Petronella, get your kit off!

Striptease by Max Beckmann (courtesy of MOMA)
Striptease by Max Beckmann (1922, courtesy of MOMA)

I’m working on a programme of German cabaret songs for performances in March. It’s a broad and entertaining selection, including favourites by Weill and more unusual offerings from Hollaender and Spoliansky.

One of the songs I especially wanted to include is Hollaender’s Zieh Dich aus, Petronella, which I like to translate as Petronella, get your kit off! It satirises the 1920s cabaret vogue for striptease, wherein lies its appeal rather than its music depth. However, I have realised that, unlike Kurt Weill’s finest numbers (of which we are performing several), this song doesn’t have that universal quality necessary to leap from its original context to a new time and place.

Fortunately, the cabaret tradition embraces all kinds of appropriation and re-imagining of other people’s material and, rather than ditch the song from the programme, I decided to up-date the lyrics for my London audience. A couple of years ago I discovered that I love putting new wine into old bottles in this way, and have since re-written a number of songs to fit a different context. I enjoy the challenge of creating good words that not only respect the rhyme scheme and structure of the original but hopefully retain its content and tone of voice – when a line finally slots into place it seems to have a resonance and a feeling of ‘rightness’ that I find deeply satisfying.

Tonight I have an unexpected opportunity to try out my new words, hot off the press, on a select audience. The St Paul’s Knightsbridge Foundation is holding a dinner expressly to raise funds to support the musical activities of the church (maintaining an eight-voice professional choir, a Director of Music and two organists throughout the year requires a certain sum). An extra slot in the programme has fallen vacant and it’s a great opportunity to find out whether my words work as well in performance as I think they do on paper.

If not, I shall have to kill my darlings and return to my desk for another try.

Performances are 8 March 7.00pm (All Saints, Putney) and 23 March 1.00pm (Royal Opera House Crush Room) with Katy Batho (soprano) and Stephen Higgins (piano).