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Heather Christian. Picture: Simon Santi/The West Australian

Back in 1928, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera critiqued the injustices of capitalism and changed the face of musical theatre, while giving a springboard to the voice of Lotte Lenya.

More than 80 years later, this subversive masterpiece born in the fractious Weimer Republic sits as a pigeon pair in the 2013 Perth International Arts Festival with Mission Drift, which slaps junk- bond American capitalism around the ears and is a landmark in musical theatre in its own right.

Like The Threepenny Opera, which Brecht's Berliner Ensemble and director Robert Wilson are bringing to Australia for the first time, Mission Drift is led by a singular voice in the shape of Heather Christian.

Said by Variety magazine to "howl like a werewolf with a voice made of molasses", Christian is also the composer behind Mission Drift, a collaboration with director Rachel Chavkin and the genre- busting New York theatre group the TEAM.

The daughter of a petrochemical engineer turned blues musician and a go-go dancer from backwoods Mississippi, Christian draws on gospel, circus, folk, jazz and the blues as Mission Drift dissects the soul of the American Dream over a span of more than 400 years from the Dutch settlement of New York to the sub-prime real estate wasteland of modern Las Vegas.

In Perth for the launch of the Festival last night, Christian said she and the TEAM had begun creating the show in late 2007, before the full-blown global financial crisis intensified the following year. Initially, the prospect of a musical about economics daunted her but the 2008 collapse meant the TEAM had a show whose time had come. "The bubble popped and all of a sudden our play was relevant," she said.

In the show, Christian plays Miss Atomic, a ferocious, seductive storyteller/singer inspired by the 1950s Nevada A-bomb beauty pageants. A symbol of creation and destruction, bankruptcy and bonanza, she unfolds the interlocking stories of an immortal Dutch settler couple who traverse time and space pursuing progress, and of an unemployed cocktail waitress in modern-day Las Vegas.

Mission Drift premiered in Portugal last year and then scooped a bundle of awards at the Edinburgh Fringe before opening in New York earlier this year.

"We get a much better reception outside America," Christian said. "I think it is easier to see something that is at once a political commentary and a ridiculous hypothesis about a country and its history when you are an outsider and have opinions that aren't invested in it personally."

After seeing the show in New York, Perth Festival artistic director Jonathan Holloway identified it as a natural heir to The Threepenny Opera.

"There is a definite parallel between what John Gay was doing with The Beggar's Opera in 1728 and what Brecht was doing in 1928 in transforming a form and reinventing it and how that influenced Chicago and Cabaret and all the musicals that followed on from Threepenny Opera," Holloway said.

"Mission Drift does for the 21st century what Hair and Rent did in the late 20th century in terms of reclaiming the American musical theatre form and making it sassy for a young, dynamic energetic audience."

The production is one of eight major Australian exclusives at the 2013 Festival, including a series of shopfront performances, La Marea from Argentina, which will give Rokeby Road in Subiaco the appearance of a vast film set for one night.

The National Theatre of Scotland returns with the Faustian-pact tale The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, to be performed in the pub surrounds of the Little Creatures Loft and the Melbourne Hotel. Another UK company, Stan's Cafe, will take over the redeveloped GPO building in Forrest Place with a theatre- installation Of All the People in the World, which measures each of the 1.54 billion people in our time zone as a grain of rice formed into mounds representing various amusing and often heart-rending statistics.

The Festival remains dominated internationally by programming from Europe and the Americas. In the 13th year of the "Asian century", as discussed in the Federal Government's recent white paper, the vast, populous and influential region to our north is represented by the Indian dance company Daksha Sheth and its show Shiva Shakti starring Bollywood actress and dancer Isha Sharvani.

In a strong year for dance, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and Belgian choreographer Frederic Flamand have collaborated on The Truth 25 Times a Second from Ballet National de Marseille. WA Ballet returns with Ballet at the Quarry and local companies Strut and Steps combine as three generations of dancers interpret Frenchman Jean Claude Gallotta's cycle-of-life work 3G.

The classical music program is led by American composer Philip Glass presenting the world premiere of his complete 20 Piano Etudes, the final three of which he has been commissioned by the Festival to complete. Glass, on his first Perth visit in 13 years, will perform the cycle with Maki Namekawa and Sally Whitwell.

Another American festival veteran, Laurie Anderson, joins the Kronos Quartet for the first time in Australia while conductor Sir Richard Armstrong will preside over a double-bill of Bartok's one-act operas Duke Bluebeard's Castle and The Wooden Prince.

Perth's James Berlyn will direct the world premiere of Tenebrae et Luxe, a concert of Carlo Gesualdo's 400-year-old vocal music by the St George's Consort accompanied by a light installation by Parisian artist Benjamin Bergery and American Jim Campbell.

Campbell also is presenting Scattered Light, a canopy of light globes to be strewn along Fraser Avenue in Kings Park. Light shows dominate the visual arts program, which features the LUMINOUSnight spectacle to celebrate 100 years since students first arrived at the University of WA. Also showing are installations from British collective Greyworld at the new Brookfield Place complex, Italian artist Grazia Toderi at the John Curtin Gallery, Luminousflux at the Lawrence Wilson Gallery and a homage to Bollywood film pioneer Raj Kapoor at the Central Institute of Technology.