecht in English versions by Eric Bentley, received its world premiere by Karyn Levitt with the Metamorphosis Chamber Orchestra conducted by the late, great, four-time Emmy winner, Glen Roven, to whose honor the film is being dedicated.
Many of Hollywood’s greatest film scores were written by émigré and exiled composers who fled Nazi Europe for Southern California. Musical geniuses like Kurt Weill, Max Steiner, Erich Korngold, and Dimitri Tiomkin brought from their respective homelands the highest level of culture, which they poured into American film music. From dusty westerns and sweeping romances to the thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock, "On Hollywood and Weimar” celebrates the blending of the old world and the new to produce the uniquely hybrid sound of Hollywood's Golden Age, with songs performed by soprano Karyn Levitt and pianist Jed Distler.
Songs for Mother Courage features music by Darius Milhaud in its original, unpublished orchestration for 14 chamber instruments and words by Bertolt Brecht in English versions by Eric Bentley.
From her rich collaboration with world-renowned Brecht translator Eric Bentley, soprano-actress Karyn Levitt releases her first album of Brecht-Eisler songs in English translation. Austro-German composer Hanns Eisler created a vast and varied repertory of works, and this album presents a sample of his genius and versatility. Eric Bentley adapted the song texts (which are poems and theater ballads by Brecht) from their original German into English, unlocking Eisler’s starkly beautiful songs for English-speaking audiences. According to critic Irving Wardle, Ms. Levitt “negotiates a passage for these songs into the concert hall, and in place of the gritty style allows the songs to bloom...”
Soprano Karyn Levitt is an Oberlin-trained performer who has appeared at Carnegie Hall and other distinguished venues. Levitt initiated her collaboration with Bentley in 2011 when she wrote a letter to the Theatre Hall of Fame inductee requesting counsel on a pending Weill-Brecht show she was planning. Bentley replied days later suggesting that instead of Weill, Levitt explore the works of a lesser known Brecht composer, Hanns Eisler, obtain Bentley’s 1967 The Brecht-Eisler Song Book, and listen to his 1964 recording Songs of Hanns Eisler. He agreed to meet after Levitt had completed her initial research. Levitt took on the research assignment before meeting with Bentley who ultimately presented her with his unpublished English versions of Hanns Eisler's lieder. Within two weeks, Levitt had recorded a demo of the material for her new mentor, who responded “Bravo, Karyn! Now create a whole show!”
Under Bentley’s guidance, Levitt and pianist Eric Ostling created an evening of Eisler's songs that has earned rave reviews around the country with Irving Wardle of the London Times raving “Karyn Levitt is doing something which, to my ears, is new. My acquaintance with the Eisler songs is limited to (other) singers (who have) a harsh and urgent style, very much a product of the cruel and dangerous times in which the work first appeared. Ms. Levitt's approach, it seems to me, is to negotiate a passage for these songs into the concert hall. In place of the gritty style, she allows them to bloom and be beautiful."
The new CD, “Eric Bentley’s Brecht-Eisler Songbook,” is the culmination Levitt’s journey, under the mentoring of Eric Bentley, into the world and music of Hanns Eisler. “I regard it as a privilege that in our numerous coaching sessions over the years, Eric Bentley has given me his unpublished translations of Eisler songs with words by Goethe, Heine, Eichendorff, Leopardi, Anacreon, Karl Kraus, and even Shakespeare,” says Karyn Levitt. “Eisler’s stylistic range is dazzling. Few composers have used Schoenbergian techniques to such lyrical ends, and few would dispute that Eisler was as important a song composer as Schubert. Brecht and Eisler were one of the 20th century’s great musical partnerships.”
The set list for “Eric Bentley’s Brecht-Eisler Songbook features 21 tracks, half of which have never before been recorded.
We are grateful to Nokia Corporation for the $25,000 grant awarded to bootstrap concerts of Eric Bentley’s Brecht-Eisler Song Book at universities and cultural venues around the country.