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BRINGING BRECHT TO NEW AUDIENCE

Hamburg is best known as one of the Beatles’ early proving grounds, but for Dagmar Krause, it was the first step to Brecht.

“In Hamburg, we’ve got a big harbor, so there are lots of clubs down by the harbor,” Krause said this week, recalling her initiation at age 14 into the seamy world of the Reeperbahn, Hamburg’s notorious red-light district.

“I come from a fairly sheltered home, and you would say, ‘How would your parents ever allow you to do that?’ because obviously down there the life was wild,” she explained.

“But my father was quite crazy about my voice, and he said, ‘Dagmar, she must sing, she must sing.’ I guess he must have had a lot of faith in me or something, because that’s how they allowed me to go down there and sing.

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“I guess I was kind of stunned. I was pretty innocent. I learned a few things. . . . They were bars--party bars, and kind of jazzy bars. There were a few things going on, but there are a lot of very hard clubs in the Reeperbahn. I didn’t sing there.”

It was while performing there that the teen-ager heard the first mention of the name that would later become the center of her career: Bertolt Brecht.

“I had one person come up in one of the clubs when I was maybe 15, and he said to me, ‘Your singing reminds me of that Brechtian thing.’

“Brechtian? Who was Brecht? I didn’t know. . . . “

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Twenty years later, Krause is gaining recognition as a leading interpeter of the songs of Brecht, the German poet and playwright who’s regarded as one of the great innovators of the modern theater. Krause’s new album, “Supply and Demand,” on Hannibal Records, is a rigorous, rewarding excursion through Brecht’s scathing social and political verse and through the rich music of his collaborators, Hans Eisler and Kurt Weill.

The presence of esteemed folk-rock guitarist Richard Thompson on the LP is just one clue that Krause--who’s performing two shows at McCabe’s in Santa Monica tonight--has set her sights on bringing Brecht to a new audience.

“Brecht was someone who changed so much of theater, and made theater accessible not just for the bourgeoisie and the people who had the money and education to go to theater, but he made his theater for everyone,” Krause said.

“And I’m afraid to say that now after his death he has been made into some kind of, like a shrine, and he’s been taken over by the cultural elite. Certainly, I realized when I was making this album how many closed doors I found in terms of the Brecht elite. . . .

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“They approach Brecht on a very academic level. . . . I’m singing these things in very many different environments, and I think that is how it should be done. I’m not saying Brecht shouldn’t be done in theaters--but not just in theaters.”

Krause’s path to Brecht was definitely a non-academic one. After her Reeperbahn apprenticeship, she went through a brief, unsatisfying stint with a German pop group before joining an underground film makers’ collective in the early ‘70s. There she teamed with musicians Anthony Moore and Peter Blegvad in the group Slapp Happy, which moved to London and signed with Virgin Records.

That put them in contact with the cream of England’s musical adventurers--people like Robert Wyatt, Kevin Coyne, Fred Frith and Chris Cutler. After working with the band Henry Cow for a few years, Krause joined Frith and Cutler to form the Art Bears, whose debut album included her first recording of a Brecht song, “On Suicide.” Her big leap came in 1978 when composer-conductor-director Jason Osborn invited her to play the role of Jenny in his London production of “Mahagonny.”

Krause lives in London’s troubled Brixton district with her husband (whose job as tour manager for the Fixx allows her to follow her Brechtian muse) and 14-year-old son, a budding pianist. Speaking with quiet intensity in lightly accented English, the singer tried to zero in on Brecht’s hold on her.

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“I believe that there are some people who sing some of this music, and they look at this music very academically. Then Brecht becomes like a museum piece, like someone who’s been put up on one of these shelves.

“And I guess some of the Brecht stuff is being viewed on a more nostalgic level. You kind of think the ‘30s, Kurt Weill, and the little cabarets and that. And that is not really where I am coming from or why I’m doing it.

“For me, Brecht has appeal because what he is saying is so very relevant to now, and musically still there is so much to be discovered. There’s such a power in there.

“In the ‘30s, there was the Nazis coming to power in Germany, the discrimination of the Jewish population. . . . And we still have wars, there’s still so much discrimination going on, people are still being imprisoned for their political beliefs. So things haven’t changed that much. Brecht had a basic revulsion for man’s inhumanity to man. That is the essence.”

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