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Miami Opera Performs “Street Scene”: An American Classic Current Today

Sneak Peek by Kenneth Stern of Street Scene: Miami University

It is not every day, or theatrical season, that Street Scene, an American opera (as composer Kurt Weill termed it) is produced, either professionally or on campus. Make your reservations and go to Oxford, where it is being performed by Miami University’ s award winning opera program April 7th through 9th.

Set in front of a brownstone in the slums of New York on a hot August day in 1929, Street Scene portrays the “gritty story of immigrants in desperate pursuit of the American Dream,” says Benjamin Smolder, associate professor of voice, producer and conductor of the University’s Opera and co-director of the production. The number of unwashed masses—there are 39 named characters in the cast of 46, and then there is the full orchestra, the 85 costume changes, the children, and the dog—makes staging productions a challenge.

Smolder finds his students up to the demands: “This piece is undaunted. It is hard to pick up; it is avoided because it requires so many people to pull it off.” He thought it was a perfect fit and watched as his cast “matured into it.” Weill, the classical, if 20th century, German composer, strove to create “a living theatre, not a dead art form. He lived between the worlds of opera and the musical. Street Scene is cabaret, but it needs ‘legitimate singers,’” emphasized Smolder.

The collaboration, starting with Elmer Rice’s 1929 Pulitzer Prize winning play, and enriched by Langston Hughes writing the lyrics, turned out to be a perfect fit. Weill and Rice shared a German immigrant back story, complete with political activism, and Hughes used his poetry to hold up working class and poor people, black and white. He had traveled to the Soviet Union and reported on the Spanish Civil War. All three men intimately as well as instinctively understood the history and backstory of Rice’s setting.

Hughes was a huge influence on Weill, exposing him to the people and culture of Harlem as well as its blues and jazz rhythms. They had the backbone of Rice’s play: a polyglot of people living in abject poverty, not all getting along, and the problems any people in stressed situations face. Weill composed to appeal to the people. He wanted to take European operatic style and fuse it with American popular music. Smolder says Weill called Street Scene “an opera for Broadway.” He had been influenced by Gershwin, by Porgy and Bess, long before he met Hughes.

Smolder says Weill wrote in verismo, or real to life, opera, the movement away from gods and myths to stories of every day people. And while there is the American influences of blues, jazz, and musicals, the opera is an opera, with “legitimate singing” by trained performers. There are arias, duets, trios, quartets, ensemble pieces, and more. Weill was as committed to his art as to his values. He wedded the music to people struggling. It is Weill and not Rice (though with Hughes) who has the radical Kaplan challenge Maurrant to not beat his child, that “by beatings you can get maybe submission but not a change in kerecter.”

And while it is Rice’s sentiments (not Bernie Sanders) captured by Kaplan’s “We must have a new conception of society, based upon human need, not human greed, and dis will require maybe a revolution,” it is Weill and Hughes who developed: “My father’s name is Rockefeller. / He shovels diamonds in the cellar. / He’s got a hanky made of gold / to blow his nose when he gets a cold.”

Weill embraced Street Scene because he saw its subject matter in the German culture he had left. Smolder says conflict and class antagonisms were present in 1940s America and Weill wanted to address the same issue of disparate people in the same situations here that he observed in Germany. Weill wanted people in the theatre to see on stage their own life experiences.

Street Scene is the American story, in 1929, 1947, or 2016. Immigrants—and violence (warning: guns get fired more than once)—are white America’s foundational story. Long before the 2016 presidential race, citizens and immigrants alike had disparaging names and attitudes for the teeming masses who made their way onto these shores.

Smolder warns of some “painful stereotypes” that date the script’s 1929 origins. Hearing those insulting terms today, by candidates for president, is painful to our present sensibilities. But as American conductor John Mauceri writes in his liner notes “Throughout it all, there is Weill, the maser composer and master communicator, sharing the pain of his life through his characters and sharing his irrepressible optimism so that we can all learn how to behave, learn to be kind, and learn to care.”

Street Scene is be presented by the Miami University departments of music and theatre at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, April 7-9, in Gates-Abegglen Theatre, Center for Performing Arts.

Tickets are $15 adults, $10 students, and are available at the H.O.M.E. box office in 129 Campus Avenue Building.

 

The Kurt Weill Foundation offers more information on Street Scene:

http://www.kwf.org/pages/ww-street-scene.html