VIRGINIA OPERA’S STREET SCENE – A TRIUMPH

 

 

 

Last week Terry Teachout, the wisest theater critic in America, noted the significance of regional opera companies in both maintaining a high standard of excellence and simultaneously attracting an audience.

“It is not that grand opera is incapable of appealing to American theatergoers. Even now, there are many Americans who love it passionately, just as there are regional companies …that have avoided making the mistakes that closed City Opera’s doors.[i]

With the current stunning production of Kurt Weill’s 1947 Street Scene, the Virginia Opera claims its place in that esteemed list.

Weill’s opera began with a play by a cranky playwright. A brief review of the road from Elmer Rice, the playwright, to Langston Hughes, librettist, and Kurt Weill, composer, allows a better appreciation of Virginia Opera’s achievement.

“I do not enjoy playgoing”.

With those words Elmer Rice accepted the 1929 Pulitzer Play for Drama for his odd play, Street Scene.

Whatever its dramaturgical defects, Street Scene was an important play in the history of American theater. Until Street Scene, most plays on Broadway were set in a drawing room inhabited by native born Americans or Englishmen. Street Scene presented a panoply of ethnic groups, previously only seen on New York’s ethnic stages or in vaudeville acts. Rice attempted to present a variety of ethnic Americans seriously, not simply as comic relief.

And with Street Scene the notion of a collective hero was introduced to the American stage. Influenced by Marxist ideology, “the people”, rather than one individual person, became Rice’s hero. In Street Scene, the residents of a New York City block were the heroes lifted up for our consideration.

In addition to the Marxist notion of the collective hero, Street Scene attempted to present an unfiltered “slice of life,” a contemporary sociological living specimen for analysis and review. Emile Zola had caused European playwrights to see each drama as a scientific case study, and, with Elmer Rice, the practice gained a foothold in America.

Born Elmer Leopold Reizenstein in a New York tenement, similar to the one depicted in his play, in 1882, Rice was a true loner – detached, cynical, and discontented. He studied for a law degree while working as a clerk. Bored by the law, he quit his law firm as soon as he passed the bar exam.

Although the commercial theater earned him more money than he could have ever imagined, he, like many in the cutting-edge arts of  post-Wall Street crash America, was a socialist, sure the Russian experiment would succeed and sweep America up into a worker’s paradise. During the Depression Rice was even named the first director of the New York Federal Theatre Project, the first step in nationalizing the theater in America. With the Federal Theatre Project, Rice created the Living Newspaper Unit, which presented group-created left-wing theatre pieces about the news of the day.

But Street Scene is Rice’s most famous play. As a “slice of life” drama, the form sought to seem caught by an eavesdropping anthropologist rather than constructed by a dramaturgical craftsman. As Rice said, the “construction depends not upon novel or striking technological devices, but upon concealed architectonics.” [ii] In the naturalistic – realistic tradition, Street Scene sought to show the effects of heredity and an oppressive capitalist environment on people trapped in their environment. However, as an atheist, Rice skillfully erased from his so-called objective drama all traces of a vital element in most immigrant experiences – religion.

Rice used the background from his previous play, The Sidewalks of New York, as the foreground of his new play. The “typical Manhattan brownstone-front walkup housing ten or a dozen families” assumed an integral part of the play. It might almost be said that it was the play.”[iii]

But the large cast of fifty, along with the work’s novel form and content, scared away many producers.

The play was so unusual for its time that Rice had difficulty finding any producer. The usual producer of out-of-the-mainstream plays, The Theatre Guild, passed. Producer Winthrop Ames didn’t even think it was a play. Director Arthur Hopkins found Street Scene “unreadable.”  Finally, entrepreneur William A. Brady decided to use the play as the vehicle for his producing comeback, after a twelve-year stint of flops. Brady housed the play in his own theater, The Playhouse, thus avoiding the payment of theater rental fees.

His Playhouse was built in 1910 on 48th Street, when Brady broke with the all-powerful Theatrical Syndicate, to ally himself with the Shubert Organization.

Young Jo Mielziner, who would later achieve international fame as the designer of the plays of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, was engaged to design the play. Rice showed him a building at 25 West Sixty-five Street upon which to base his scene design. At first, George Cukor was persuaded to direct the play, but after only a few rehearsals lied his way out of the job and back to Hollywood. Immodest Rice took over the direction himself, his first attempt ever to direct a play.

Eventually the production team achieved the total atmosphere of urban New York in the manner of the master David Belasco.  To this end, a “recording instrument set up in an open window on Times Square provided a disc that reproduced the hum of city traffic…two record players, started a minute apart, produced an overlapping effect that was always varied. The records kept going throughout the entire play, sometimes at a roar, sometimes at a murmur, as the mood demanded.”[iv]

Rice’s plot is classic,

like the old plots of Hamlet and Oedipus and Orestes. The action is not a conflict between persons, but rather a contest between a man and a fearful action which everything wills him to commit, but which he himself repels as inadequate to his complexity of being. The climax is a release. The murder being committed, the murderer is freed of it and can become human again through regret.”[v]

And making Mrs. Maurrant the female victim-hero, was itself a novelty for the time.

The play included frank ethnic comments and communist calls for revolution, shocking to today’s sensitized audience, but common parlance at the time of H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury. They included

“Leave it to the Jews not to lose a workin day without makin up for it”

“You Jews are the first to run to the Charities.’

“Italians built New York, the Irish run it, and the Jews own it.”

“When private property is abolished, the family will not longer have any reason to exist.”

And Rice made sure that the only religious sentiment expressed in Street Scene was atheism, the religion of his cherished Bohemian left.

“God is “superstition. The lies that people tell themselves, because reality is too terrible for them to face.’

Rice’s poor people are noble; they love classical music and argue about the merits of Verdi, Puccini, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Mendelsohn.

Street Scene, the play, reflects the social mores of its time, a time when ethnic mixing was frowned upon. 1922’s Abie’s Irish Rose was the lone exception that proved the rule.

“When you marry outside your own people, nothing good ever comes of it. You can’t mix oil and water”

Rice’s play is peppered with the time’s naive socialist sentiments:

“As long as the institution of private property exists the workers will be at the mercy of the property-owning classes”

“We must put the tools of industry in the hands of the working classes, and this can be accomplished only by a social revolution”

“The working classes must throw off the yoke of capitalism, and abolish wage slavery”

Following World War II, American values and attitudes were quite different from when Rice wrote his play. The operatic version of the work reflects the new America into which Weill’s musical work emerged. Mary McCarthy observed that the 1946 opera version of Street Scene which opened at the Adelphi Theater cut many of the offensive passages “to a murmur”, “as if in deference to world events.”[vi]

More of the play should have been changed for the opera. New immigrant composer Kurt Weill had seen Rice’s play in 1929 Berlin and was eager to bring the script to the present time. Even though Weill and his then writing partner, the playwright and director Bertolt Brecht, had championed communism in their musical dramas, they had fled fascism by heading west to America, rather than east to the so-called workers’ paradise of Joseph Stalin. In time, Weill came to break with Brecht both artistically and ideologically. He came to love America and vowed to succeed in the capitalistic entertainment worlds of Broadway and Hollywood.

But Rice opposed any plans to change the core of his play. Conductor Maurice Abravanel noted, “Rice didn’t want to drop one single line of his play.”

Even Rice’s own Playwrights Producing Company wouldn’t invest in such an expensive work without outside assistance. However, wealthy investor Dwight Deere had fallen in love with the opera, so the production could go forward

Advice on how to adapt the old play abounded. Producer Billy Rose wanted to cut Mrs. Maurrant’s aria. He said it was too long and no one would listen. Weill replied, “If that aria doesn’t work then I haven’t written the opera I wanted to write. I will not change a note.”[vii]

Visiting playwright St. John Ervine thought the play “a drama of the garbage can”.  “To give [librettist Langston] Hughes an opportunity for a blues number” Rice “substituted a Negro janitor for the Swede of the original. But the essential elements of the play were unchanged.”[viii]

Their first choice for director was Rouben Mamoulian, but Mamoulian went to direct a Hollywood project instead. Charles Friedman, who had directed Oscar Hammerstein’s Carmen Jones, was finally offered the job.

Choreography was by Anna Sokolow, an important pioneer in modern dance, whose work on Street Scene anticipated West Side Story by ten years. Her “Moon-Faced and, Starry-Eyed’ number stopped the show every night.

Weill cast opera singers for the four major roles – the Maurrants, Sam, and Rose, including Anne Jeffreys, a film actress under contract to RKO.

Kurt Weill’s music falls into three phases. The first is his classical period, composing under the influence of Mahler and Schoenberg. Second is his Brechtian period, writing political cabaret songs for Bertolt Brecht’s epic theater. Weill’s final period is his American period during which he composed for Broadway and Hollywood commercial tastes.

Street Scene comes from Weill’s final phase, as Weill struggled to shed the political influence of Brecht which had infected his music. “For this distinctly non-Brechtian Street Scene the composer banishes any irony in favor of a direct emotional appeal.”[ix] Working with Brecht, Weill had been instructed to eliminate any hint of emotional appeal in his composition. Street Scene was something new for him.

When the opera finally premiered, the open-minded critic Harold Clurman wrote in the left-wing review, Tomorrow of April 1947,

“Solos, scenes, and ensembles flow beautifully – and powerfully – one into the other. Moments of humor move easily into outbursts of tragedy, and many fine tunes and delicate lyricism relieve the cinematic scoring that Weill called “mood music”.[x]

The New York Times was beside itself with praise for Weill:

“He has found song for the things that are not spoken-the wonder, sadness, hope and fury. Some of the music is spontaneously gay, like the ice cream ballad and the scuffling game for children. Some of it is smart and clever. like “Moon-Faced and Starry-Eyed”…But the magnificence of the score appears in a song of anguish, Mrs. Maurrant’s “Somehow I Never Could Believe,” or in a song of maternal affection to her son, “A Boy Like You”; or in the lyrical song for Rose Maurrant, What Good Would the Moon Be?”, and the rhapsody for Rose and Sam Kaplan, “We’ll  Go Away Together.”…Not since “Oklahoma” has a stage play yielded so fine a musical. The aim and content give it complete superiority.” [xi]

Unlike the other acclaimed pioneer American opera, Porgy and Bess, Street Scene has had a low profile. That may be due to the reputation of Rice’s non-musical play. The play version, which was once considered a great achievement in American theater, is now seen, after both the debut of Eugene O’Neil and the master American realists, as a tired and cliched attempt to install the communist socialist dramatic aesthetic in the heart of bourgeois Broadway.

Weill’s musical worked to a different end. Nevertheless, the collaborators even argued over whether to structure the work to encourage applause! The Street Scene score reveals Weill struggling to get out from under the influence of his communist collaborator Bertolt Bracht’s anti-bourgeois aesthetic (nothing tuneful, no heroism, no empathy.) In fact, Weill himself had once declared his fidelity to Brechtian dogma: “music should not advance or underscore the action on the stage; it fulfills its genuine function only when it interrupts the action at appropriate moments.” [xii] ) Unfortunately, Rice’s refusal to give an inch in adapting his tired and trite script, ignoring Mozart’s advice to his father, “In opera, the text must be the obedient daughter of the music,” seems to have sealed the work’s secondary position in America’s operatic canon.

Street Scene is now regarded by many as an historical curiosity, capable of providing musical performers an opportunity to bring Rice’s two-dimensional characters to life through their own creative imaginations, and creative directors the chance to reconcile the work’s contradictions through bold and daring production choices.

And that is what one sees at the Harrison Opera House. The masterful director Dorothy Danner has employed her full arsenal of directorial options. Her beautiful stage pictures are never static, as performers move from one elegant composition to another. The pantomimic business given to the teeming cast is always fresh, appropriate, and lively.

Adam Turner clearly loves this music, and that love, in turn, proves to be contagious. The audience is swept up in glorious playing and singing. Under his direction, the Virginia Symphony players turn in a first-rate performance. And the full stage chorus on stage sings “The Woman Who Lived Up There” in Act II with a power rarely heard on area stages.

David Harwell’s original stage design for a City Center production is still stunning to behold and Aaron Chvatal’s original costumes for the Brevard Music Center, as adapted by Pat Seyller, could not convey the time, place, and individuality of each character any better. The wigs by James P. McGough are perfect in style and fit. The costumed characters blend  with one another and with the setting in a beautiful dynamic panorama. James E. Lawlor’s subtle lighting causes all the blending and merging to occur, as he quietly highlights the various places where Ms. Danner wants the audience to focus.

As did his predecessor Anna Sololow’s dance, choreographer Greg Ganakas’ jitterbug inspired “Moon-faced, Starry Eyed’ brings down the house as magically danced by David Michael Bevis (Dick McGann) and Ahnastasia Albert (Mae Jones).

In such an enormous cast, not a weak link can be found. Everyone on stage performs as if their cameo is precious, which it turns out to be.

Special attention must be given to the Governor’s School for the Arts.

Everyone knows the oldest and best way to educate performing artists is through performing on stage with their teachers. Though this fact is widely known and incontestable, it is, unfortunately, rare. Not so for the Governors School for the Arts and the Virginia Opera. The two organizations brilliantly collaborate, as Alan Fischer, chair of the school’s vocal music department, plays Abraham Kaplan with power and sensitivity, and Adriane S. Kerr, a vocal music instructor at the school, plays the Second Nursemaid to the audience’s delight. Most importantly, right beside them, their students perform: Brooke Nicole Jones as Jennie Hildebrand, Elissa Dresdner as Joan, Morgan Royal-Hartman as Myrtle, and Saniyyah Bamberg, Jaelin Mitchell, Hannah Ramsbottom, Kennedy Stone, and Donte Thompson as vital choristers. Seeing them together onstage should make everyone happy to be residents of Norfolk, where such an important educational event can occur. And we should all hope for more of the same.

Kurt Weill’s love of America is evident in at least two places. The first is “The Ice Cream Sextet” The new Americans  blend their voices into a musical mixing pot celebration of a unique American invention – the ice cream cone. Led by Benjamin Werley’s winsome Lippo Fiorentino, he is joined by his wife Greta, played by April Martin, Carl and Olga Olsen (Ryan D. Kuster and Melisa Bonetti), Vincent Jones, played by Joshua Arky, and the Henry Davis of Trevor Neal. The group wins the audience over with their joyful singing. Likewise, when Jennie Hildebrand (Brooke Nicole Jones) and other high-school girls enter from their graduation ceremony the street fills to sing, Wrapped in A Ribbon and Tied in A Bow, a tribute to the seemingly limitless possibilities in America.

But Street Scene rests on the performance of four big voices. Number one is Mrs. Maurrant. Virginia Opera is blessed by the return of Jill Gardner to essay this very difficult role. She won the day last season as Minnie in The Girl of the Golden West. This time she has a more difficult challenge: to make an adulterous wife sympathetic. And she does. “Somehow I Never Could Believe” is a bear of an aria, but Ms. Gardner creates such a strong bond with her audience that it allows her to lead them along to wherever she chooses. She alone is a reason to see this production.

Zachary James is given the unenviable task of playing the villain, an abusive husband and father, Frank Maurrant. He succeeds wonderfully, partly because this villain is a handsome leading man, a type difficult to imagine doing anything wrong. (Clever casting by Ms. Danner helps the audience relate to the character). He has a beautiful and expressive voice, and a powerful, towering stage presence. “Let Things Be Like They Always Was” defines him.

Inamorata Rose and would-be inamorato Sam have some of the opera’s most familiar songs. David Blalock’s performance culminates in the beautiful “Lonely House.” Likewise Maureen McKay’s Rose peaks with her gorgeous “What Good Would the Moon Be”. Together we see what kind of a couple they would make as they sing “Remember That I Care”, “We’ll Go Away Together”, and “Remember the Lilac Bush”.

All of the singing actors should  be saluted because they deserve it. However, one must be singled out because he sings what could be the moral of the opera – “I Got a Marble and a Star.” Trevor Neal’s inspired rendition gets into your mind so deeply that you may wake up the next day with it repeating in your mind.

There is so much to like about Virginia Opera’s Street Scene and not a jot to fault, although the lack of supertitles during the dialogue sometimes makes following the lines difficult over the orchestra. But this is minor.

You deserve to see Street Scene. Treat yourself. Take some one who loves music or who loves theater with you. They will love you for it. Something like this doesn’t come around that often.

[i] Terry Teachout, “The Fat Lady is Singing” Commentary, September 2018.

[ii] Rice, p. 236.

[iii] Rice, Elmer. Minority Report: An Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuister, 1963, p.236-237.

[iv] Rice, p.252.

[v] Macarthy,

[vi] Mary McCacarthy, Mary McCarthy’s Theatre Chronicles 1937-1962.

[vii]“Lotte Lenya Recalls Weill’s ‘Street Scene’: A Hit Again, at Lincoln …” by Joseph Horowitz New York Times, Oct 26, 1979.

[viii] Rice. P.411.

[ix]Foster Hirsch. Kurt Weill on Stage. From Berlin to Broadway. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2002.

[ix] Hirsch, p. 263.

[x] Elise K. Kirk. American Opera. (Champaign, Il: University of Illinois Press, 2001), p. 263.

[xi] “Mr. Rice’s ‘Street Scene’ And Mr. Weill’s Score” by Brooks Atkinson, New York Times Jan 19, 1947, page X1.

[xii]  Cambridge Opera Journal, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Mar. 1993), pp. 55-78 Published by: Cambridge University Press

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