by Marilyn Lester
Every so often a perfect storm of artistic brilliance – if not to say, genius – presents itself to the world. In this instance, the perfect storm is the collaboration of Hanns Eisler and Bertolt Brecht with Eric Bentley and lyric soprano, Karyn Levitt.
The convergence of this mega-talent will be celebrated on December 7th at The Town Hall in a multi-faceted program entitled “Happy Birthday, Eric Bentley! A Centennial Tribute Concert,” honoring the Theatre Hall of Fame inductee, critic, poet, playwright, singer, actor, musician and translator – who turned 99 on September 14th. Levitt will sing selections from her upcoming CD, “Eric Bentley’s Brecht-Eisler Songbook,” as well as “Songs For Mother Courage” by Darius Milhaud and Eric Bentley, joining the likes of Tony Kushner, Austin Pendleton, Bill Coco and host, Michael Riedel in celebration.
Levitt began working with Bentley in 2011 when he was a mere lad of 95. “I took a chance and contacted him cold because of my love of Kurt Weill and desire to perform a one-woman show with this material,” the singer says. An instant meeting of the minds took place; the discussion progressed from Weill to composer Hanns Eisler (who died in 1962), who worked with Brecht when Brecht’s partnership with Weill ended. Bentley eventually presented Levitt with his unpublished English versions of Hanns Eisler’s lieder. Levitt was excited and galvanized to forge ahead. “First I had to evaluate the repertoire and determine if it suited me,” she says. “I’m classically trained but I’m also a crossover artist,” she explains. “I soon realized the work was perfect for me and I was enthusiastic to work with it.” What Levitt also discovered was a composer with many different sides. “Eisler brings lots of layers and dimension – he’s a modernist Schubert.”
Levitt and Bentley began an intense mentoring and working relationship. “Eric is very definite about what he wants. He’s very sweet and at the same time tough. The one word I’d use to describe him is tenacious – but so am I!” At the beginning of their collaboration, Bentley challenged Levitt to learn 26 songs in five weeks and then perform them in public. This she did. By the end of the allotted time, and under Bentley’s guidance, Levitt and pianist Eric Ostling created an evening of Eisler’s songs.
Hanns Eisler still remains mostly unfamiliar to popular audiences. He was discovered by Bentley when he’d begun to translate and write about Brecht’s work during the second World War. Bentley’s research into Eisler uncovered ten volumes of songs published under the auspices of the East German government. To avoid censorship, Eisler had cleverly contrived to mix two genres in his volumes: militant political marching songs, and “hidden” modernist songs which Bentley sang through in toto before making his own English language versions. “Eric is, an incredibly gifted musician,” says Levitt. “You may not know, but he was studying originally to be a concert pianist.“ Levitt also reveals that when Bentley began working with the Brecht- Eisler material he accomplished a tremendous feat.“ He translated the German text in a way that made it seem as if it had been written in English all along,” she reports. “His work is transparent and completely seamless: it’s a perfect retrofit.”
“Much of the Eisler work was out of the box for me,” says Levitt. “I’m a cross-over artist but I always tend to seek out the romantic, sentimental repertoire. Eisler’s work is anything but that. So Eric not only passed on his knowledge of Eisler’s work to me, but trained me to interpret it correctly. It was a struggle at first, but absolutely worth ever minute of it. Eric has been incredibly generous to lavish his teaching on me.”
Perfect storms most always have profound impact. In this case, the meeting of Eisler-Brecht with Bentley-Levitt produced a life altering event for the singer. “When I met Eric Bentley everything changed,” she says. “I’ve learned so much. I owe him the world.” Clearly, the world owes much to Eric Bentley, and along with Karyn Levitt we wish him a grand and glorious Happy Birthday celebration.
“Happy Birthday, Eric Bentley! A Centennial Tribute Concert” will take place on December 7, 2015 at 8:00 PM at The Town Hall, 123 West 43rd Street. www.thetownhall.org