The Weimer Republic in Broken Hill
Wednesday, 9th June, 2021
By Dan Schulz
German Kabarett music of the Weimer Republic was on show at the Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery on Friday night, performed by the highly accomplished Australian tenor, Brad Cooper and his pianist, one of Australia’s leading musicians and musical directors, Bev Kennedy.
Brad Cooper’s newest show, Berlin Electric was performed to an audience of seventy in the Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery’s atrium space and was developed in collaboration with Bev Kennedy during the 2020 COVID lockdown, when many performers were out of work. It is a careful selection of twelve German songs from the period of 1920-1940, and is a provocative narrative that voices the experiences of German citizens between the two world wars.
The show opened with songs that celebrate Germany’s newly found and unbridled freedom as a nation unshackled from the tyranny of monarchy and embracing a republican future. Included in the program is one of the world’s earliest known LGBT+ Anthems, The Lavender Song (1920), dedicated to the Weimer era gay rights advocate Magnus Hirschfeld, following his groundbreaking ‘First International Conference for Sexual Reform’, which called for regulations on sexual behaviour to be based on scientific research instead of religion and other cultural traditions.
The program was book-ended with anti-war songs created to protest the rise of the Nazi party and the immense loss of life and humanity at the hands of the fascist war machine.
The program was also sprinkled with more straightforward comedic numbers to lighten the emotional load of the repertoire, including an oddly familiar narrative about a marriage driven into disunion by the newfangled telephonic device introduced in Germany after WW1:
Go to your ‘ting-a-ling’ - here’s your engagement ring back - I won’t stay ‘falsely connected’! You’ve already given up love, soul, sport and Jazz, so what do you need with a wife? Even while kissing you’re still doing Business! Get engaged to your telephone, you Business Napoleon! Adieu, we’re finished!
Brad Cooper studied at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, the National Opera Studio in London and the Music Academy of the West in California and has performed roles in major Australian and International operas. He also works with young people, having shared his love of opera with thousands of students across the country.
During the week, Brad conducted workshops on The Magic Flute at the Galler, bringing the fantastical world of Opera to 125 students from the Sacred Heart Parish Primary School, Willyama High School and Broken Hill Public School.
Brad has been visiting family and friends in Broken Hill for over ten years and uses the occasion to showcase his extraordinary talent with the Broken Hill public, having performed multiple times at the Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery and conducting an annual hit, Arias in the Outback at the Silverton Hotel. For Brad, his newest program, Berlin Electric, is a whimsical journey into ‘Cabaret Crossover’, a genre that blends popular music with the operatic style.
Brad first discovered German Kabarett when he went to Berlin as a 25-year-old in 2003.
“I started going to the Kabarett clubs and it never occurred to me to sing any of that repertoire because I was being a very serious opera singer,” he said.
He was attracted to the music of the interwar period because of the intense social extremes being experienced by the German citizens captured in the songs of the era.
“One of the things I found fascinating when going to Berlin was the Schwules Museum, the gay museum in Berlin. They have a big exhibit of gay rights in the city stretching right back to the 19th century which is when some of the formative work happened [such as the aforementioned work of Magnus Hirschfeld]. Because of the freedoms in the aftermath of World War One, with everyone going a little bit crazy because of the huge disappointment they’d had of losing the war, it became this new era of freedom.
“The groundwork had been done for gay rights at that time, and not just gay rights but trans rights as well, where you could live as either woman or man or whatever you wanted to do. I think it’s fascinating to realise that that’s some of the stuff that was going on.”
The failed narratives of the former monarchy’s imperialist agenda impassioned Germans with a cynical disregard for old principles, and the Berlin nightlife in the 1920s and 30s became a fulcrum for artistic expression and hedonism. German Kabarett was born, a genre that employs political satire, cynicism, humour, and irony in songs, poetry and literature.
The liberation of creative expression, however, was short-lived as the Nationalist Socialist Party came to power in the 1930s. The horrors of fascism would be experienced by some of Germany’s most vulnerable citizens, including the LGBT+ community. Thousands of gay men and women were imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps, while others were forced to hide their sexuality and queer identity. The freedoms they had enjoyed in the interwar period quickly vanished.
Developing the Berlin Electric program has caused Brad to reflect on his own experiences as a gay man, “In my early teens when I came out, you think you’re discovering it for the first time. You think that the struggle you’re currently involved in is ‘the’ struggle, the new struggle. But one of the things I’ve learned from going to Berlin and finding out about that interwar period is that this stuff was going on a lot earlier than that.”
Excavating the historical legacy of these powerful social movements both comforts and challenges us to embrace the reality of Australia’s own queer traditions, which have largely been scrubbed from the history books.
Brad is exalted to see Broken Hill accept its gay history, “Since first coming out to Broken Hill 15 years ago, it seems to have embraced its connection to gay history, especially in the last decade. It’s nice to see that kind of change and I like to think there are some gay and lesbian and trans people that don’t feel the need to leave town.
“Isn’t this what we’ve always fought for, that a young person doesn’t need to leave all their friends behind and make new friends just because they’re gay?”
Berlin Electric at the Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery was thoroughly entertaining, funny, and at times a heartbreaking educational experience delivered by the exquisite talents of two of Australia’s most gifted musicians. It provided a window into a not too distant world of political and social unrest that causes us to reflect on contemporary struggles and reminds us of those brave men, women and non-binary people who have combated some of the darkest periods of history with humour, humanity and joy.
Brad is soon to leave for Austria for the Robert Stolz Projekt, collaborating with friends in Australia and Europe in celebration of the music of Robert Stolz. Until his next visit we say, adieu! And goodluck.