On its surface, Street Scene arose through the unlikeliest of collaborations: a German composer with a background in the avant garde, a Jewish-American playwright who began his career as a lawyer, and an African-American poet whose name has become synonymous with the Harlem Renaissance.
But what's more surprising is the degree to which this 1947 "Broadway opera," as Kurt Weill (pictured right) dubbed his collaboration with Elmer Rice and Langston Hughes, connects with the economic uncertainties many of us face today.
"It's just eerie, how it turned out to be so timely," says Opera Theatre of the Rockies stage director Thomas Lindblade, who, when signing on to the project last summer, little imagined that its opening would coincide so perfectly with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. "And then we realized: Oh God, this is about the here and now. We had no idea when we started that everything was going to tank."
Lindblade describes the work as a "totally beautiful period piece" that also addresses spousal abuse, discrimination and the economic austerity that was just manifesting itself when Rice wrote the original 1929 Pulitzer Prize-winning play. (Ironically, years after his play was initially turned down by numerous Broadway producers, Rice himself rejected Weill's proposal to create a musical version; it was only after a decade that he warmed up to the idea.)
Purity and rubbish
Musically, Street Scene is no less prescient in its genre-defying blend of Weill's avant garde past with the American musical idioms he was so quick to master.
"Weill was always interested in mixing styles," says OTR conductor Christopher Wilkins, "which of course got him and his colleagues in trouble in Germany, because the Nazi regime called it impure. But it fit so perfectly in New York, because that's what New York is all about."
Wilkins cites his friend and mentor Maurice Abravanel, regarded as "Weill's favorite conductor," when it comes to Weill's embrace of American music: "Abravanel used to say that the idea that there are two Kurt Weills is rubbish, and that people who say there's a European Weill and an American Weill just aren't paying attention.
"The very opening of Street Scene [contains] anguished music which is certainly a 1920s-1930s Hindemith- and Stravinsky-influenced sound, and that runs throughout the opera. The most dramatic moments are much more European, early 20th-century, polytonal kind of language than anything you would find on Broadway."
At the same time, Weill's Broadway works do incorporate such American musical idioms as big band, soft-shoe and ragtime.
"Is that any different from Three Penny Opera?" asks Wilkins. "No, he did that throughout his life. Street Scene is almost a library of popular and concert styles. It pays homage to what came before whether we're talking about Hindemith or Richard Rodgers or Gershwin and Porgy and Bess and it looks forward. If it weren't for Kurt Weill, we wouldn't have West Side Story. We wouldn't have Stephen Sondheim this astonishing mixture of sophisticated language and sophisticated music without Kurt Weill."
The other biggest misconception about Weill's work, says Wilkins, is that performers ought to "camp it up," to add embellishments to the original score, to help convey the decadent style of the German cabaret.
"A lot of it comes through the performances of Lotte Lenya," he says of Weill's widow. "She championed his music and recorded a great deal of it, but vocally she deteriorated so badly that, after a point, she did whatever she could to get the songs out. And it gave everyone the impression that this was the authentic way of presenting Weill, which was sort of half-spoken, half-sung with a raspy, throaty quality, and you saw a whole generation of singers who grew up sort of imitating Lotte Lenya."
While Weill and his cohorts had Broadway in their sights from Street Scene's very beginnings, the work has since become the province of large universities and light opera companies. Given the scale of the production in OTR's case, up to 45 people onstage at a single time, accompanied by a 28-piece symphony orchestra it's no wonder Broadway financiers gravitate toward the less populous demands of Waiting for Godot or, for that matter, Will Ferrell's homage to George W. Bush.
As Lindblade notes, "Nowadays it would be financially very difficult for a producer to do it on Broadway and make money; it's bigger than South Pacific."
In addition to the diversity of moods and music in Street Scene's score (Wilkins says his tempo markings for the orchestra took up four single-spaced pages), the story also conveys a wide range of emotions. And it does so in a decidedly down-to-earth manner, one that bears little relation to the over-the-top expressionism typical of classical opera.
In Lindblade's view, the work "presaged the opening of the operatic repertoire."
"Kurt Weill and Langston Hughes are saying: Let's write something that is believable and that expresses everyday actions and objectives, what people want and how they're disillusioned. And how they are joyful. Because, boy, there are a lot of laughs in this," Lindblade says.
One challenge faced by many regional production companies, OTR included, is the casting of the work's various ethnic roles. While Hughes added one African-American character in his libretto for Street Scene (Rice's original play focused exclusively on European immigrants), that ended up being one of the parts that couldn't be cast accordingly.
"However, the grand irony is that the male lead is African-American," says Lindblade. "In the original, I would guess that he's Irish-English-American and very angry. The Swedish woman is played, in this case, by a Hispanic woman with a blond wig. So in a way, we're doing very non-traditional casting in that regard, because we got the best singers."
Lindblade believes the production will do justice to Weill and Hughes' "high poeticism," while its relevance will "strike a few chords with all the foreclosures going on right now." Of course, those economic factors do raise a corollary concern: What if no one can afford to go?
"I don't think that's going to be the case," says Lindblade, noting that the company puts on just one production a year. "This is kind of one of those civic things. At least I hope so!"