Sin, Envy, Texture: Bringing Kurt Weill’s Music to Life with Lauriane Nabet
Hi! And in case you’re new, welcome! Hopefully, summer is treating you well.
I’m currently home in Nebraska, spending time with the fam and enjoying the luxury that is central A/C (oh the joys of budget apartment living in Brooklyn), and I cannot even begin to tell you how excited I am about this. If you had told 16 year old Melanie that there would come a point where she would be excited to be in Nebraska, she would have laughed. But time - and experience - changes people. In the midst of the chaos and hustle of New York, I often find myself longing for the quiet respite of my parents house, their garden that’s slowly enveloped their lawn over time, and lazy dinners on the patio, often accompanied by sangria, puzzles, and smartass humor. So yes, I am currently at my parent’s house, where the most exciting things this week have been visits from the neighbor’s kitty and a rollicking rerun of Antiques Roadshow. And I am LOVING it.
As I’ve mentioned in past blogs, the first part of 2023 has been characterized by new projects and choreographing arias, so I wanted to do a deep dive into a piece that pushed me way out of my comfort zone in beautiful ways: “Neid,” from Die sieben Todsünden, by Kurt Weill.
Photo of the stamp issued by the Deutsche Post AG in 2000 to commemorate the 100th Birthday of Kurt Weill (featuring a headless cameo with kickass heels)
“Neid” (German for envy) is a song from Die Sieben Todsünden (The Seven Deadly Sins) by the German composer Kurt Weill, with lyrics by the German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht. Die Sieben Todsünden chronicles the adventures of two sisters on a cross country trip through the lens of the seven deadly sins. It’s technically called a Ballet Chante, or a “sung ballet”: both sisters are named Anna, and traditionally Anna I sings all the Anna music, while Anna II is a dancer. Throughout the piece, their family members also appear to offer singing commentary on their adventures. Like many Weill/Brecht collaborations, it’s a social commentary on society at large, tackling tough topics such as sin, shame, a woman’s choices with their body, and complicated family ties.
Traditionally, Anna I and Anna II are split into two roles: Anna I is the sung role, and Anna II is a danced role. Here’s the catch though: early on in The Seven Deadly Sins, it’s revealed that the Annas are actually two facets of the same person: two sides of the same personality, two forces within the same mind. They fight, they work together, they sabotage each other. Sometimes, Anna appeals to her better angels, and sometimes she gives in to her worst impulses.
Link to a video promo for UK based Opera North’s production of Die Sieben
Todsünden. This is a fabulous production starring mezzo soprano Wallis Giunta as
Anna I and dancer/choreographer Shelley Ava Haden as Anna II.
I first stumbled upon Die Sieben Todsünden in grad school, and was immediately taken by this dichotomy between the two Annas: they were separate yet connected, different but the same. The idea of combining Singing Anna and Dancing Anna into one body quickly came to mind, but I tabled the idea at the time. I was in the middle of grad school, and admittedly, still attempting to fit into the traditional opera soprano box. I’m pretty stubborn, and I had it squarely in my head that once I was “successful” enough, THEN I could do fun cool projects like singing and dancing at the same time.
Ultimately I abandoned that path, and eventually, came back to the projects I’d always wanted to do. I mean, a role about a woman who’s literally half singer, half dancer, straddling different worlds and trying to make sense of it all? Come on, how could I NOT tackle it?!
For this one, I also suspected (correctly) that in order to really push myself artistically and technically, I would need more than just the help of Stephanie (my teacher) and Riley (my main opera coach and occasional therapist). I needed a choreographer who could help me see this music from a completely different point of view, someone who would challenge me with a completely different movement vocabulary, and really get me far away from my comfort zone. For this, I needed Lauriane.
Lauriane rocking a sassy arabesque
Lauriane Nabet is a fabulous French dancer and choreographer who moved to New York to train at the Martha Graham School and has been working as a professional dancer and choreographer in New York ever since.
Lauriane and I first met at an event for Reaction Dance Company; she’s a company member, and I was a guest artist for the opening of their new studio space. Then our paths kept crossing, and we both wanted to keep working together. So, we meet up as much as our crazy schedules allow; I help Lauriane with singing, and she helps me make my choreographic ideas waaay better. Lauriane has completely transformed how I approach the choreographic process; she’s become both a friend and mentor, and she’s just an incredible person and artist!
At this point, you may be thinking, that’s cool but: what does the process for collaboratively choreographing an aria actually look like?
To begin, it involved Lauriane and I dissecting the aria in phrases. We’d take a short phrase, I’d translate the German, and then we’d toggle back and forth between recordings of the piece and stopping to try different choreographic ideas based on both the text and the music. This is where it became very obvious that I was still new to choreographing and Lauriane was a more seasoned pro; often, I would have one idea for a phrase or have different ideas I had been playing around with to bring to the table, but Lauriane would automatically flesh out those ideas and make them more specific within minutes. Roughly an hour into that process, we would have solidified roughly a page of choreography (two if we were really flowing), and I would be a sweaty mess.
Actual footage of me during these rehearsals
When Lauriane and I work together, the word that often comes to mind is “texture.” One of Lauriane’s favorite ways to flesh out an idea is to take a phrase and add small, specific movements and intention behind every moment. Instead of going bigger and just adding more stuff to add more stuff, she takes one movement and creates layers of nuanced movement within a phrase. It’s a really sophisticated way to work; it’s like coaching an aria, but instead of focusing solely on your voice, you are literally bringing a score to life with your entire body.
For example: about halfway through Neid, Anna I collapses on the ground in exhaustion, sings a short phrase about how far gone Anna II seems, before launching into the 2nd half of the aria. My initial idea was to stay collapsed on the ground for that short phrase with minimal to no movement. Lauriane took that idea and had me slowly drag my fingers across the floor, slowly turning my hand as I traced the floor. And when I say slowly, I mean REALLY slowly- as though it was almost torturous for Anna I to make the movement happen. Of all the things I do in Neid, this part was one of the most difficult; moving slowly is hard! But it added much needed depth to a seemingly simple phrase. Had I not had Lauriane’s expertise, I may have easily let that detail go to the wayside. So when you watch the video, watch for the hand trace after the big dramatic collapse :).
As someone who connects to music through movement, having a collaborator in Lauriane has made me rethink how I even approach a basic musical phrase in terms of texture….which, funny enough, is essentially what every opera coach I’ve ever worked with has been trying to get me to do since the beginning of time. More specificity, more layers, more nuance. The more I explore opera through a movement lens, combining the two just makes sense.
The moment you realize opera and dance can actually work together as one
Anywho, I wanted to share where this project is in its current state. I’m excited to continue to collaborate with Lauriane, to see how this piece evolves.
Finally, a BIG thank you to pianist & coach Matthew Lobaugh for his time, talent, and coaching! It's a massive bonus to get to work with a terrific pianist & coach for one of these projects - it elevates things to a whole new level.
A related note: if the backstory about Die Sieben Todsünden and Kurt Weill peaked your interest, you can find even more history and background via the online archives of the Kurt Weill Foundation. And, you can even contact them to visit their library and archives in person in New York! If the thought of a whole library of scores makes you happy, I highly encourage you to check them out. :)