It is perhaps an illusory dream—the dream of artists to create works that distill the expansiveness of America into a singular essence, the dream of writing the great American novel or of capturing the nature of American life in painting or photography. In much the same way, it was the dream of German-born American composer Kurt Weill to create an “American opera.” Weill’s dream was built on the belief that the musical and theatrical territory of such a work lay somewhere between the traditions of European opera and American musical comedy. This weekend, the University of Tennessee Opera Theatre explores that territory in a production of Kurt Weill’s “American opera,” Street Scene.
Weill, who had been targeted by Nazis in his native Germany for writing “decadent Jewish music,” fled Europe for New York, settling there in 1935 with his wife, actress and singer Lotte Lenya. In the same period, his collaboration with German playwright Bertolt Brecht (which had resulted in The Threepenny Opera and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny) ended over political differences. Weill had seen Elmer Rice’s 1929 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Street Scene in Europe and had felt it was a perfect vehicle for an operatic adaptation. “I saw great possibilities in its theatrical device,” said Weill on its slice-of-life urban view.” Life in a tenement house between one evening and the next afternoon. And it seemed like a great challenge to me to find the inherent poetry in these people and to blend my music with the stark realism of the play.” To that end, poet Langston Hughes was engaged to write the song lyrics. “The lyrics should attempt to lift the everyday language of the people into simple, unsophisticated poetry,” Weill said. The Weill-Rice-Hughes collaboration opened on Broadway in January of 1947 and received the first-ever Tony Award for Best Original Score.
However, there were disagreements between Rice and Weill over the adaptation. It was reported that Rice was so attached to his original play that he not only resisted the shift of emphasis to Weill’s music, but to any alterations of his text. One particular point of contention was Weill’s insistence that the tenement’s janitor be changed from Carl Olsen (a Swede) to Henry Davis (a black man). Weill prevailed, giving Davis the bluesy Gershwin-esque song “I Got a Marble and a Star.” To advance his musical ideas, Weill sought to paint his landscape with a variety of American musical idioms. There’s a touch of jitterbug in “Moon-faced, Starry-eyed,” wistful Broadway-style ballads such as “What Good Would the Moon Be?” and significant ensemble numbers such as “Get a Load of That” and the classical “Ice Cream Sextet.”
Like in Rice’s play, the locale of Street Scene is the exterior of a walk-up building in a “mean quarter” of New York City. Weill and Hughes visited the brownstone building on West 65th Street that Rice had used as his model for the play, finding, even by the late 1940s, that the building’s tenants were still a melting pot of immigrant America—Swedes, Jews, Italians, Anglo-Saxons, and blacks—with the usual jealousies, gossip, disenchantments, squabbles, and bigotries that one might expect in a cross-section of urban life. While this dictates that the cast be large—full of neighbors, visitors, and passers-by—the plot revolves around Frank and Anna Maurrant (Frank, a brutish stagehand, suspects his wife, Anna, of having an affair with the milkman), their teenage daughter Rose, and her admiring teenage neighbor Sam Kaplan.
The UT Opera Theatre production, directed by UT Opera Artistic Director Carroll Freeman, features a large 55-member student cast split over the four performances. Appearing as Anna Maurrant will be Teresa Alzadon and Mieke Rickert; John Arnold as Frank Maurrant; Jonathan Murphy and Jonathan Subia as Sam Kaplan; and Jessica Cates and Paige Patrick as Rose Maurrant. Kevin Class is the music director and James Fellenbaum will be conducting the UT Opera Orchestra.
On a special note, UT Opera Theatre received a special grant from the Kurt Weill Foundation of Music for this production. For university opera on a budget, this can be a significant award. In this case, the grant has allowed UT Opera to purchase a Street Scene set from the Des Moines Metro Opera.