Brecht and Weill: The flight fantastic

Brecht and Weill's hymn to Charles Lindbergh's heroic 1927 transatlantic crossing has endured a turbulent history. As it arrives in Edinburgh, Lynne Walker tells its story
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How do you make a radio cantata about one man's non-stop, 3,600-mile, 33-hour journey take flight as an opera? It was a challenge that the Canadian director and screenwriter François Girard couldn't resist when the enterprising Lyon Opera invited him to oversee a rare staging of The Lindbergh Flight. Lindbergh's adventure is retold in the words of Bertolt Brecht with music by Kurt Weill and, says Girard, it has so many of the elements of good theatre that he can't understand why it's never really taken off since its premiere in 1929. "Most importantly, it has the larger-than-life character of Charles Lindbergh at its centre - a heroic figure who has achieved iconic status as well as living an extraordinary, controversial life," says Girard. "And the piece is in an unusual form, divided up into 15 little tableaux, compressing the travelling time between two continents into less than an hour."

The work's association with the medium of radio also intrigued Girard. "I believe that the reasons why Lindbergh became so important in the history of the 20th century were highly circumstantial. It was the advent of radio that began to create overnight heroes. For the first time, people were able to follow events live, as they happened, and so become much more involved."

Its origins in radio are actually one reason why The Lindbergh Flight has not been taken up more. But there were plenty of other obstacles, including the static nature of the work and the rather dry, didactic style Brecht tried to impose on it, not to mention the endless revisions and versions that followed its first performance. It began life in 1928, devised by Brecht as a play for Frankfurt's radio station and the Baden-Baden Festival, of which Paul Hindemith was a guiding light.

When Weill had to divert his time and attention away from The Lindbergh Flight to his musical Happy End, it was decided to involve Hindemith - a respected fellow German composer but one with whom Weill had nothing in common musically - in the composition. It was fashionable for music to have a social or political purpose, but the festival's motto of "communal music" was surely never going to produce anything but double trouble. While Weill penned such winning numbers as "Surabaya Johnny" and "The Sailors' Tango" in Happy End, Hindemith applied himself worthily to the music for half the numbers in Brecht's Lindbergh text.

Weill seems to have regretted going along with the idea of sharing out the work, writing in 1929 that he could have easily composed the entire piece, which he duly did. He had in any case considered the joint effort - never a collaboration - "an interesting and unique experiment created for a particular purpose. With our differing artistic natures, no artistic unity could come about." Quite.

After Baden-Baden, Weill protested against further performances of the Weill-Hindemith version and was delighted when Klemperer decided to conduct a concert performance of the Weill-only version. Brecht, meanwhile, made a "school opera" out of the radio cantata. Twenty years later, by which time Weill was very ill, the writer picked up the work again, dropping The Lindbergh Flight, and changing the title of their first-version work to Ocean Flight because the aviator had not supported the struggle against the Nazis after 1935.

The already messy history became even muddier. On the only recording of the Weill-Hindemith version, conducted in 1930 by Hermann Scherchen and coupled with the only available modern recording of the Weill version, several chunks are missing, presumed lost, in German radio archives. Quite rightly, Girard has insisted on using the purely Weill score, reverting to the original title. "The presence of Lindbergh is essential at every level. Take him out and you're left with nothing. It's his mythical quality that makes the piece fly." He also wanted to be faithful to some of Brecht's opinions and has retained his prologue, even extending it into a collage of snippets of other Brecht texts. So his production opens with speeches directed into dangling microphones, emphasising the important radio element. (Oddly, it's perhaps the least effective part of an otherwise convincing and compelling interpretation.)

To help him get The Lindbergh Flight off the ground, Girard, whose films include Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould and The Red Violin, brought the video artist Peter Flaherty on board. "I gave him a blank screen and asked him to give a life to the two continents that connect this story," he says. Flaherty has come up with a stunning back-projection of computer-generated and specially shot images to recreate the dense fog, storms over the sea, blizzards and ice with which Lindbergh had to contend, as well as encroaching sleep.

The colour scheme was chosen "to give an impression of chilliness, as cold as the ice which formed on his plane," explains Girard. A sequence of clocks moves us between different time zones, while gigantic backdrop maps of America and Europe gradually edge closer together. Lindbergh himself steps into a model of his flimsy plane and, in a simple but effective representation of his hazardous trip on 20-21 May 1927, is hoisted high in an arc across the stage. Two tiny dots, Roosevelt Field on Long Island and Le Bourget near Paris, twinkle behind him, vast oceans surge below him and fluttering dollars rain from the sky after he lands. "In my films, I like to have a full-frame opening. I use the whole surface of the screen to build a tableau and in theatre I do the same thing. I open a piece up and give it full exposure," says Girard. "But, basically, I am a storyteller and this, apart from the sophisticated quality of the music, is what attracted me to The Lindbergh Flight."

Nearly 80 years after his sensational flight, and nearly half a century since James Stewart played him in Billy Wilder's 1957 film The Spirit of St Louis, Lindbergh continues to intrigue. In fact, there would seem to be many full-scale theatrical events operas to be made out of several aspects of his life. The kidnapping and murder of his first baby son attracted tremendous publicity, and Agatha Christie even began Murder on the Orient Express with a depiction of the notorious event. More controversially, Philip Roth turned a fictional version of Lindbergh into a major character aligned with the Nazis in his alternative-history novel, The Plot Against America, while Robert Harris's Fatherland casts him as the American ambassador in 1964 Nazi Germany. His biographer, however, contends that Lindbergh was not so much a supporter of the Nazi regime as someone "so stubborn in his convictions and inexperienced in political manoeuvring that he easily allowed rivals to portray him as one".

Although there have been a mere handful of staged productions of The Lindbergh Flight over the years - one in Tokyo in 1998, another in Macerata in 2001 - it may seem familiar to some members of the audience when Lyon Opera brings it to the Edinburgh International Festival next month. By strange coincidence, Edinburgh University Opera Club mounted it in 1983 in an ambitious triple bill including The Seven Deadly Sins, which Lyon Opera also features in the Weill-Brecht double bill it is bringing to the Edinburgh Festival next month. Those who like the Festival's international shows to have some local flavour should enjoy the work's references to the fog-bound ship Empress of Scotland, over which Lindbergh flies, and the two incredulous Scottish fishermen who catch a glimpse of something rattling up in the sky.

Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 13/29 Nicolson St, Edinburgh, 14-16 August (0131-473 2000;