The Tsar Wants His Photograph Taken

The Tsar Wants His Photograph Taken is an opera buffa (comic opera in a single act) by Kurt Weill and Georg Kaiser, first performed in 1927 but suppressed by the Nazis a few years later. It is an extremely odd piece, rarely performed nowadays but brought to life at the Bloomsbury Studio by a cast including members of UCL and King’s College.

The piece is set in the Studio Angele in turn of the century Paris; the Tsar rings up to confirm his appointment to have his picture taken, to the surprise of Angele and her assistant, who know nothing about it. Five anarchists appear in the studio, with the intention of assassinating the Tsar. One of the assassins disguises herself as Angele in order to surprise the Tsar, concealing a gun in the camera, but events conspire to make the anarchists’ plan go awry.

The piece has a bizarre plot but is very funny, and remains entertaining throughout. The performers do a great job with what is obviously a difficult score: it is intense and relentless, spiky and avant-garde. The budget for the production is obviously low: there are no props other than a camera, minimal costumes, and a selection of projector stills that tell the story against the backdrop while the actors sing in front of it.

After the show there was a short talk by some of the cast members and staff who organised the production; they gave us some of the background behind the piece, including the implied Jewishness of the characters (possibly the reason the piece was suppressed by the Nazis) and the role of Jewish women in particular to the development of the art of photography, as well as the challenges of the music. This was an unusual way to spend a Friday night, but it was a very rewarding one.

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