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The London theatre bringing back the songs the Nazis tried to ban

By Alice Saville

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Berlin’s underground cabaret clubs were famous for their sexy, openly queer, politically subversive songs – a product of the Weimar Republic regime, that had abolished censorship. Unsurprisingly, the Nazis cracked down on this so-called Weimar Cabaret scene. In 1938, a theatre director-turned-Nazi official staged an exhibition called ‘Degenerate Music’ documenting the songs that he called un-German ‘effigies of wickedness’ – they were duly banned. Now the English National Opera (ENO) is working with the tiny Gate Theatre to bring them back. ‘Effigies of Wickedness’ unites Covent Garden opera singers and Dalston queer cabaret stars. Here’s the team behind the show on why it’s exactly what London needs now.


Peter Brathwaite, the opera singer who came up with the concept
‘Seeing the image on the posters for the exhibition of ‘Degenerate Music’ was a huge shock. It was a monkey wearing a Star of David and playing a saxophone, in this really horrible caricature of a black musician. As a black performer I wanted to respond, especially as people who look like me in the classical music field are few and far between. Resurrecting banned songs from the era was the perfect way to do that. There’s an annoying preconception of opera that it’s elitist, but the fact that the ENO is helping bring projects like this to smaller spaces is really crucial to the future of opera.’


Ellen McDougall, artistic director of the Gate Theatre
‘Until Peter told me he was doing a recital of so-called “degenerate music” I never knew that the Nazis banned songs. I was so astonished by the songs’ themes, from abortion to gender equality to the fact that capitalism is going to destroy the world. These songs are about marginalised and disenfranchised people, about outsiders. I wanted the people performing them to echo where the music came from, which meant bringing together opera and queer cabaret performers. And a small space like the Gate works so well. These songs were written for underground nightclubs so they’re absolutely about being in that small hot sweaty room.’


Seiriol Davies, lyricist
‘My love of these songs comes from the musical “Cabaret”, but it wasn’t until I sunk myself into these lyrics that I realised how they related to my proclivities. They’re glittery and fun, full of wordplay and ridiculously clever rhymes. My first version of the lyrics tried to update them. I turned a song called “Sex Appeal” into a song called “Fuckable”, but it felt like we were going, “Look how shocking we can be!”. They’re nearly 100 years old, but they still feel eerily relevant. The song “Rag” has the line “Europe is finished”, which is pretty horrible to read now.’


Le Gateau Chocolat, cabaret performer
‘Performing at nights like La Clique and Le Soiree, these songs have kind of always been present. They were written at the birth of what the Nazis saw as hedonistic and degenerate cultures, in opposition to the rise of the far right. It’s people embracing their full queerness, celebrating life outside the norm. It’s also emblematic of where we are now. There’s been an inexplicable and despicable lurch to the right. Brexit happened here because of the weaponisation of xenophobia. In this political climate there’s a need to make sure these voices from Weimar are being heard, because somehow history is repeating itself yet again.’

‘Effigies of Wickedness’ is at the Gate Theatre. Until Jun 9

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