This month an important work of American theatre is wending its way around the Commonwealth in an outstanding production: the self-styled “America opera” Street Scene (1947) by Kurt Weill, directed by Dorothy Danner. Performed by the Norfolk-based Virginia Opera, the work actually straddles the worlds of opera, jazz, and Broadway musical theatre – not unlike Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.
Street Scene is based on a 1920’s play by Elmer Rice, with song lyrics written by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. It is a story which involves infidelity, deadly gossip, and murder. The entire action takes place on a street in front of a low-income New York apartment block, here represented in an impressive and realistic set design by David Harwell. We see the lives of several residents played out on the street and through apartment windows. Action is heard by sound from other areas of the neighborhood in overheard conversations, shouting, and loud city noises.
Although Street Scene with its plethora of musical and theatrical styles may have something for everyone, it is not a comfortable plot to watch as it unfolds. The otherwise sweet Mrs. Anna Maurrant, hurt by and alienated from her husband, the brutish Mr. Frank Maurrant, begins an affair. Neighborhood gossip develops surrounding this, hurting not only Anna but also her daughter Rose. Rose in turn is loved by her neighbor, the law student Sam Kaplan. Difficult social circumstances, including poverty and crime, encumber this budding romance. Yet the opera also lays bare eternal problems such as jealousy and hate. While some viewers may see an easy allegory of contemporary political concerns, such as abusive relationships, double standards, and the misuse of power for nefarious ends, the production shows that these are actually age-old and universal issues. In fact, such topics are brought out in almost biblical terms in the conflict between Mrs. Maurrant’s stated view that one should “help one’s neighbors” versus Mr. Maurrant’s position that we should “look after our own home” and not be our brother’s keeper. Hope does shine faintly in Rose’s eventual realization that love and relationships do not necessarily entail oppressive “belonging” and dependence.
Somber themes, to be sure. Like his earlier collaborator Bertolt Brecht, Weill believed that art should be socially relevant. Weill’s surprising switches between Broadway, opera, and jazz create a kind of “alienation effect” or “epic theatre” (to use Brechtian terms) to “wake up” the audience to focus on the themes in the play.
At the same time, these swings back and forth between styles provide high entertainment. Lovers of Broadway will enjoy the beautifully choreographed swing dance sequence with the catchy and finger-snapping “Moon-faced, Starry-eyed;” David Michael Bevis and Ahnastasia Albert sing and dance this piece like veteran Broadway stars. One is reminded here that Weill also composed American musical theatre standards such as “Mack the Knife” and “September Song.”
Atonal and jazz phrases are interspersed throughout the opera. Both strains are perhaps best represented by the number “Lonely House.” This song is well-known as a jazz piece on June Christy’s seminal Something Cool concept album, and in the Virginia Opera production it is sung with poignancy and emotional despair by David Blalock. This style contrasts strikingly with the operatic pieces; Maureen McKay and David Blalock (portraying the would-be lovers Rose and Sam) are in beautiful voice and emote well for the duets “We’ll Go Away Together” and “Don’t Forget the Lilac Bush.”
Street Scene is very noir, especially in its night scenes. Yet there are lighter moments, and even comic relief, as in the “Ice Cream Sextet.” Neighbor and Italian immigrant Lippo Fiorentino (Benjamin Werley) brings home ice cream to his neighbors in the hot June weather: he and the other sextet members fluctuate between jazz, Broadway, and operatic stylistics, all on the topic of ice cream! Like much else in Street Scene, the mundane life of the everyman is raised to sublime art.
Weill, who left Germany at the beginning of the Nazi era, settled in the United States and became a naturalized citizen. He thought of himself as an American composer and Street Scene as an American opera. Yet the German classical training of the man who in Berlin had set to music the drama and poetry of Brecht, Eichendorff, and Georg Kaiser is never far behind. As the show ends, the statement is made that “love and death have gone away together to find their morning in the sun” – a Wagnerian Liebestod not for operatic heroes but for the common man. The desperate common man. Weill’s challenging music, with all its shifting styles, is conducted brilliantly by music director Adam Turner.
Street Scene is a rare combination of Americana and biting social criticism of the vision of the American Dream, reminding us of those struggling to achieve it — or even struggling just to survive. Readers are encouraged to avail themselves of a rare opportunity to see and hear this work, especially in this exquisite production. Street Scene is playing on October 2 at Norfolk’s Harrison Opera House. Fairfax residents and those living in Northern Virginia will have an opportunity to experience this “American opera” on October 6 and 7 at the George Mason University’s Center for the Arts. Performances of the work continue the following weekend in Richmond at the Dominion Energy Center (October 12 and 14).