When a goddess walks the earth

Opera North are to give Kurt Weill's One Touch of Venus its first British outing
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Kurt Weill's musical One Touch of Venus - in whose title role Marlene Dietrich declined to appear on the grounds that its plot was "too sexy and profane" - is the next challenge for the adventurous Opera North company. It's only now receiving its first major British outing, though the original 1943 Broadway production ran for 567 performances, with Mary Martin playing the perfectly formed, 3,000-year-old iconic goddess.

Kurt Weill's musical One Touch of Venus - in whose title role Marlene Dietrich declined to appear on the grounds that its plot was "too sexy and profane" - is the next challenge for the adventurous Opera North company. It's only now receiving its first major British outing, though the original 1943 Broadway production ran for 567 performances, with Mary Martin playing the perfectly formed, 3,000-year-old iconic goddess.

"I think it's partly to do with the suspicion that exists about Weill's years in America and the implication that he somehow sold out," says the show's conductor, James Holmes. But Holmes argues that the possibility of combining drama, musical comedy, ballet and opera in Venus excited and inspired Weill.

One Touch of Venus has impeccable credentials. It was penned by SJ Perelman - best known for his scripts for the Marx Brothers - with witty lyrics by Ogden Nash. Nash had already published a volume of poems, I'm a Stranger Here Myself, the words he gives to Venus for her entrance number. It's perhaps the most familiar item on the songlist, although "Speak Low" and "Foolish Heart" aren't exactly unknown.

"The dialogue scenes," explains Holmes, "are often little more than two-handers but are constructed in an almost cinematic manner and, with Weill's wonderful score and glorious 1940s costumes, it's the theatrical equivalent of those wonderful Howard Hawkes movies. He was trying to develop what he'd done in Germany with Brecht and create new ways of looking at musical theatre in an intelligent and entertaining way.

" One Touch of Venus was one of the first pieces to use extended dance sequences, breaking new ground in that they don't stop the show but carry the narration forward. The second sums up the encounter between Venus, the statue who has come alive, and the humdrum world of 1940s New York, with all the implications of her marrying a humble barber." This sequence, choreographed by William Tuckett, looks forward to the world of Pete Seeger's "Little Boxes", suggests Holmes [a Sixties folk song that bemoans the conformity of the middle classes, in their pastel-coloured "little box" homes]. Presumably, though, Tim Albery's production, with sets by Antony McDonald, will be far from monotonous.

At the centre of it all, Venus needs to be played by someone who "has the vocal and histrionic abilities, as well as being a looker", according to Holmes. Karen Coker, making her British debut, has come all the way across the Atlantic to play the goddess. And, for those who care about these things, none of the singers will be miked. That's as genuine an effort as any opera company can make in the world of music theatre.

'One Touch of Venus' is at the Grand Theatre, Leeds (0113-222 6222; www.operanorth.co.uk) from 4-11 December, and tours to Hull, Sheffield, Norwich, Nottingham, Newcastle and Salford next year

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